Everyone was talking about Breaking Bad yesterday. There was a story on the radio in the car as I drove to the gym. At the gym, the people in my Quick Fit class were a buzz as were the folks on the stretching mats. A television commentator said the show was the main subject of discussion around office water coolers all over North America on Monday morning.
I have to admit I was a reluctant viewer of the series at first, but when your husband has just watched three seasons of Downton Abbey with you and invites you to join him in watching Breaking Bad what can you say?
I was troubled by the violence in the show, the cold-blooded, ruthless murders and the focus on the production of drugs that are being sold to young vulnerable people. Walter White is the protagonist. He’s a seemingly mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who gets cancer and makes crystal meth as a way to raise money for his medical bills and leave some financial resources for his family after he dies. He has good intentions but it all turns out to be pretty much a disaster.
And for me, that was the saving grace of the show. There was a kind of satisfying morality to it. Walter tries to achieve good ends with evil actions and it doesn’t work. He tries to save his family but he nearly destroys all of them. His actions result in the death of his brother-in-law. His wife becomes a chain smoker, an accused criminal and a nervous wreck. His son refuses to speak to him. His baby daughter’s life is threatened by the drug producers who take over his business. He loses most of the money he’s made cooking meth.
The show ends with Walt, despite his best efforts, not even certain the small percentage of his money that remains will actually go to help his family when he dies. And perhaps most revealing Walt loses his own personal integrity. He admits in the last episode that he became addicted to the personal high he got by making the best methamphetamine in the world.
I also liked the way the show recognized that ultimately you can’t easily sort the world into good guys and bad guys. Even the ‘good’ characters in the show have a dark side. Walt’s sister-in-law Marie is fiercely loyal to her family but struggles with a shoplifting problem. Walter’s wife Skylar is a good mother but she has an affair with her boss. Ted, her boss seems like such a loyal family man but we find out he’s been fraudulently editing his financial records to avoid paying taxes. A devoted grandfather in the show turns out to be a hired killer. A respected restaurateur and philanthropist is in reality a drug world kingpin.
Sadly all these characters or the people they love ultimately end up paying heavy consequences for their sins. We’d like to believe that despite our irresponsible behaviour, despite choosing to do what we know to be morally wrong we can still somehow come out ahead. According to the plot of Breaking Bad, we can’t.
It’s interesting that in a culture often described as morally bankrupt, a television show where immorality has drastic consequences has become a huge television hit with millions of fans.
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