After binge-watching Breaking Bad in its entirety, I felt I had witnessed Walter White’s Heisenbergian decline in such a short space of time that I had picked up on something. A theory: that Breaking Bad shows that there is no moral foundation for those without religious belief – especially not Walter White because science.
Breaking Bad is a show that follows its protagonist Walter White from hero to antagonist, unusually aligning the audience with a character who gradually becomes more immoral and unlikeable. Walt’s descent is sparked by a lack of faith that leaves him with an amorality based in science. Essentially the first episode begins by establishing a loveable family man who suffers the toils of incredibly bad luck. This is in fact a retelling of the Story of Job which aims to explain why bad things happen to good people; a religious fable that reinstates the importance of faith.
This biblical story sees the first appearance of Satan as he is enlisted by God to look upon the righteous and pious Job as an example of someone holding perfect faith. Satan then challenges God’s example, asserting that Job’s faith is a result of living in prosperity. God then allows Satan to test Job’s righteousness through trials of increasing torment: first smiting his crops and livestock to eventually riddling him with sickness and taking the lives of his wife and children. Throughout this ordeal Job is unwavering and states “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). The story serves to show the importance of faith even in times of great hardship.
Walter White is shown to go through similar trials though he has no faith to speak of. Where Job’s crops were smited, Walt is cheated out of a company that he co-founded – now worth billions – and is working two jobs: one as an overqualified science teacher and the other a carwash assistant. Walt loses the latter job, putting further strain on his ability to support his family, while his wife Skylar is also jobless. Where Job’s wife and children were killed, Walt is shown to have a son with cerebral palsy and an unexpected child on the way. The last trial, in which Job was plagued with sickness, is paralleled in Walt’s diagnosis of lung cancer.
Without recourse to religious faith, Walt’s trials cause him to act out of sheer desperation and self-preservation – stemming from, and utilizing, his scientific mind. The primary motivator as stated over and again by Walter White himself is to provide for his family. This reasoning seems to push forward a Darwinian selfishness, looking out for his kin with no remorse for his actions.
Typically in Hollywood cinema the audience is aligned with a hero who has faith, complete belief in the absence of evidence, which is shown to be a positive attribute. This is ultimately rewarded through the success of the heroes journey (See Job): this is known to be part of the monomyth as theorised by Joseph Campbell. Faith is a value that is fundamentally opposed to doubt – an attribute which has similarly been correlated as negative as it aims to undermine and challenge the hero. Where the hero has been associated with faith, that is at its core a religious value, doubt and scepticism have been embodied primarily by science.
The typically opposing forces of religion and science (as signified by faith and doubt) spawn many conflicting arguments, some of the most common relating to morality. Beyond the more well known arguments from morality is the idea posited that those who have no religious belief have no moral foundation and so are unbound by any written code or commandment. Where atheists would argue that morality is intuitive, and to base it on instruction is to undermine how you actually feel in spite of action, the religious deliberator would argue that if this moral intuition were somehow absent, there would be no saving grace if not for a set of moral principals to live by.
Creator of Breaking Bad Vince Gilligan has commented on the position of atheism, which reinstates the moral argument stated above:
“I’m pretty much agnostic at this point in my life. But I find atheism just as hard to get my head around as I find fundamental Christianity. Because if there is no such thing as cosmic justice, what is the point of being good? That’s the one thing that no one has ever explained to me. Why shouldn’t I go rob a bank, especially if I’m smart enough to get away with it? What’s stopping me?” (2011)
This is a particular argument that has been debated over and over by numerous theologians and scientists, apologists and detractors, and though we are used to seeing the religious argument demonstrated in the narrative of popular American media through the typical journey of the faithful hero; it is a different angle that is presented by Breaking Bad – namely an unfaithful antagonist.
Breaking Bad begins with a hero in Walter White, having extremely bad luck and collecting our sympathy as a result. His first moral decisions are forced on him and move him away from empathy, conditioning him to be more resilient to pity and seeding a ruthlessness that will blossom over 5 seasons. Walter loses his faith and his moral foundation by proxy. A flashback in Episode 3 (…And the bag’s in the river) shows that Walt has always been a materialist: when he talks to Gretchen about the elemental make-up of the human body, finding that a fraction of a percentage is unaccounted for, Gretchen asks “What about the soul?”, his response is doused in flirtatious suggestion but confirms his materialist outlook, “There’s nothing but chemistry here.” When Walt loses his faith, he is left with his scientific values which seem to instill an objective stance with regard to morality, and reward him through competitiveness and selfishness as well as intellect.
The Last Walt – A moral decline
Shedding his faith, Walt grows callous and calculated as he becomes unsympathetic to those he views as threats, competitors, or even customers. His psychology seems borne out of a Darwinian mind-set as he first looks to protect his family unit, but as he gets a taste for power it seems to transform seamlessly into Social Darwinism before a full Messiah complex.
As the seasons progress Walt becomes more resilient to the death of people surrounding him. From the first murder that he commits in self-defense to poisoning a child in a move for loyalty, Walt appears to become increasingly ruthless in the pursuit of power.
The people that Walt kills face to face tend to impose a threat to either himself, his family or Jesse. However as Walt transforms into his alter-ego Heisenberg he is able to order the deaths of those who merely threaten his business – from Gale to the brutal murder of several witnesses whom he has never met. Walt is shown to have traits that persist throughout the show: his egotistical stubbornness and willingness to lie and manipulate for gain. His problems with authority are clear from the very beginning with his boss at the carwash and later Mike. This is until Fring, when he sees an element of himself that he admires and intends to emulate. Thrown into this underworld of which he had no part in before, Walt takes a Darwinian approach to adaptation: learning characteristics that help him to thrive in the environment. He makes reference to Tuco’s ruthlessness when trying to create a credible threat behind Heisenberg and learns from other dealers that children can be used for gain. His morality lowers to the level of those he intends to rival as Heisenberg.
Once Walt gets a taste of power his original justification of security for his family once he dies is thrown out as it becomes a matter of greed and satisfying his ego. He has found something he is good at and forever wants more; an empire.
Gray Matter Technologies is the company that Walter co-founded with his friend Elliot Schwartz but sold his share of before it gained a net worth of over 2billion and won a Nobel prize. Walt checks the valuation of the company every week, growing bitter and resentful of what he could have had. Not simply the money but the prestige – both of which he finds in Heisenberg. In his quest for power Walt finds himself working with increasingly depraved types.
Eventually a deal is struck in which both Walt and Jesse work with Neo-Nazis. Perhaps the perfect symbol of how science can be harnessed as a force for evil, harking back to the invention of the atomic bomb, or in the case of Nazism through the works of Josef Mengele – The Angel of Death. Elliot and Gretchen are the other scientists. Out and out capitalists who live in a large mansion and drive high-end sports cars. They seem to match the level of greed in Walt but do so legitimately in helping others rather than harming them, with medicine as opposed to methamphetamine. Their estate seems to show that the dream of an empire is not far off and goes hand in hand with the scientific mind. That being said, Elliot and Gretchen are seen on television giving money to charity to offset the damage done by Walt. Perhaps there is a moral divide here that shows science is not a belief system that is intrinsically immoral; or they have so much money it doesn’t mean anything to them, and they are going on television to clear their name and conscience.
Villains to the anti-hero
Initially we are on the side of the family-man teacher Walt, where the young drug-dealer Jesse is the antagonist. These roles are reversed throughout the show based on their morality through dealing with tragedy. Walt becomes ruthless, Jesse more empathetic. As Walt becomes a drug dealer, his own adversary is his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank. These two characters also have oppositional arcs: Hank initially has a glib response to death – casually joking about the deaths of drug-dealers and taking photos with corpses on his phone – though this jocular form of dealing with tragedy eventually manifests as post traumatic stress disorder. This is opposed to the increasingly cold-heartedness of Walt. Breaking Bad as a show appears to desensitise murder in general and not just from being aligned with an immoral, murderous protagonist. It delves into extremely dark situations but manages to skim over the true horror whenever it wants to. The pacing of events means that there is little time to dwell on the horrific before we are onto the next.
Breaking Bad seems to trivialise the affects of Crystal Meth, using addicts as occasional enemies who are unbound by morality themselves. The show, along with Walter White, does not care for those addicted to Crystal Meth. A telling moment that reveals Walt’s callousness is when he first goes into the heart of a junkie-house to retrieve Jesse. This is the first contact he has with those who use his product and yet he is only concerned for Jesse and does not think about anyone else. They have made their choice and are expendable. Perhaps this is how Walt is so able to let Jesse’s girlfriend die from an overdose: she made her choice and also tried to interrupt the plan. A reoccurring motif used in the series is to show the creation and distribution of the drug in montage with contrapuntal, up-beat music. Through this device the show is able to skip over the act and actually attach an entirely different tone. There is one scene that attempts to show the effects of coming off of the drug as Jesse runs from the door, imaging two bikers in place of Mormons on bicycles. A comic twist that undermines the seriousness of drug addiction. Nearer the end of the show we see Jesse in rehabilitation, which he uses at first as a way to find clients.
There is currently a wave of television shows that feature an antagonist/anti-hero – someone unlikeable that we are aligned with and root for to a certain extent; Breaking Bad stands out from others through its alignment with a protagonist turned antagonist. Though it differs in structure from the typical monomyth of a faithful hero, Breaking Bad is able to promote the same values but from a different angle. Without stating the need for religious belief overtly, the show enforces the need for faith by showing the demise and corruptibility of a purely scientific mind.