Breaking Bad is one of those rare series that understands character development. The series is about Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a chemistry teacher, who discovers he has cancer and starts making top-notch meth. This is initially to cover his health costs and provide for his family, but he descends into his Mr Hyde’s persona rather quickly. What emerges is that Walt’s involvement in the production and wholesale of drugs is for his professional fulfillment. He was dropped from a corporate partnership, which profited greatly using his research. Walt is bitter about his lack of financial success, but also the possibility to fully express his scientific knowledge and talent. He’s stuck teaching teenagers instead of excelling as a chemist and making money out of it.
The American Dream, Protestant Ethic, and Authenticity
It goes straight to the heart of the American Dream, which is an amalgam of many things and always being refashioned; yet it still has Puritan roots. It reflects the Puritan utopian voluntary societies of the 17th century that sought to create a community where each one worked for a just society. Puritan suspicion of authority rejected the state, power from above, in favour of a grassroots society. The ideal society can only be accomplished if each individual gives expression to their unique God-given gifts. Each is called to ‘minister’ using their gifts, which gets secularised into succeeding using one’s own talents. With a tinge of Heidegger, American discourse has fused together rugged individualism, Protestant ethic, and the spirit of capitalism, to put it in Weberian terms, from which emerges an idea of authenticity. In religious terms, authenticity is being true to oneself by expressing one’s God-given gifts. The coming of the Kingdom (God’s design) is dependent upon it. Religious authenticity is grounded in Christian ethics; this is not so for its secular counterpart. ‘Authenticity’, in a lot of the literature on business leadership and the one displayed in Breaking Bad, is all about charisma. In Breaking Bad, Walt is the charismatic talented leader who overcomes every obstacle to succeed in his business venture. Morally, he is a failure. The show attempts to redeem Walt through his family, which is the how American entertainment understands being morally good. You can hurt and kill hundreds as long as you can about your family (see my post on Once Upon a Time and Chef).
The Ethic of the Family
Walt White doesn’t care about God’s design or a better society. He only cares about himself. He doesn’t even care about his family. Walt is ‘redeemed’ in the show by securing enough (a lot of!) money for his son. This is no sign of altruism or moral judgement. The money he makes is stained with blood, something his wife understands. Skyler White (Anna Gunn),Walt’s wife, is perhaps the most complex character, although she only really gets going in the last two seasons, once she learns about Walt’s ‘business’. Many fans of the show have given expression to their true misogynistic selves by being abusive towards Skyler/Anna Gunn. The show should have legitimised Skyler’s moral position more, instead of descending into an entertaining Western and redeeming Walt. The other moral character is Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), Walt’s brother in law and FDA Agent. Once, he discovers the truth about Walt, the Western begins. Hank is a man, a man of the law, and a fighter. In turning into a western, Breaking Bad leaves behind complexity and moral dilemmas. It also makes Walt the hero rather than humiliating him.
In contrast, Skyler is a very human character and morally weak. As Walt develops his other Mr Hyde’s persona, she becomes estranged from him and has an affair. When she discovers what Walt has been up to, she launders his money, but she comes to her senses eventually. She is not corrupt as Walt because she is not as self-centred as he is. But she fades away and is not given the credit she deserves. The show redeems Walt through the mantle of courageous fighting against the law and through the family, the Holy Grail of American TV. His violence, greed and indifference towards the effect of his business is (almost) excused by having Walt dying like a Western hero and leaving money for his son. Yes, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) is also a moral character. He grows out of his drug addiction and is horrified by the violence around the ‘trade’. How is his morality awaken? Fatherhood, of course.
(I might sound very critical, but I do love the show, especially Anna Gunn as Skyler)