Thirsting in the Deserts of “Breaking Bad”

by Mack Hayden

On September 29, 2013, what some are calling “the greatest TV drama of all time” will come to an end. Breaking Bad’s popularity has steadily increased over its five seasons and has reached fever pitch as it reaches its climactic conclusion. But what is it about this unlikely drama that has so compelled viewers?

A cancer-ridden high school chemistry teacher-turned-meth kingpin is hardly a run-of-the-mill antihero. But Walter White (Bryan Cranston) has nevertheless become strangely iconic. Then there’s the youthful, drug-addict business partner with a heart of gold, the wife with ambitions of her own, the determined yet insufferable brother-in-law and the lawyer who is equal parts competent and ridiculous. Together the ensemble has  ingrained itself as one of the most memorable in recent television history.

Breaking Bad is Shakespearean in theme, Steinbeck-sized in scope, and full of the gripping intensity of a five seasons long Brian de Palma film. Since Walt White first appeared, stripped to his briefs and scrambling about in the desert, the show never let up. That first scene set the stage for what the entire series would become: an expose of humans whose souls were in the desert even if their bodies were in the suburbs. The show’s characters ran the moral spectrum but their most noticeable qualities have been their insatiable thirsts: thirsts for power, for respect, for money, and for highs. And, as the series comes to its end, it seems Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, believes that even in the desert, the high will eventually be made low.

Gilligan’s characters are undeniably human. They are human in their vulnerability; human in their savagery. Even after Walt betrays those closest to him, murders left and right and perfects a kind of crystal meth that will no doubt foster addiction and ruin lives for many, he is still recognizable as the husband and father who started all this insanity for the sake of his family. And if you can watch Jesse Pinkman--Walt’s former student and now business partner--go through all the hurt and betrayal he does without feeling an extreme amount of empathy, it’s safe to say you have no soul. As fallen as these characters are, they are still relatable and (sometimes) sympathetic, which is part of why Breaking Bad is so powerful.

Breaking Bad gives viewers--whether believer or nonbeliever--a new vocabulary of sin and the hell it causes. The characters are damned by the pride and greed manifested in their chaotic circumstances. With the precision of a Heisenberg-style meth cook, Walt concocts his own unraveling and manages to take down most everyone else with him. All the trouble in this show isn’t brought about by outside acts of God, but by the people themselves and them alone. In Breaking Bad, the butterfly effect is on full display but the natural world is the only innocent bystander (well, that and the Whites’ kids).

In an era when art is often demeaned if it attempts to moralize, it’s hard to look at Gilligan’s masterpiece as anything other than a morality tale. But it’s not a bad tradition to be a part of. Walt White falls prey to the same temptations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Milton’s Satan or Mario Puzo’s Michael Corleone. Sin is always desirable and always at least 8% justifiable. But money, power and the self make horrible, frightening gods. Walt White, a mild mannered everyman, signs up for a little bit of casual wrongdoing and ends up becoming the devil.

As the series winds down, one wonders if redemption is possible for the likes of Walt, Jesse, Saul or Skylar. Blood spills like rain and, like the desert which makes up the show’s physical landscape, there’s no water to rinse with. There’s no doubt Walt’s intellect was and always will be his greatest asset. Left to his own devices, he stands up pretty well. But what’s a man to do when he realizes his own devices are his greatest, most fearful enemy? “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

Breaking Bad’s five seasons are a cultural moment we should be glad to have been a part of. The televised landscape will never be the same again. And, as we tune in one last time, may we remember that we all reside in a New Mexican desert, and we must all be careful where we decide to drink. Kudos to Vince Gilligan for knowing what makes for the best drama always and forever: man’s limitless desire for a godhood he wasn’t made for.

Mack Hayden (’14) is an English major at Biola and has written on arts and entertainment for Christianity Today, Relevant, Paste, Curator and The Chimes.

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