Breaking Bad on the moral power of choice

This post discusses the series as a whole as well as the final episode in-depth. There be spoilers ahead. 

I’ve never considered television an art form. At least, not on the same level as film. Even some of my favorite, expertly-produced shows such as “24” are there primarily for escapism. “Breaking Bad” is the show that made me change my mind.

Over the past few weeks, I have binge-watched the show with everyone else, reveling in its expert acting, pacing and artistic flights of fancy (lordy, those camera angles). As the internet has confirmed, I’m not the only one singing its praises. But what has truly captivated us about AMC’s layered drama about a high school chemistry teacher who turns to cooking meth after finding out he has incurable lung cancer is the challenging choices it forces its characters and, by extension us, to face.

Walter White’s universe is cold, cruel and, some might argue, bleak. But, it’s also a profoundly moral one. After the stunning series finale, it’s remarkable to see creator Vince Gilligan’s clarity of vision across five seasons. He has created a world where actions have profound consequences. And consequence, in TV and in life, is something we need more of.

We live in a culture of finger pointing. Everything is someone else’s fault, because that means we never have to own up to our mistakes. We sue each other at the drop of a hat. Our politicians are self-serving, cops have it out for us, our co-workers are all horrible people who can never fully understand our situation, and so on. The most refreshing thing about “Breaking Bad” in my mind is that it puts choice front and center, and no one gets off easy. Everyone makes choices, and they must deal with the consequences of those choices, even if they try to run from them. Gilligan and company have reminded us that our lives are little more than the choices we make every day. Good or bad, big or small, choice is really all we have.

Walter White knows this from the beginning. He knows the choice to start cooking meth will have tremendous consequences. Even as he lies to others, he owns up to his actions in his own mind. Near the end of season 4, he tells his wife, Skyler, “I’ve done these things and I alone am responsible for what happens. Not you.”

This is a true admission, but in another aspect Walt’s decisions are off base. He does what he does, including lying and plenty of murder, because he wants to provide for his family. But, in the world of “Breaking Bad,” that doesn’t fly, and we as an audience know that. If Walt’s is truly a world where it is only our actions that have consequences, then intentions mean very little. Skyler and Walt’s son, Walt Jr., prove this by refusing to accept Walt’s money. The man who has spent a year building a drug empire in order to leave money for his family when his cancer takes him can’t even provide that. His family didn’t care about the purity of his motives, only his actions which, despite intentions, threw their lives into chaos and disarray.

Jesse Pinkman, Walt’s cook partner and philosophical foil, reflects the power of choice even more strongly. Unlike Walt, Jesse has a deep and true conscience. He is racked with guilt when he is forced to shoot a man and when a child is needlessly killed during a job. Jesse’s world remains unclouded from a false pretense of motivation. He has done terrible things, and he has to find some way to live with them. He says this in a powerful scene during a drug rehab session. The counselor is telling him he has to move on from the mistakes he’s made, and Jesse calls this “bullshit.” It’s true. Jesse refuses to be a part of the blame culture by truly owning up to his actions and letting them sink in.

What I thought was so brilliant about the show’s series finale is that it pretty much subverted everything I just said. Some would call this a philosophical cop-out, but I would say it stayed true not only to the show’s universe but to the way the world often works. The most powerful moment in the entire episode (if not the entire show) is when Walt quietly admits to Skyler that he did not build a meth empire for his wife and kids. He did so because he liked it and because he was “good at it.” Does that change how we view Walt’s actions throughout the show? Motivation notwithstanding, Walt did some horrible things, and the universe of “Breaking Bad” seems to demand that he answer for them. But doesn’t this selfish motivation make us wonder whether he would have gone to such incredible lengths to protect himself and his money? Didn’t he see that his actions were hurting his family more than his money would ever help them?

Then comes the real kicker: Walt didn’t have to answer for anything he did. He died, yes, but he died free of the consequences of his actions. Who’s left to deal with those consequences? His family, who he seemingly tricked into taking his money by coercing his old business partner to gift it as part of a trust. His lawyer, Saul Goodman, who is set to live a cold, lonely life in Nebraska under a new name. All those Nazi guys he killed (they had it coming, sure, but still). And, most of all, Jesse. When Jesse drives away from the compound where he was held prisoner and forced to cook meth for a year, he begins to laugh. But, thanks to the always excellent acting of Aaron Paul, we wonder if maybe that laugh is turning into a deep, guttural sob. After all, Jesse still has the burden of living with all the horrible things he has done. Everyone he loves is dead. He has nothing In comparison, Walt got off easy.

Walt’s actions will continue to have tremendous consequences to those around him, even if he no longer has to deal with them. I’ve been rambling about the importance of choice, but the giant hole here is that the very reason Walt’s ever-captivating story was set in motion had nothing to do with choice at all. He didn’t choose to have cancer. His disease seemed a machination of blind, cruel fate. Viewed from this lens, Walt spent the next five seasons building an elaborate dream. He dreamt that he was powerful, that he was in control. But he never was. Cancer could have taken him at any moment. The one choice he could never make was the decision to not have cancer.

That’s what sticks with me about “Breaking Bad.” It doesn’t deal in clear answers or black-and-whites. The decisions we make have consequences, and actions truly do speak louder than words. That’s an important message, for sure. But there are times in our lives where we will have no control over what happens to us. We are not invincible. We need help. Do we cry out for assistance when everything starts to crumble? Or, do we continue to live in a fantasy world where we are in control? The fact that a TV show is forcing us to ask these kinds of questions is what will make “Breaking Bad” linger in the consciousness much longer than its admittedly stellar cinematic craftsmanship.