When asked how he pitched Breaking Bad to the networks, Vince Gilligan said that he wanted to take the audience on one man’s journey from “Mr. Chips (a fictional beloved school teacher) to Scarface.” And it is this idea that makes the show compelling. It asks the audience a question that we wish there was a clean-cut, straightforward answer to: how does a good person go bad?
Initially, we are given a protagonist (like the fictional Mr. Chips) we can all identify with, Walter White. A man who, like many of us, desired to do what was “right” his whole life, making a few mistakes here and there, but overall, living honorably. Unfortunately, in our society, careers centered around self-sacrifice and humility, like being a high school science teacher, are not often rewarded with riches and respect. Yet, Walt seems content. He loves his wife and son. He has another child on the way. Sure, life hasn’t been without its difficulties and disappointments, but he has what we all desire to have: a happy family and a clear conscience.
And then he learns he has cancer. And not just any cancer. Lung cancer. I’m by no means an oncologist, but it is common knowledge that this kind is one of the deadliest.
It is the injustice of this diagnosis that allows the audience to forgive Walt for resorting to cooking meth to pay for medical bills and to provide his family with some sort of financial security before he dies. We find it hard to believe, just as Walt does, that this one ethical compromise will lead to moral ruin. And that is Gilligan’s genius: giving us a character that reflects some part of who we are, so much so that we try to make excuses for him in much the same way we often do with our own bad choices, probably telling ourselves the same things Walt told himself to minimize any initial moral misgivings.
This is what makes the show and all good storytelling great, getting the audience to identify with aspects of the characters, and then having those characters do things we would never think we are capable of, both good and bad. It causes us to ask the question, would I, if put in similar circumstances, do the same thing?
In bad storytelling, the answer is straightforward. In great storytelling, it’s unclear.
I can still recall one of the first times I experienced this troubling uncertainty while reading Elie Wiesel’s Night in high school. At 15, I had an unshakable faith in my ability to do what was right no matter the circumstances or obstacles. Yet, reading Wiesel’s story about his experience during the Holocaust, his account of how human beings could devolve into savages when faced with death and deprivation, made me question my own “goodness.” When confronted with horrors and human cruelty I never had imagined had existed before reading Night, I began to doubt my beliefs about myself. What if I was dehumanized and hanging onto to life with the frailest of grasps? Would I be capable of disowning the person I loved most in order to ensure my survival, just as Wiesel did near the end of the book?
Again, in bad storytelling, the answer is simple. In great storytelling, it’s ambiguous. Which is why Breaking Bad is such great storytelling.
The phone call during last week’s episode, “Ozymandias”, epitomizes this complexity. While no one would argue Walt is still the same “good guy” he was at the start of the series, a fact evident in the vitriolic lashing he gives to Skylar on the phone, his intent in doing so undermines the neat view of him as a “bad guy”. Even as he is saying horrendous things to his wife, his intentions are good.
And this sliver of goodness connects us back to the original Walter White, the Mr. Chips character who used to be “good like us.” We may be horrified at Walt’s transformation into Heisenberg, but so would the loving father and high school teacher Walt used to be if he could see the man he would become. This is why Hank’s simplistic black-and-white view of morality is hard to swallow, why his and Marie’s belief that Walt and Skylar are now strangers is flawed. Because even though we may no longer wish to empathize with our protagonist, the audience must admit that, like Walt, we have all made moral compromises in our lives. If we are honest with ourselves, we recognize our capacity for cruelty even though we may not exercise it as Walt does. And so it becomes harder to distance ourselves from Walt’s ultimately “bad” self. We have followed him along this journey, going from making excuses for his first steps down this dark path to questioning our complicity when we see where it has led him (and us).
And it is that ambiguous depiction of moral degradation that causes us to ask, not am I like this, but could I be like this?
And the answer, if the story is great, is never simple.