Friday, October 4, 2013

The Breaking Bad Finale and Moral Truth

/*** Warning Breaking Bad Spoiler Alert ***/

 Breaking Bad may be the best television series ever. Certainly I can't remember savoring every moment of a series the way I have this one. And the series finale lived up to the quality of the rest of the series. Vince Gilligan did his fans a service by resolving all the major plot lines and not taking a cheap way out (ala Lost).

But although I enjoyed the series finale, it did nonetheless break the arc of the plot and, in the end, muddled the moral truth that was at the heart of the series. Gilligan has stated that his idea with Breaking Bad was to turn "Mr. Chips into Scarface". Walter White certainly started out as Mr. Chips, but he wasn't really Scarface at the end. In fact, in many ways Walter White at the end of the series is a more virtuous man than the Walter White at the beginning of the series.

At the series start, Walter White is a mild-mannered chemistry teacher and something of a milquetoast. He lacks self-confidence in everything but his chemistry. Diagnosed with cancer, he embarks on a secret career as a crystal meth producer in order to make money for his cancer treatments and to leave a legacy to his wife and family. In this secret life Walter is put in a number of life and death, kill or be killed situations that force him to find inner resources of courage, cleverness and coolness under pressure. In that sense, Walter grows in virtue through his criminal life, for courage and coolness under fire are certainly virtues. This is all well and good because Walter also grows in ruthlessness and develops a coldly calculating heart, to the point that, besides committing a number of cold-blooded murders, he also permits a girl to drown in her own vomit and poisons a child. It is clear that Walter is becoming an evil man, even a monster, and whatever practical virtues he has developed are overshadowed by the degeneration of his soul and its moral compass. One of the great virtues of the show is the manner in which it shows that Walter, even as he grows in self-confidence and practical cleverness, becomes ever moral blind to both the moral truth and the truth of his own nature.

And this is, of course, one of the consequences of sin. We don't become wise through sin, we become ignorant. Sin leads to darkness and lies to oneself and to others, not self-awareness. The Godfather series shows this in Part 2, which ends with Michael sitting silently alone in his Lake Tahoe boathouse, pondering his life as the execution of his brother is carried out on his orders out on the water. There is no flash of self-awareness, just a parade of images of where he was and where he is now, which only serves to show how much more (morally) attractive Michael was at the beginning of the series than he is now.

Breaking Bad shows this through most of its length as Walter's lies become ever more elaborate and his rationalizations ever more flimsy. In the penultimate episode Walter kidnaps his own daughter and calls his wife with the authorities listening on her end. He engages in a self-justifying, irrational rant that his brother-in-law got what was coming to him by crossing Walter. This would have been an excellent way to end the series, or to end it by following it up with the traditional shootout with the police ("Top of the world!"). But it turns out that the phone call was really just a clever con job by Walter to get his wife off the hook, who was in trouble for being an accessory to his crimes.

In the last episode, Walter has one final meeting with his wife, where he admits that his standard justification for his criminal life ("everything I did was for the family") was a lie: In fact, he admits, everything he did was for himself and because he liked it. It made him feel alive. This is a level of self-awareness well beyond that of the Mr. Chips at the beginning of the series, and it is a level of self-awareness that should not be available to someone who has corrupted himself through sin as deeply as has Walter White. Despite his crimes, the Walter White at the end of the series is more attractive than the Walter White at the beginning of the series. The later Walter is stronger, more courageous, more self-aware, and even more at peace with himself than the earlier Walter. This makes for an enjoyable ending, but not one genuinely reflective of the moral character of the universe.

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