Why we Love the Anti-hero; a Reflection of “Breaking Bad”

*( This blog contains information about the t.v. show Breaking Bad, so if you want to watch it, and don’t want me to tell you what’s going on right now, go ahead and move along.)

I must admit that when AMC premiered Breaking Bad  two years ago I had little to no interest in watching the show. I can’t say I was familiar with Bryan Cranston’s work on Malcolm in the Middle because I never really watched the show, and the premise for Breaking Bad seemed absurd. Basically Cranston plays a high school chemistry teacher who gets diagnosed with lung cancer and decides to sell crystal meth in order to make some cash for his family before he dies. Something all of us would do, right? It was hard for me to wrap my hands around this idea which is why I put off watching the show for so long. I mean most people don’t engage in this type of behavior, and as someone who has seen first hand in my own family the dangers of meth usage I figured I could never get behind a drug dealer protagonist.

But I was wrong to wait so long to watch this show. Breaking Bad, which is in the middle of its third season right now, is one of the best shows on television, and it is not a funny, care free depiction of a man who acts out in defiance. This show is about life choices, and how simple decisions make us what we are. If anything Breaking Bad is perfectly moral and depicts the unraveling of a conventional family due to a series of bad choices by its main character Walter White. Like a Machiavelian tragedy, this show hits hard.

In season one Cranston’s character Walter White makes a bizarre but somewhat understandable decision to do something illegal to help his family. Diagnosed with stage three lung cancer there is little chance for his survival. White, a high school chemistry teacher, can barely pay for even one session of chemo, and knows that his wife, son, and new-born baby in tow, will be left with a mountain of debt when he passes on. One day he goes on a drug raid with his D.E.A. brother-in-law (played wonderfully by Dean Winter) and discovers that a former student of his is a small time meth dealer who is making some serious cash. Rather than turn the kid in, Walter bribes Jessie in to letting him work with him, “cooking” Crystal meth. Because White is a brilliant chemist with a background in cell crystalization he is quickly able to make some of the finest and purest product on the street, and this unlikely pair begins to make a lot of money, real fast.

Season one ends with Walter and Jessie facing stiff competition from a drug lord named Tuco, but both men earning a lot of money and respect despite a series of set-backs. It is easy to embrace Cranston’s character in these early shows because we see in him a perfect representation of the anti-hero, a protagonist who doesn’t always do the right thing, but tries to do it for the right reason. One reason why Cranston’s character is so sympathetic is that in addition to being diagnosed with lung cancer we feel sorry for the way this guy’s life has unfolded and the way he gets pushed around. Once, a brilliant chemist working for the government, White watched as a former colleague of his got rich using his research, while White needing a job got stuck teaching high school. He has seen all of his peers surpass him in their fields. His wife (played well by Deadwood star Anna Gunn) Skylar is a control freak who tells everyone exactly what to do, and won’t allow her husband the simplest of freedoms (even putting fifteen dollars on a Mastercard draws her suspicions, and admonishments.) White also has a sixteen-year-old son with cerebal palsy who gets picked on in school, and a second job working at a car wash where his boss makes him clean up and work double shifts. This man is sad, and his life is a failure. It is not surprising that upon learning of his impending death he would want to do some things differently, be bold, and well, break bad. Hell, we all would.

But as Season 2 plays out, and even at times in season 1, we see that Walter’s decisions have consequences, and we begin to see how evil acts begat more of the same. White and Jessie have to kill two drug dealers who corner them and threated their lives. White, uses a chemical explosion to take them out, acting in self defense, but the deaths bring him closer to Tuco, an even more murderous drug dealer. Eventually White and Jessie have to take out Tuco as well, which puts them in the cross-hairs of the Mexican drug cartel. Further complicating things Jessie gets involved with a former heroin addict who he tells about Walter’s money when he gets high one day. The girl decides to blackmail Walter, and eventually Walter comes face to face with her. In one tragic scene this girl gets high and begins to overdose right next to Walter. His first instinct is to save her, but when he realizes he and Jessie would be better off without her, he decides to let her die. Walter becomes evil in this scene, and in a way that is what this show is really about.

In addition to Walter’s conciously evil acts, he is perhaps indirectly responsible for destroying two families. When Walter first meets Jessie, he is a high school drop-out and a drug dealer, but he is mostly a care-free kid with some issues. Walter transforms Jessie into a big time drug dealer and continues to push his limits, making him and his loved ones easy targets. Jessie becomes more evil himself, but there is no doubt without Walter’s involvement he might never have become anything more than a scared kid who gets high.

Walter’s own family feels the brunt of his destructive behavior as Walter continuously lies to his wife and son and manipulates their emotions so that he can lead his secret life. In one episode Walter pretends to have amnesia in order to explain his four day dissapearance (he was kidnapped by Tuco). By constantly dissapearing and lying Walter breeds distrust with his wife and robs his family of any real love at a time when he should be connecting with them more than ever.

By the time season three rolls around Walter’s wife has figured out that he is a drug dealer, his brother-in-law is putting the clues together as well, and White is the center of a very large drug operation in which several powerful people want he and his family dead. By now there is little reason to support this character, but that is the fascinating thing about Breaking Bad. Bryan Cranston has created such a wonderful protagonist that we see ourselves pulling for him in spite of who he is. When White’s wife begins having an affair in the last episode there is a part of you that wants Walter to take the guy out, and your sympathies still lie with a man who has been put upon his whole life. Like-wise when Jessie buys his parents house out from under them, using a  lawyer and shady tactics, there is a part of you that roots for this. At one time Jessie’s parents kicked him out of the house for meth use, and now he uses his considerable meth money to buy his way back in. This is definately a rich irony.

Anti-hero’s exist because we need to challenge our conventional beliefs about what is right and wrong. We know on some levels, maybe all levels that the behavior Walter and Jessie engage in is evil, and yet because we understand their motivations, see it from their perspective, we allow ourselves to get suckered in, to find reasons to justify their actions. The shows creator Vince Gilligan has made his audience complicit in the main characters bad decisions.

There is a phrase written by the great moralist Theodore Dalrymple called “the frivolity of evil.” This means that evil is not one concious act, but a series of bad moral decisions. Most people are not conciously evil, but they do evil in the name of good, or they justify their evil through circumstance and relativity. In Breaking Bad we see just how far two men go in order to achieve what they see as noble objectives, and the more we get behind them the more we allow that we are also imperfect, capable of evil on a grand scale ourselves.

We cannot justify evil action, whatever our motivation. The anti-hero is there to remind us of this. I don’t know where this show is going, and at its current rate the drama is not sustainable. You definately get the picture that Walter and Jessie have placed themselves in a precarious house-of-cards and the structure is falling at any moment. But in the meantime it is fun to watch these two and see just how far they are willing to go. Do either of these men have a soul left to save, and will they continue to break bad? These are the questions that fuel this show, and the answers are the scariest part.


Jack B.

(* Breaking Bad can be seen on AMC at nine on Sunday’s. Episode 4 of season 3 debuts tonight.)


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