As a cultural moment, Breaking Bad is already in the distance, but I’ve still been missing something. When it pops up in conversation, every discussion leaves me quoting T.S. Eliot: “That is not it at all.”
It has something to do with that final episode. When Hank was offed middish-season, I got the message: Outside authority is an obstacle for Walt, but it’s not the real game. Walt’s a thinking man. His ultimate nemesis? Walt himself.
I know that existential turn in the last episode struck some viewers as a narrative cop-out, but to me it was wholly necessary. Why? Because the baseline conflict today rests with each of us asking what it means to be human in a world where science, technology and their businesses are developing faster than we can understand or control. In a world where “progress” can look and feel like its opposite, what—if anything—guards the greater good? If providing for your family ends up nearly killing them, what does that mean for our possible future?
In today’s knowledge economy, algorithms and gene sequences are the commanding heights. Walt, as a teacher and chemist, embodies the pitfalls of academics bent by business. He may get distracted by money and the buzz of building an empire, but in the end it’s the scientific method that he loves. He’s a noble of academia and science; in the end, the lab steel is bloodied but still shines. In between, clean theory turns into dirty knowledge, catalyzed by the American Dream.
Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow. Ethics, shmethics. Walt’s problems are authority, power, money, transportation, distribution, manufacturing, labor… questions any creative capitalist faces today. He leans on a familiar ideology about protecting family. (Saving/feeding the world and promoting democracy are for bigger guns.)
When Walt’s morality goes MIA, the audience loves him for it. It’s just too bad that actress Anna Gunn in her role as Skyler, standing in for Walt’s conscience, had to deal with death threats and “hate boards.” Skyler’s a form of whistleblower for Walt, a role that is supposed to be good (whistleblowers keep us honest) but its syonyms tell a different story: rat, betrayer, busybody, troublemaker.
This social schizophrenia helps companies keep doing bad business as usual, and we love watching characters make sociopathic decisions to do it. But great entertainment is a shitty real-life society, and we struggle to make the distinction. No wonder Wall Street continues to get away with it.
And so we reach the radical optimism of the final episode. Where the problem started, it can be solved. At the root of it all is Walt alone with himself. Like we all are in the end. I’ve felt it keenly myself, the violence of leaving my conscience at the threshold. Life is complicated, hypocrisy unavoidable, compromise inevitable.
But size and scale matter, and by the last episode, I desperately needed Walt to face himself. “I did it for myself. I liked it. I was good at it. It made me feel alive.” That’s the real story behind most things we do, especially the things we are sure we do for others. The bravest thing Walt does is give up his fantasy of himself—the noble scientist, the loving husband/father acting out of pure good. Honesty can have a cleansing effect, and we’ll never get that kind of reckoning from anyone at Monsanto, Pfizer or Google. We only rarely find it within ourselves. Truth invites more truth. That’s why we need art.
As a knowledge society, self-knowledge is the true final frontier. Empires crumble, but human dignity is still possible and ingenuity lives on. Walt says he even discovered a more efficient chemistry. Probably a bluff, but we now know what occupied his mind during that cold exile in the New Hampshire woods. We may be fucked, but as long as we can think, we’re not yet lost.