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Wednesday, August 14

Walter White and the Moral Chemistry Behind Breaking Bad

The basis for the show Breaking Bad is hardly ubiquitous. But, really now. Who would have ever imagined that meth production in the southwest could provide fodder for a prime time television show -- much less, a show which has won seven Emmys and was also ranked #13 in the Writer’s Guild of America’s list of the 101 Best-Written TV Series of All Time? As a myriad of complex issues was introduced (i.e., cancer, patient’s rights, drug trafficking in and out of Mexico, polysubstance abuse...you name it) who could have expected the material to be handled with such a deft touch? Breaking Bad’s success is a testament to the brilliance of Bryan Cranston and others’ acting and, especially, the show’s writing.  Fans have eagerly tuned in for or 5 seasons, from the premiere of the series in 2008 to the much-anticipated series finale which aired earlier this week.

One of the most interesting aspects of the show is the duality of the protagonist played by Cranston. There is Walter White, the docile and ailing high school chemistry professor who has been stricken with cancer, and his alter ego Heisenberg (named after the famous German physicist Werner Heisenberg) who is a shrewd and increasingly violent meth mogul. The bipolarity of this character owes to a long literary tradition of protagonists with the same sort of bizarre duality.

The obvious connection one might draw is to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis
Stevenson, wherein the gentle, benevolent Dr. Jekyll transfigures into the ultra-destructive, violent Mr. Hyde. This story provided much of the basis for the trope itself, and has been reiterated countless times; everything from the split between Bruce Banner and the Incredible Hulk to the split between Tyler Durden and “the narrator” in Fight Club.

This theme is also echoed in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, where a portrait of the protagonist is supposed to age and reflect the external and internal putrification of Gray’s body while his physical self is eternally youthful and attractive. This deals less perhaps with a pronounced personality split than it does the disparity between one’s private life and their public persona -- which is also relevant to Walter White’s story.

The basis for this trope is the notion that no one person is inherently good, nor is he inherently evil. Human beings are forced to reconcile their moral ideals with their complex yearnings or bodily needs, and Walter White is just one example of the sort of anti-hero we see everywhere now -- think about Dexter as another prominent example.

There is a persistent ambiguity about the character’s moral conduct, even though we’re given some reason to believe that there is something noble within the character’s motivations. These are deeply troubled characters who simultaneously revolt us and elicit our deepest sympathies.

And the truly poignant question for viewers of Breaking Bad could be this: at what point did you feel your loyalties shift? Many fans thought of White’s wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) as being obnoxious and overbearing in the earlier seasons of the show. But as the series progressed, and Heisenberg started to take over and create an increasingly unsafe arrangement for Skyler and the rest of the family, did you begin to resent him? Could you sympathize more deeply with her? Or consider Tuco (Raymond Cruz), who was a detestable character...but as White became more volatile and destructive, was he really that much more likable?


We live in a confusing world, rife with complicated issues and people who are forced to reconcile complex needs and desires. It has been refreshing to see a show address such a wide range of issues and societal ills without ever defaulting to clichés or reinforcing the viewers’ knee-jerk stances. It has humanized all of the issues it has dealt with - including but not limited to cancer, drugs use and even marriage - which is perhaps the noblest conceivable accomplishment of any television program.

Author Bio: Spencer Blohm is an entertainment and television blogger direct-ticket.net. When he’s not completely submerged in television or film he has been known to venture outside every once in a while. He lives and works in Chicago with his cat Rupert.

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