If you haven't been caught up in the Breaking Bad buzz for the past few years, then you likely didn't tune in with the other 10.3 million people last Sunday night to watch the show's finale and, more likely, you probably won't catch the buzz now. And that's all right, because really, there are probably better ways to spend your time.
Either way, I think that we get a good reading of the cultural climate if we look at the heroes gripping our collective attention. And with the final demise of Walter White, the heroic centre of AMC's Breaking Bad, there is something more than a little troubling about the type of hero for whom we find ourselves cheering.
Walter White attained something of a cult following through his gradual devolution from the bland, plaid-shirted high school chemistry teacher into "Heisenberg," the ruthless head of an international drug empire. While it might seem from this quick sketch that White is really more of an anti-hero, I'd argue that in the final scenes we are encouraged to see the man in heroic terms. This is troubling.
But before looking into whether or not White really is a hero or why this may or may not be problematic, most would agree that the idea makes for a gripping premise. Indeed it does, but the idea isn't new.
With Crime and Punishment's serial publication in 1866, it could be argued that Fyodor Dostoyevsky had already conceived the central idea in Breaking Bad almost 150 years earlier. In the Russian version, though, there are some very important distinctions that reveal Dostoyevsky's plan is almost a direct contrast to the finished story of Walter White.
Raskolnikov, a poor student, kills an old pawnbroker because he believes that society would undoubtedly be better off without her and his use of her money would put him through college where he would go on to do great things. In fact, his future accomplishments would eventually mitigate the crime.
However, after murdering the old lady, Raskolnikov finds no rest within or without: a detective is on his trail and his guilt continually overwhelms him. Yet, at the close, he attains peace upon confession and, ironically, attains freedom upon being imprisoned in a Siberian work camp. Of course, Dostoyevsky was writing within a philosophical climate, he believed, that championed the brash individualism of Raskolnikov. His novel was written as a warning: it traced such ideology to its horrific conclusion.
Fast forward to Breaking Bad. Like Crime and Punishment, the serial explored some of our darkest possibilities as it unflinchingly examined the slow, steady breakdown of its central character. Like Raskolnikov, White's breakdown is founded upon seemingly noble ideals. White, who learns early on that he has terminal cancer, decides that "breaking bad" is the only way he can provide for his family in his final days and after he's gone. Yet even this, ultimately, is exposed to be a lie. In one of his final moments, White confesses that he never did this for his family or for anyone else. He did it for himself so that he would "feel alive."
So White is an anti-hero, right?
If the narrative was simply a study of a man being calcified in his immorality, that would be one thing. Yet the show's writer, Vincent Gilligan, has repeatedly hinted at his incapability to judge White within moral categories. In a recent interview he suggested that the story is simply about "facing fear" and "overcoming mid-life crisis." Bear in mind that White did this through murder, drugs, et cetera.
White's final, loving look at the meth lab that so "animated" his formerly dead existence is a suggestive hint that this man—who has flown beyond good and evil—has finally become our hero. He has lived and died—guns blazing—upon his own terms. He is Raskolnikov in everything except penitence.
I wonder what Dostoyevsky might have thought of a culture that produced Walter White as hero. Then again, perhaps he'd just quote Ecclesiastes and ask us to reread his book.