Free to Be Bad, Part 1

Tonight we mark the finale of one of televisions great characters:  Walter White, chemistry teacher, cancer patient, meth kingpin.  For five seasons fans have watched the slow demonic slide into the heart of evil that is Breaking Bad.  One of AMC’s breakout hits, Breaking Bad is driven by its central character. He is neither a hero, nor a protagonist.  His fantastic character arc points sharply down.  Fans come back week after week not to watch him triumph over evil, but to watch him descend into it.

Different from many crime dramas, the show doesn’t exploit the drug trade, wrap it up in cool and try to convince us of its wonderful music video like world, but it also doesn’t serve as a simple cautionary tale.  There are moments, especially early on in the show’s seasons that you root for Walt and Jesse to win, no matter how dirty a game they are playing.  What is genius about Breaking Bad is the way it takes the drug trade trope and allows us to look with fresh eyes at the complex moral choices involved.

The hood homies that typically sling on the TV block tend to be flat characters.  Full of machismo, these new-school scarface-wanna-be’s aren’t deep.  Born and bred in the hood, there is no reason given–or needed–for their behavior.  Instead, movies and TV rely on audiences being familiar with the stereotype that all black men are criminals to fill in the blanks. But not so with Walter White.

Free from the stereotypical characteristics that limit the way black and brown drug dealers are portrayed, Walter White swings from sympathetic to satanic, often within the same episode.  Now in his death throes, have no doubt that Walter White is a study in evil.  From the very first episodes to his ill-fated return to the world in tonight‘s last episode, Walt is motivated by nothing more than his ego at every step.  While he works to hide it from him family, from us–and of course himself–his selfishness and manipulative nature drive him at every turn.

 

His story provides an important outlet in the culture to talk more deeply about the darkness that lurks in the hearts of men.  In the rapids of TV news, crimes and the people that commit them are often defined by their race or their neighborhood.  Gang involved shooters, mass murders, even convenience store robbers lack back story.  Shows like Breaking Bad, Homeland and the Sopranos give us the opportunity to develop a deeper and more nuanced understanding of immorality.  They provide us a chance to meet the monstrous in therapy, at home, in the classroom or over dinner, to consider their charming and warm sides.

Hopefully you are less evil than meth maven Walter White, but like him, we all struggle with our lesser angels.  In our 140 character world, we need more time and space to think about who we are, and who we do and don’t want to be.

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