September 9, 2013

Morality Lessons from Breaking Bad

I was late to hop on the Breaking Bad bandwagon.  I discovered the show when they were in Season 3 and went back and watched the first two seasons in a couple of marathon sessions and got caught up and followed along from there.  The show is ending this season after only a few more episodes.   The show is extremely well written and full of symbolism, character development, clever plot twists and smartly raises questions about morality for the viewer before resolving them in it's own unique way. 

For those of you who haven't seen it, the premise is that a gifted chemistry teacher (Walter White) who is diagnosed with lung cancer and hasn't done enough to provide for his family after his death, is drawn into the easy money of making crystal meth in order to provide for his family after he dies.  From there, the story follows his descent into ever darker and more evil acts in order to keep his source of incredible income up and running.  At some point along the way, most people stop cheering for Walt as he crosses the various lines of morality that require increasingly immoral or evil acts.

The interesting study for me would be to analyze where people find themselves stepping out of the cheering for Walt camp into the he has to face the consequences camp.  Some people this late into the final season are still cheering for Walt as he thrown off the shackles of an oppressive society and decided to do what he wants.  Others have turned away from him and were cheering for his capture as soon as he stepped off the straight and narrow.  Most had a change of heart somewhere in between.

The morality lessons from Breaking Bad aren't what the show teaches us about Walt and his actions in his circumstances.  The morality lessons are really what the show teaches us about ourselves in how we judge Walt.  Because how we interpret and judge Walt says more about us than it does about him. 

A great study of Walter White (and thus us) comes from this excerpt in Relevant (the article contains some potential spoilers);
Yet, in every epoch, the Great Deceiver hides in plain sight, whispers utterly convincing lies into our gullible ears, and patiently waits for us to make a hell of heaven. 
Despite awareness of his machinations, we have always been infatuated with this former Angel of Light. Breaking Bad’s Walter White is among the latest costumes donned by this charismatic creature of the underworld.

...Milton’s Satan accomplished something much more devious than Dante’s: He made us want to be like him...
Walter White as the devil is a stunning example of the frame of mind of the writer.  The assessment is an entirely reasonable one and it goes further to take the approach that the characteristics in Walter White parallel the devil.  If that is the case then how we identify or do not identify with Walter White does indeed reflect upon us as viewers.
Today, Satan is seldom a specific character, but more an idea of evil as embodied by the villains we know so well, such as Darth Vader, Sauron, Voldemort, The Joker, Colonel Kurtz and Jack Torrance. These cultural icons of evil share three intriguing, defining characteristics: deformity, pride and an inevitable end.

These villains also suffer from unbridled hubris, believing themselves gods of their own respective universes. Unwilling to relinquish power in any form, they follow their ego wherever it may lead, justifying every means in order to reach their preferred ends...Lastly, they always get what’s coming to them.

Which brings us back to our mutual friend Walter White. Unassuming yet menacing, brilliant yet overlooked, Walter “Heisenberg” White may be the perfect villain, a contemporary Satan who’s pulled us into his RV ride to hell.

...Such freedom to choose gave birth to Satan. Frighteningly, free will is simultaneously the foundation of his actions and the glue that binds us to him. The responsibility of free will is the deformity we share, if you will.

We’re well aware of our selfish tendencies. But we don’t know what our end will be. All we know is that our inevitable end depends on our current choices. We can choose to be “good” or “evil,” to pull back from temptation and seek redemption, or to stretch our grasp far beyond our reach, toward a gleaming apple just beyond our fingertips.
Whether you watch the show for entertainment or are looking deeper into it, there is likely no neutral feeling towards Walter White.  You either are still rooting for him or you reject what he has become. Upon reflection, it may inform you about yourself.
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