The Ethics of Breaking Bad

If there’s one thing that the creators of some of the best shows on tv right now have appeared to agree on it’s this: The black and white, pure good guy vs. pure bad guy plot lines are over. Case in point: Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad.

For those of you who don’t know about Breaking Bad, two things. 1) Watch it. It’s on Netflix Instant. Just, please, watch it. 2) Just for the sake of this post, here’s the gist. Walter, a high school chemistry teacher gets diagnosed with cancer. He decides to start cooking meth with a former student, Jesse, to help set up his family with all kinds of cash in the wake of his pending death. Cartels get involved. There’s an unfortunate incident with a box cutter. Mayhem essentially ensues.

Here’s the thing about Walter. Initially his motives are pure, even if the actions he takes in response are not. This is the crux of many ethical dilemmas.

Are a person’s intentions or the result the thing that decides where someone is good or evil?

If someone has good intentions, but the results end terribly, is that person evil? Or if someone has bad intentions, but the situation ends up not harming anyone, what do you make of that person? In seemingly every episode each character has the opportunity to make a choice that effects their course of action. As Walter is the main character (I refrain from using protagonist or antagonist because, depending on the episode, he’s both — sometimes simultaneously) he seems to have these decisions come up more often than others.

And that’s why I think Walter is one of the most curious cases of ethics on television today.

There are a number of opportunities for him to get out of the business — at least one each episode. And yet he continues. At least Dexter has the opt-out of him being born the way he is. The survivors in The Walking Dead are trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. Every character in The Wire is just trying to survive life in the game. These characters are evil by biology or circumstance respectively. Walter is evil by choice. And that’s the crux of the show.

Take a normal, innocent man. Have a situation come up that has the potential to make him as dark of a villain as there is — not because of his circumstance or biology, but because of his actions. Follow him down that spiral into Hell and then let each viewer decide when he reaches the point of no return.

What’s your take on Breaking Bad? What do you think of Walter? In your opinion, where was his point of no return? Drop a comment in the comments section and let’s have a conversation. [Probably safe to throw out a spoiler alert for the comments section as I plan on giving my take as well. All are forewarned.]

Cheers,
Eric

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Comments

  1. ah, Eric! he crossed the line for me when Jane died. However, as a former drug and alcohol counselor I think it only took that long for him to cross the line because the effects of meth addiction were initially kept off-screen. To cook meth and supply that kind of addiction and madness in our society is about as evil as it gets.

    • As I was writing this, that was definitely one of the scenes I had in mind. To watch someone die like that and actively not help is pretty terrible. If you’re going to finish season 4, I’ll be anxious to hear about what you think of the end. And some different things in season 5. In case you’re curious… he doesn’t get any better. In fact, he gets a lot worse.

      • I am by no means trying to offend anyone here! … in fact I have watched a few episodes myself, and continued watching by choice…. even after being appalled by the actions made by Walter.

        That said, I just wanted to pose a question: if the morals portrayed in Breaking Bad are so terrible, and are only getting worse, why do we continue to support the industry by viewing the show?

        If we stopped watching it, would they stop producing it? How would that affect culture and society?

        Again, I am guilty of the very same… no judgements here.

  2. Meg – I don’t think its a question of whether bad morals should be shown on a TV show. In the case of Breaking Bad, it is not gratuitous, just an integral part of good storytelling and character study. We would miss a lot of we simply didn’t allow it on a superficial level of “bad morals” There are a lot of lessons to be learned about good intentions going bad and even in learning to show empathy toward people who do horrible things. At least early on there is a lot to empathize with Walt in doing what he does to try to help his family.

Please keep your comments positive. I reserve the right to delete rude or insulting comments. If your comment is critical, please make sure it is also constructive. Thank you.

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