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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