Why Do We Feel So Good About Walter White's Bad Behavior?

Like Walter White, we left Breaking Bad with a big smile on our faces. And that’s what was so bad about it.

Breaking Bad

Cast: Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, Dean Norris
Subtitle: Season Finalé
Network: AMC

A television series finalé is more than just an ending. It frames how a show should be seen from the beginning again. Unfortunately, the Breaking Bad finalé was disappointing. A character study of evil – one that studiously document's someone's moral decline and the corrosive effect of their decision making on others – should not end with its audience hi fiving each other. We should be troubled by the fact that the show ended the way most of us wanted: as a power/revenge fantasy pandering to millions of viewers.

I’m not complaining that the series sold sunshine or exonerated Walter White – that’s clearly not the case. I'm commenting on the way Breaking Bad resolved its dramatic conflict/themes despite the destruction left in Walter White’s wake. Breaking Bad ended up sprinkling angel dust in order to magically manipulate – recreate, contain – all the damage done.

The concern is the finalé's dramatic and thematic emphasis, or the way it made the audience feel good about Walt's bad behavior. The ending invariably obfuscates Walt's bad actions – by turning him into the ultimate badass that vindicates our own emotional investment in his character from the outset. The series finalé ended up valorizing Heisenberg instead of holding Walter White to account.

To reiterate: the Breaking Bad finalé was incredibly satisfying and/or gratifying. Like Walter White, many viewers left the show with a big smile on their faces. And that’s what was so bad about it. If the jubilant response online is any indication, the ending left these viewers in a euphoric state when they should have ideally been more ruminative or contemplative. The finalé wasn’t just overly tidy and over the top; it was both a white wash and cop out. Breaking Bad’s attempt at closure happened on Walter White’s terms and culminated in an act of bad faith on the show’s part. The term Breaking Bad finally refers to the show's creators, and fans that wanted to be pandered to with an intoxicating outcome.

By providing the consolations of narrative – such as resolution through cathartic violence and the tying up of lose ends into a pretty bow – Breaking Bad contradicted its own premise: namely, that actions have consequences beyond human understanding or control.

Walt ends up saving the day by beating the big bad neo-Nazis with ingenuity. He goes on to avenge his brother-in-law’s death, releases “old yeller” from captivity so he can personally kill that “Opie dead-eyed piece of shit”, poisons the (other) crazy “bitch” that dared to challenged his potency, gives the original emasculating bitch a get out of jail free card and gets all that money to his estranged son via payback to the couple that wronged him in the first place. Instead of emerging as a defeated anti-hero, Walter White’s evil alter ego somehow rises from the ashes like a superhero.

Breaking Bad’s increasing popularity – and DVD sales – therefore remains in safe hands. The crowd-pleasing ending makes it so much easier to defend Walter White’s bad behavior and the show’s casual misogyny.

To be fair, the series finalé is Breaking Bad’s attempt to put an end to Walter White’s questionable legacy. The buck literally stops with White’s final sacrifice. The show now can’t go on without him: there will be no more blue meth on the streets or white supremacists running the show behind the scenes. The problem is that the television series climaxed with a B grade Hollywood ending. Breaking Bad chose to end everything on Walter’s terms – in an implausible blaze of glory that rights many wrongs and reclaims what was rightfully his.

At least the show had the decency to get Walter to finally admit that he really did everything for him. He might have originally broke bad to save his family, but the ‘empire building’ was ultimately about servicing his needs. The act of breaking bad enabled Walter to salvage his good name from the wreckage of a miserable life.

The cancer was really a blessing in disguise – he had never felt more alive when there was nothing left to lose and so much to gain. Consequently, Breaking Bad’s character study remains searing. During its own life span, the show laid a troubled soul bare. Breaking Bad depicted a man losing his bearings as he found his way to the top. We witnessed a seemingly good man become increasingly addicted to his own sense of power and self worth. Don’t be misled by the role Jesse played in the show: Walter was really the junkie.

Breaking Bad was not about an aspiring drug king pin, but a powerless man’s addiction to the ‘high’ of increasing male potency. The audience also wanted to experience the continuous repetition of bad behaviordespite the adverse consequences. As importantly, Breaking Bad masterfully replicated the conditions of tolerance and withdrawal within its own dramatic conflicts. The show’s tension ensured that the audience continually adapted to its own addictive qualities and required increasingly larger amounts to achieve the original effects. Breaking Bad is therefore arguably without precedent in the annals of television: it chronicled the way a man lost his soul in order to hold onto a misplaced sense of self.

Breaking Bad brilliantly made its ‘addict’ sympathetic by encouraging television viewers to see the world through maladaptive eyes. We identified with him because we similarly felt Walter’s many highs and lows. We were (generally) on side as Walter became increasingly manipulative, deceptive and delusional, and similarly rationalized one bad decision after another for the greater good – (allegedly) his ‘family’.

Compare, then, Breaking Bad’s ending to The Sopranos finalé, another show about doing bad in the name of family. Significantly, The Sopranos ended the way it began: with an anxiety attack. The show, however, famously displaced Tony Sopranos anxiety onto viewers: they literally did not know what hit them when their television screens suddenly went black and fell silent. The Sopranos disempowered its audience by taking away its right to know what really happened to Tony in the show’s final moments. To some extent, the sudden lack of point of view couldn’t have been more self-evident, and it was the perfect F-you to viewers who lived vicariously through its morally reprehensible character.

The Shield’s finalé is similarly hard hitting in that it emotionally pistol whipped viewers into submission. We witnessed the complete destruction of the Strike Team whilst Vic Mackay’s own family escaped into the Witness Protection program never to be seen again. The Shield’s masculine hero was finally publicly exposed for what he really was: a corrupting influence, destructive force and self-serving liar. The Shield punished its big man by letting an I.C.E. queen send him to purgatory. The Shield had the courage of its convictions: Mackay’s ‘end justifies the means’ morality finally revealed our badass to be much worse than the criminals he sent to prison.

The Breaking Bad writers, however, appear to have gotten high on their own supply. They’ve allowed themselves to buy into Walter White’s own mythology so everyone could similarly enter into a state of sustained elation. To some extent, the euphoric ending is a shocking development. This is the same show that held Walter White personally responsible for an airplane collision that he could neither foresee nor control. Breaking Bad had also previously acknowledged that Walt’s remission was really a mixed blessing: he was now forced to live with the consequences of his actions and could barely stand the sight of himself.

The strategic introduction of neo-Nazis signaled the end of Breaking Bad moral fortitude. These stock villains helped the show avert our gaze and save face. More plot point than characters, everyone’s favorite bad guys made it possible for Breaking Bad to consolidate Walt’s rise to power as it conveniently made them the fall guys.

It would seem, then, that Breaking Bad – like its leading character – had become the victim of its own success. It certainly must be gratifying to know that a show beginning with just 1.2 million viewers ended with an average audience of 10.3 million. Originally a modestly reviewed show with a cult following, Breaking Bad’s increasing popularity coincided with its recent Emmy for Outstanding Drama.

Indeed, the finalé season was so anticipated that many converts recently caught up via binge watching so as to not feel excluded or left behind. It’s no wonder the highly anticipated finalé season has since become the best reviewed show in television history. Given the bandwagon mentality of the media and audiences alike, everyone was ready to jump on board for an exhilarating ride.

The show’s creator readily admitted a reluctance to let everyone down. The series ended on a high so as to make the show’s fans feel warm and fuzzy inside. So instead of finishing with the remarkable pair of episodes that upended the bandwagon, Breaking Bad opted for a ‘final showdown’ to restore the balance.

More discerning viewers could be forgiven for thinking that they were really watching the delusions of a dying man or an out of body experience of a person about to cross over to the other side. How else are we to explain the way a sickly fugitive can suddenly materialize in places undetected and/or bend the world to his last will and testament?

The final irony: perhaps we were watching a meth induced hallucination that did more than ease Walt’s pain. Going out on a ‘high’ helped blend memories of Hogan’s Heroes' version of Nazis into Walt’s final view of reality. Unfortunately, such explanations appear to give the Breaking Bad finalé the benefit of the doubt.

Suffice to say, I prefer an alternative ending, and it can be found in the finalé’s cold opening. During this more subtle – and persuasive – scene, Walter is trapped in a frozen car that resists his best efforts to start. Flashing blue lights are closing in on him, and we are presented with an ironic image that powerfully sums up his life of crime: blue ice offers no release or escape.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

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