Thinking of Breaking Bad & Infinite Tragedy

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


September 28, 2013

Thinking of Breaking Bad & Infinite Tragedy

Breaking Bad is a fun and highly implausible show. My impression is that contrary to this, most people think it is an extremely important meditation on the nature of evil, or how a good person slowly becomes corrupted, or a Shakespearean tragedy, and other similar deep thoughts.

But the premise is pretty dumb. “What if a regular suburban dad suddenly decided to cook meth! Wouldn’t that be so crazy?!?! And then his brother-in-law was a DEA agent!” If it weren’t for the subject matter, it could almost serve as the premise for a fish-out-of-water sitcom.

So I don’t really understand why people think they can derive some moral meaning from it. Is a show that portrays problems of manufacturing illegal drugs, money laundering and murder really posing important and relevant moral conundrums for the audience to wrestle with? I submit that it is not.

What I find truly bizzare is the meaningless moral calculus that seems to be a hobby of nearly everyone watching the show. Walt became a drug kingpin, but it was only because he loved his family! Skyler is guilty of accounting fraud, money laundering and conspired to murder Jesse, but look at all she’s had to go through! Jesse murdered Gale and sucked his girlfriend back into drugs after she was trying to get clean, leading to her ODing, but he’s really just a confused, messed up kid.

Here’s an example of how absurd this is: pretty much everyone likes Mike Ehrmantraut. He was a tough, hard-boiled guy with a dark past, but he seems like a fundamentally good person at heart. He clearly loved his granddaughter and everyone was sad when he died. But the person we’re talking about was a hitman who murdered many, many people and his capacity for love probably doesn’t make up for that.

By far my favorite absurdity is that it’s considered perfectly valid and normal to justify Mike’s assassinations by pointing out that they were all bad guys. But if you met someone like Mike in real life and he casually mentioned that he had hunted and killed a few dozen people, you probably wouldn’t be so forgiving even if he assured you that they were all really bad people.

Some people feel that Walt did something so horrifying that they don’t feel sympathy for him anymore, and might even think it’s wrong for anyone to feel differently. But usually this happens quite late in the series. What about all the other horrible things he’s been doing from the very first episodes?

Whatever affection you might feel for Jesse, faced with drug dealer and murderer in real life, you wouldn’t want to hang out with him.

Clearly the way we evaluate the morality of characters have nothing to do with reality, and yet there is an underlying assumption that fiction is a reality simulator where we witness events and actions and react appropriately—but this is simply not true. Fiction is fantasy, and by suspending disbelief and entering into that world, we leave behind a lot of our ordinary selves and make very different judgments. As someone who takes psychoanalysis seriously, I would never say that fantasy means nothing. But treating fantasy as if it’s the same as reality doesn’t work either.

We don’t treat experience fiction as a literal representation of reality. In a show like Breaking Bad, characters routinely experience extreme situations and do unconscionable things that most of us have no way of relating to, and the fact we nonetheless feel a sense of connection, kinship and understanding with fictional characters demonstrates how illusory this identification is.

The violence and immorality of the action on the screen mainly serves to heighten the emotional stakes and make us more invested in the characters. Most of us have no idea what it would be like to murder someone, but seeing it acted out on screen provides a kind of metaphorical resonance with an experience we might understand, like the satisfaction of finally getting justice for a wrong. But the link to real experiences is imprecise, and that makes it impossible to make the moral calculus that purports to assess whether a character’s evil actions outweighs their inner virtue.

The character’s virtue are subject to all kinds of manipulation by the writers. In the two or three episodes prior to Mike being killed, we followed him around while he doted lovingly on his granddaughter. The purpose was to heighten the sense of tragedy when he was finally killed. (“He was such a good man!”) His lengthy history as a hardened killer is conveniently forgotten—this is the crazy logic of fiction.

Not that I think there’s anything wrong with that. My point is just that the over-literalness that characterizes most of the pseudo-debates about Breaking Bad makes them incoherent on their own terms. If you want to be literal, then you will condemn most of the characters in the first two or three episodes. To get fed up with a character in the middle of Season 3 can’t be a genuine moral judgment, at least not for someone with a normal sense of morality.

It’s the equivalent of the stereotypical comic book nerds debating whether Superman or the Hulk would win in a fight, but because none of the characters in Breaking Bad wear brightly-colored spandex, those debates are treated with a seriousness that they clearly don’t deserve.

One particularly wrong-headed move is the reliance on consequentialism to condemn a character. We’re told that it doesn’t matter what a character’s intentions are, we should judge them solely by the impact of their actions on others. But these consequences exist in a fantasy universe; our suspension of disbelief creates a false sense that the situations, actions and consequences are meaningful and understandable to us.

In fact, it’s the characters’ intentions, not the consequences, which are a little more meaningful and relatable to ordinary life, although even here the drama and emotional intensity of Breaking Bad characters is elevated to such a high level, the soundtrack to their lives could only be non-stop dubstep.

On this level, the characters we hate are often more meaningful than who we align ourselves with. This is obvious in the case of Skyler-haters who evince their blatant misogyny. I don’t know why most people feel that it is necessary to pick sides just because the characters have conflicting goals. Identifying with Hank, I want him to catch Walt and bring him to justice; identifying with Walt, I want him to get away; identifying with Skyler, I share her desire to protect her children and not live her life in the drug business. Although these might be all mutually inconsistent, I’m in no position to decide the outcome, so I don’t see the need to figure out which one I want more.

The problem with strong identification with one character is that it necessarily involves non-identification with and ultimately, violence against what the character is not. We choose the character with whom we identify most, over and against the other characters, so that their triumph over their enemies is our triumph. But it may not be a good thing to use the fantasy space of fiction to strengthen the boundaries of the ego, and to get ersatz satisfaction against those who threaten its narcissistic integrity. It might be better to use this fantasy space as a chance to relax those boundaries.

Personally, I hate the way that Skyler reduces Walt to a mere paternal function, but I think it would be the wrong reaction to justify Walt’s actions to her on the grounds they somehow balance the moral ledger, even if his response was measured. As much as we like to tell ourselves that we only want to be made whole, I don’t think humans in relationships want justice from each other. We want a little more than an eye for an eye, a little more for our trouble than what was taken from us, even if that surplus is seeing the horror and humiliation on our enemy’s face as we get our revenge.

But what then? Will the wound finally be healed? Our sense of being harmed isn’t a negative finite balance on a ledger, but an infinite void that can never be filled. Other people have the power to inflict terrible wounds that cut us open into an abyss of pain that can never be healed, only temporarily and briefly forgotten. At the same time, an infinite guilt follows us for administering the same horror on others, a feeling of ultimate responsibility and total powerless to prevent it. There is no love that can cover sins of this magnitude, no matter how vast, beautiful and pure it was in the beginning. Anger eventually overcomes the softest hearts.

The world is a vale of tears that we depart in anguish, clutching at shattered memories, unable to forgive or be forgiven. If there is any hope, it is to somehow accept that the void cannot be filled and wholeness cannot be achieved. “My wound existed before me; I was born to embody it.”

As disturbing it is to see people enjoying watching a fictional character like Walt commit awful crimes, it is even more disturbing to witness the sick gratification passed off as morality that many people get from their desire for vengeance. There is something venomous, predatory, even snake-like concealed behind their moral righteousness. When pressed, they will say that this enjoyment is their reward contributing to our general welfare. They think we need a little incentive to make the world a better place.

This is always the case with the “good” people. They’re shinier, happier, friendlier, socially adjusted. They seem like they’re better than you and me, and there would be nothing wrong with that, if it were true. The world needs people who are better than you and me. But these people aren’t better, they’re just sadists.