Bad Meets Evil

xxx--SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN HEAT OR THE FINAL EPISODE OF BREAKING BAD, STOP READING AND GO WATCH THEM--xxx

Breaking Bad is one of the most compelling works I’ve come across in some time, in any medium. It creates a world that feels nearly as compelling and interesting as the real one, and it leaves me thinking about that world after I’ve left it. On those terms, the most important to me as an author, it’s a smashing success. (I’m reading two well-regarded books right nowThe Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun, and The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournellebut I totally ignored both during my morning CTA commute so I could read the procession of reviews of the series finale, “Felina.” So I’d rather read about Breaking Bad than experience something else firsthand.)

But I feel like the show pulled its punches in the final episode.

I don’t know if art needs to teach a moral lesson, or if it should have any goals other than its own excellence. Even the Vatican (not the ultimate arbiter on such matters, though it pretends to be) judges movies on their artistic merits, rather than on how closely they hew to the party line; their list of the best movies wouldn’t be out of line for most secular critics, featuring a lot of true classics like The Bicycle Thief and Citizen Kane and ignoring religious drivel like Jesus of Nazareth. But Breaking Bad clearly set itself up as a morality play; its very title contains a judgment. And it seemed on track to deliver a solid art-meets-morality message in the Treasure of the Sierra Madre vein, right up until the very end.

Its moral dynamic reminds me of Heat, another flawed-but-favorite work. (Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love Heat. If I can create something that gets anyone else thinking and talking about it as much as I think and talk about either Heat or Breaking Bad, I’ll consider myself a massive success. I hope I’ve done so with Resistance, but obviously that’s not for me to judge. l digress.) Heat clearly suggests more similarities than differences between the good guy (Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna) and the bad guy (Robert DeNiro’s Neil McCauley). On one level, it isn’t even a crime movie, but a film about work, about how both characters’ relentless focus on on-the-job perfection destroys their personal lives, leaving them with no solace but to dig themselves deeper into their work. And yet it is obviously a crime movie, one that can only put the good guy and the bad guy on a similar moral level by contrasting the bad guy with someone who’s truly evil, a repulsive character named Waingro with a swastika tattoo and no redeeming moral qualities whatsoever. He murders innocents during a robbery; he kills hookers; unlike DeNiro’s character, Waingro never indicates even a remote awareness of anything resembling “good.”

Unlike Heat, Breaking Bad doesn’t go to any great lengths to put Walter White on a similar plane as his law enforcement nemesis. His relationship with brother-in-law DEA agent Hank Schraeder’s very unlike DeNiro’s with Pacino—they’re not strangers drawn together by respect for one another’s smarts and professionalism, but family members who end up repulsed by the moral chasm between them. And to Breaking Bad’s credit, it shows a substantial decay in Walt’s moral character over the show’s course, which sets him starkly at odds with DeNiro’s relatively unchanging Neil McCauley—the Platonic ideal of the master thief, cunning and talented and willful, but with his own moral code. He doesn’t compromise himself when Waingro (a new member of his robbery crew) unnecessarily guns down an armored truck crewman in the movies opening heist; he plans to kill Waingro and only fails at that juncture due to some bad timing. (He breaks his own rules near the end, killing Waingro when he knows he should just walk away, but it’s more a professional slip than an ethical one, and he’s essentially the same man at the end that he is at the beginning.)

At the end of Breaking Bad's “Dead Freight” episode, in a scene with echoes of Heat’s heist, Walter White watches a young Neo-Nazi affiliated crewmember named Todd gun down an innocent child. And yet Walt doesn’t kill his Waingro—he integrates him more fully into his criminal operation, perhaps knowing that someone more morally compromised than Jesse will be even more reliable in a criminal enterprise, less liable to turn snitch than anyone else in the operation. For me, this was one of the best parts about Breaking Bad—it went beyond its influences to show us something truly new. And it I let out a gasp when it was clear Todd was Walt’s new partner in crime.

A few episodes on, Walt recruits Todd’s uncle to arrange the murder of several informants. Like so many of the bad interactions in this show, this proves to be an unreliable and unstable bit of personal chemistry; a few episodes on, Uncle Jack ends up taking most of Walt’s money and killing brother-in-law Hank despite Walt’s pleas. Breaking Bad had as many high points as the Himalayas, and this episode, “Ozymandias,” was perhaps its Everest. (I don’t know that I’ve ever been quite so breathless, so physically and mentally exhausted, after a television episode.) Its end saw Walt exiled and alienated from his family, the very people he’d ostensibly turned to crime to help. The ending felt both tragic and inevitable and unforgettable; had the series ended here (or shortly afterwards, with Walt dying in exile in New Hampshire), I’d have had no complaints. (Or fewer complaints, at least—it did nag me that the caper at the end of the great “Live Free or Die” episode didn’t lead to too many long-term consequences for Walt et. al. They destroyed a police evidence room with a giant magnet, and while they ostensibly didn’t leave behind any fingerprints, THEY LEFT THE MAGNET! I’m sure most police departments would move heaven and earth to find the perpetrators of such a brazen crime, and even if the Albuquerque P.D. was particularly lazy, a cursory Googling of salvage companies and/or scrapyards might have provided them with a handy list of PEOPLE WHO OWNED GIANT MAGNETS. I digress.)

Again, Walt exiled and/or dying might have been perfect. But alas, the show’s creators opened with a flash forward showing Walt emerging from exile to buy an M-60 machine gun. And that was a loose end they obviously needed to tie securely. (Also, according to one of Chekov’s famous maxims, if you introduce a gun in Act One, you have to use the gun by Act Three.) Vince Gilligan admitted in an interview that they’d written that scene not knowing why Walt was buying the gun, or on whom he needed to use it. They'd contemplated having Walt use it against someone in law enforcement—perhaps in an attempt to break Jesse out of jail. But in the end, Walt ends up gunning down a room full of neo-Nazis, perhaps the only people in the Breaking Bad universe less honorable than him. Walt has met a second Waingro in the form of Uncle Jack, and he dispatches this one in much the same way that DeNiro dealt with the original—with pistol shots to the head and chest.

Given Vince Gilligan’s stated desire in Breaking Bad to see a character go from Mr. Chips to Scarface, to turn the character from protagonist to antagonist, it’s a shame. Walt worked with evil, and shook hands with evil, but at the end of the day he’s gunning evil down with a remote-controlled M-60, or standing at arm’s length and filling it with 9mm holes, creating a tiny bit of wiggle room between himself and evil, whereas perhaps none really existed. (There’s a great Bukowski quote: “Find what you love and let it kill you.” Both Walter White and Neil McCauley might well have followed this advice, and both could have had the same eulogy: “He may have hurt the people he most loved, but he worked hard and was the best at what he did. And, hey, at least he wasn’t a Nazi.”) So Breaking Bad ends with a cathartic Taxi Driver-style bit of redemption through violence, something that probably works out a lot more reliably in the movies than it does in real life. (There are other echoes of Taxi Driver too, in Walt’s use of gadgetry, and in the final shots looking directly down on him as the police arrive.) Unlike the unsettling violence elsewhere in the show, this bloodbath leaves us comforted, for Todd and Uncle Jack have been portrayed without any humanity. They’re reduced to a symbol, a swastika, and it becomes easy to see them as less than human and therefore deserving of death. But even the worst villains in real life have some touch of humanity--Charles Manson wrote music, John Wayne Gacy painted clowns, and Hitler was great with animals. (All this isn't meant to imply that evil doesn't exist, or that there's some moral equivalency between good and evil. Rather, the unsettling thing, the thing Breaking Bad came close to showing but shied away from, is that there is no clear comfortable demarcation line with evil people on one side and the rest of us on the other. Even the executioners in the Holocaust were, in the words of Christopher Browning's devastating must-read on the subject, ordinary men.) Whatever Walt's flawed motives—revenge for the theft of most of his money, rather than justice for Jesse—we're still rooting for him in the end. And so Breaking Bad ends up indulging in a bit of the same moral relativism as its protagonist.

Perhaps some level of imperfection is necessary in a work this great, like in Japanese paintings where it’s OK for brushstrokes to be visible because flaws are part of the aesthetic. Treasure of the Sierra Madre was perfect, but I’ve never felt the need to watch it again. As for Heat, when I first saw it, I was annoyed by a scene where Pacino finds out that his stepdaughter has attempted suicide in his hotel room. I felt like there was no explanation as to how she’d gotten there—but eventually I just accepted it, for it helped lead to some of the great dramatic moments in the movie. And there are several scenes in the final episode of Breaking Bad that I wouldn’t have wanted to miss—Walt admitting to his wife that he’d done it all for himself, Jesse finally refusing Walt, Walt wandering into the meth lab and leaving bloody fingerprints on a gleaming silvery vessel. That may be a great metaphor for the show as a whole—we can get pretty close to perfection, but we usually mess it up. But in the end, the flaws are necessary, for they send us back for more viewings, to see if we missed anything; they’re what makes the experience human, and memorable.