“We Tried to Poison You”: Breaking Evil

What’s Stopping Me: Breaking Bad and Virtue Ethics

Jen Baker

Morality is not a common theme in a television series. We are accustomed to writers creating characters, perhaps ones with notable quirks, who respond to external challenges that interfere with their everyday, relatable, plans. When morality is itself the theme, as it is in shows that are truly great, critics note the difference. Emily Nussbaum writes that many shows that attempt a moral theme by presenting an anti-hero, in comparison to The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, are but “lesser imitators.” They offer “anti-hero cupcakes with moral ambiguity sprinkles.” These shows remain in “the old style of television,” which will “always snap back to titillation, determined to please, not to challenge.”1 Breaking Bad instead delivers on its title. Critics immediately recognized it as a “morality tale.”2 It was described as “Old Testament at its core,” even in its early stages.3 As Elijah Siegler writes, Breaking Bad might even amount to “the end of the anti-hero genre, not only taking the trope as far it can go (in Walter White’s journey from mild mannered high school teacher to mass-murdering drug kingpin, all accompanied by lies and rationalization)” but by rejecting “moral relativity” in favor of “an uncompromising theological vision.”4 Television critic Todd VanDerWerff claims that it is “a religious show,” noting that,

For indeed none can love freedom heartlie, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license. -John Milton, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (John Milton, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, ed. William Talbot Allison, (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1911), 10)

You are the devil! -Marie Schrader (“Blood Money”)

J. Baker (H)

College of Charleston, Charleston, SC, USA © The Author(s) 2017

K.S. Decker et al. (eds.), Philosophy and Breaking Bad, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-40343-4_1

Walter White isn’t just a sinner. He’s a man who pushes further and further into his dark heart, who unleashes all manner of destruction upon the world, both at large and in his own home. He is a murderer, many times over; he is a man who abuses his wife; and he is a force of fear for everyone who sees his true face. He is, for lack of a better word, Satan... He gives in to his selfishness and pride, his rage and resentment. He becomes the devil, and he is punished accordingly. He lived in something like heaven, and he chose to create something far more like hell. Breaking Bad argues that that is a choice too many of us make, every day of our lives.5

But what do these critics take morality to be? What do these descriptions mean? What is the lesson of Breaking Bad’s morality tale, and does it apply to all of us? What exact choices do we face every day? What is Old Testament-like about Walt’s exploits and fate?

We should not expect television critics to answer these questions. They end their essays with questions (whether “Walt’s power to transform his basic character, the extremity of his self-determination, calls into question” our “foundational notions about good and evil.”).6 They often demonstrate our current popular discomfort with the issue of morality. Forgetting that a significant portion of Breaking Bad’s potential audience still regards the Old Testament as relevant, initial reviews puzzled over whether the show’s writers could pull off “biblical categories of good and evil” in a “culture like ours.”7 Vince Gilligan’s own claim that viewers (still) desire “for wrongdoers to be punished” was treated as a kind of paradox, given that our society is overly “individualistic” and lacks the necessary “metaphysical” backdrop.8 As The New York Times pondered: “This moral dimension might explain why ‘Breaking Bad’ has yet to achieve pop cultural breakthrough status.”9 Other critics put forward banalities instead of engaging with moral psychology or ethical theory. Their non-explanations include the idea that Walter White was merely “essentially” evil, like the villains in Old Westerns, or as Chuck Klosterman blandly concludes: morality, in Breaking Bad, “seems to be a continually personal choice.”10

In contrast, the L.A. Review of Books published two very fine analyses that pointed out the many parallels between Breaking Bad and John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667).11 Yet, not even these critics assessed the show’s fidelity to that account of morality. No one wants our media critics to be ethical theorists, of course. But Breaking Bad poses a fundamental question about morality, one that the show’s creator sees like this: “I find atheism just as hard to get my head around as I find fundamental Christianity. Because if there is no such thing as cosmic justice, what is the point of being good? That’s the one thing that no one has ever explained to me. Why shouldn’t I go rob a bank, especially if I’m smart enough to get away with it? What’s stopping me?”12

I would like to attempt to answer Vince Gilligan’s question, using the answers ethical theory makes available. Gilligan and the other writers of Breaking Bad do more than reflect a Miltonic account of evil, they continue and improve upon the very argument Milton was making in Paradise Lost, expertly dramatizing it (as Milton did), but applying it to mortals like us. Yet, I want to suggest that, in the end, virtue ethics, and not Miltonic ethics, offers a better answer to the question “Why be moral?” than the answer: “Or you will end up like Walter White.”

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