The Transcendent, Aesthetic Justice of Breaking Bad
In the absence of some divine or natural morality, our legal codes cannot be grounded in anything but exigency, and so the very notion of justice as some higher ideal is suspect. Walt shows no apparent interest or belief in the divine, nor does he seem to believe that nature is a foundation for the good. His own “good,” with reference to caring for his family, is the measure of his actions.
The justice system is all but powerless because of human frailties, and its failures drive the five seasons of Breaking Bad. As we have seen, the injustice of society in failing to provide healthcare is part of what drives Walt to his criminal pursuit. Justice is as dead as God, and so Walt and those around and involved with him must forge their own paths to seek whatever justice they can, whatever nexus between their desires and some sort of “good” they can assemble from a meaningless and indifferent universe. Let’s return to some contrasts between Walter White and Jean Valjean, and contrast the themes and characters in both to another work, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and the characters of Raskolnikov and Porfiry, to examine the possible role of a transcendent justice beyond mere exigency in Breaking Bad's moral landscape.
What analytic philosophy fails to accomplish in the field of “justice,” literature achieves. In other worlds, none of the approaches to the connection between law and morality undertaken as a philosophical project succeeds in confirming any relation between the two except connections that are ineffable and transient. Yet, in depictions of heroes, both tragic and noble, we may sense justice, however fleeting and intangible, through their ordeals.
Les Miserables presents us with Valjean and Javert, a pair of characters similar to Walt and Hank. Valjean, the (former) criminal, is pursued relentlessly by the tenacious lawman Javert. Similarly, parallel characters and themes emerge in Crime and Punishment in which the criminal Raskolnikov is doggedly pursued by attorney/detective Porfiry Petrovitch. In all three dramas, the conception and the attainment of “justice” differs. Ultimately, once we see that Walt believes that he has somehow achieved justice in the show’s resolution, we can see in Breaking Bad a particularly modern view of justice.
Jean Valjean has done his time and more, having served 19 years in jail for stealing some bread to save his family from starvation. When released, he essentially “skips parole,” tosses out his “yellow passport” which branded him as an ex-con and assumes a new name and life. Along the way, he steals from a bishop, but is saved from the police, and then pursues a life of goodness after he is “converted” by the religious figure. He becomes a mayor and a factory owner, a respectable, wealthy man under cover of his new identity and guided by his converted spirit. Still, Javert tracks him down. When Javert finds him and realizes that Valjean is his former prisoner working and living under a new identity, he disregards the goodness of the station which Valjean has attained, focusing solely upon the law that has been broken it.
Javert is the perfect positivist. The law has been broken and this must be rectified. There is no exclusion in the positive law for violating the yellow passport rule, and Jean Valjean’s new life is a legal lie that must be corrected. Justice is, after all, abiding by man-made rules. The moral of Les Miserables, though, is that the law fails to suffice. The conditions that “required” or at least drove Jean Valjean to his initial theft were beyond his control. Javert’s use of the law was disproportionate and unfair, though perfectly valid from a positivist viewpoint. Javert is eventually so conflicted between his compulsion to see that “justice” is done and his eventual respect for Valjean as a reformed, good person, that he kills himself, his sense of justice unable to comport with justice as a purely legal concept.
Blind adherence to the law, disregarding moral qualities such as virtue, forgiveness, salvation, is literally deadly for Javert. Despite our philosophical failures in targeting the foundations of justice through analytic means, our aesthetic of justice is clear: Javert is wrong, though he abides to the law, and Valjean is right, despite his defiance of the letter of the law. Justice is defined, we feel aesthetically, by something more than the written law. Victor Hugo pits law against love as the main values we might adhere to, and love must win in the end. It is the same aesthetic sense that at first draws us into sympathy with Walter White. His character is compelling in part because we do not abhor him. Rather, we identify with Walt, or at least sympathize with him, as we do with Valjean, understanding that we too would be tempted to do what Walt chooses in order to refrain from bankrupting his family, and perhaps even leave a little something for them in the process. A certain necessity, due to the injustice of the social context, seems to make his choice acceptable at first, though later we will become appalled by future choices that stem from his meth-cooking path.
As with Javert, Hank’s insistence of blind adherence to the law is distasteful at first, and the hypocrisy of it made clear in relation to his own preference for illegal cigars and his wife’s kleptomania. Moreover, Hank and Gomez pursue their legal targets with a fair amount of disregard for legal process, defying rules of evidence, privacy and other restrictions of police process throughout the series. The law is not the equivalent of justice in Breaking Bad or Les Miserables.
Justice in Les Miserables is realized in the confluence of the students’ rebellion and the death of Javert by his own hand. Javert recognizes the disjunction between the legal, positivist view of justice that affords no exception to laws against theft and that can condemn a man like Valjean despite his salvation and pursuit of a new life. Jean Valjean perseveres and triumphs. He attains justice. Javert can only do so through death.
Contrast this now with the criminal/pursuer duo from Crime and Punishment. Unlike the criminal protagonist of Les Miserables, Raskolnikov murders a pawnbroker out of anger and nihilism. Although he does indeed owe his landlady back rent, his major purpose in killing her is to see what it is like out of a morbid, philosophical curiosity founded in nihilism: the belief that there is no meaning to life. Without a god to judge, Rodion Raskolnikov is free to do what he will in pursuit of his own purposes, much as Walt, who in calculating the makeup of the human body concludes we have no “soul,” is free to embark upon his criminal pursuits to attain a materially sustainable existence for his family. But Raskolnikov’s murders (he also kills the sister of the pawnbroker in the course of the crime) eat at him afterward, plunging him into both mental and physical sickness. Finally, his mental torture and the gentle but persistent questioning of the detective Porfiry, who is convinced of Raskolnikov’s guilt but lacks evidence, bring Raskolnikov to the point of confession.
Porfiry uses psychology rather than a badge or gun to get inside the head of Raskolnikov and extract a confession. Raskolnikov is then sentenced to eight years of labor in Siberia and thus justice is served. Profiry has operated under the assumption that he could bring on Raskolnikov’s confession and thus lead him toward a path of redemption. As with the bishop who nudges Jean Valjean toward a life of virtue, Raskolnikov’s confession and incarceration bring a form of justice no other act could. Unlike Javert’s pursuit of Valjean, Porfiry pursues Raskolnikov with love, and so his eventual justice is not tinged with the unbending legalism that dooms Javert. The sense of justice served differs from Les Miserables, in which the criminal protagonist is “saved” well before he is caught by the law.
Walter White differs from these two literary bad guys. He is never saved. His pursuer, his own brother-in-law, will die in a shoot-out that Walt tries to avoid, and this despite entreaties to the white supremacists to spare him, not because it is right, but just because he is his brother-in-law. Walter White’s justice will neither come from incarceration nor personal salvation and triumph. He must die. But he must die having achieved something, having overcome the obstacles that both the law and other criminals have erected. Walt’s death at the end of the series could be viewed as tragic, but his death was effectively preordained in the series opener. He was dying of cancer, a man with no prospects and nothing to leave for his family, a man who might be mourned, but never in his absence materially missed. By the end of the series he has left a legacy. He successfully manufactures not just Blue Sky meth, a much-desired and imitated product, but a legacy. Heisenberg and his legend will be told for generations, but more importantly for Walt’s sake, he has achieved what he set out to do: secure the comfort for his family after his death, something he could hardly have done had he walked the straight and narrow. The aesthetic beauty of the justice he attains, though clouded by murder and mayhem, addiction and scandal, is undeniable. It is satisfying. Justice is a form of satisfaction, as evidence by these three stories. It is not the adherence to some legal code, nor the abidance of some natural law. Rather, justice involves something a bit more ineffable, but made clear through stories about justice, crime, deceit and love.
Walt sums it up when he refuses to apologize for what he has done and who he has become. He has found something he lacked before Breaking Bad began: a love for something, a love for himself and a way to satisfy his love for his family in the only way possible. “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And, I was really.... I was alive.” Walt has overcome two deaths and must succumb to the third. The death that cancer threatened, and the death that his undistinguished everyday middle-class existence embodied are trumped by his criminal adventure. In the end, his death in exacting vengeance on those who killed his brother-in-law, and securing safety and comfort for his family, are the best justice he could hope for. Like Javert, death by his own design solves the problem of conflict between the good and the just.
Whether the justice achieved in Breaking Bad is morally good or not cannot be analytically proven. It does not comport with standard theories of justice, it violates conceptions both of natural law and positivism. The justice Walt gets is purely an aesthetic one. We are left satisfied, like Walt, with the hint of a smile on our lips as the dust settles on the horror that has transpired. It is finished, and we feel a sense that it has ended as it should.