Rewriting the Past
Revisionism consists in recovering one’s lost moral ground by denying that anything wrong was done. Since one has not wronged anyone, no moral ground has been lost, and there is no moral ground to recover. Walt’s efforts to recast his actions in a more honorable light are many and varied, but his last phone call to his son, Walt Jr. (“Granite State”), represents a particularly poignant attempt: “Son, the things that they’re saying about me... I did wrong... I made some terrible mistakes. but the reasons were always. things happen that I never intended. I never intended.,” he pleads.
Walt offers two different denials that he intended for any of the bad things in his career of crime to happen. Since he did not intend for any of the bad things to happen, he cannot be held guilty of moral wrongdoing. But he also seems to tell Walt Jr. that he had anything except the best reasons for acting in the way that he did, even if he did intend for some or or all of the bad things to happen. Do any of these exculpate him?
Walt could mean, first, that he never imagined that any of the bad things that happened would, in fact, happen, such as the killing of Hank Schrader by Jack Welker, in “To’hajiilee.^ Such things, he could be saying, were unforeseen by him when he embarked on his journey of manufacturing methamphetamine. If that is what he is claiming, then he is attempting to escape blame by appealing to the idea that he cannot be held responsible for bad things that happen as a result of what he did just in case he never imagined that they would happen.
He would be embracing the legal and moral standard of requiring a mens rea, and arguing that in order for him to be held liable for such bad things, he must have had a “guilty mind”—something that he denies having.
In embracing the standard of requiring a mens rea, Walt would be rejecting the standard of strict liability, or “faultless” liability, a standard used extremely rarely in the criminal law, and even more rarely (if ever) in morality, in which you are held criminally liable for what happens as a result of what you do (or do not do), even though you lacked any criminal intent, or knowledge of breaking the law, and were not reckless, or even negligent, in your behavior. An example would be getting a minor intoxicated by serving them alcohol, even if you had taken reasonable steps to ensure that they were of legal age.12
The simple problem with Walt’s attempt to escape blame by denying he had a mens rea—intent, knowledge, recklessness, or negligence—to be held culpable, is that it is simply false that he never imagined any of these bad things could happen. He was fully aware of the risks of people being harmed as a result of what he was doing. As noted above, Walt killed a number of people himself; he also ordered the killing of ten former associates of Mike’s in their jail cells. While he could attempt to argue that these killings were not, in fact, wrongful actions, because the victims were murderers, this would be a very different kind of defense (it would be an attempt to justify these killings, as discussed earlier). It would also fail to absolve him from blame for other bad things that he did, such as letting Jane die or ordering Jesse to kill Gale. Neither Jane nor Gale is a murderer. As other commentators have said, “But Walt’s ordering Jesse to kill Gale under the threat of Walt’s own demise, due to Walt’s own actions, makes Walt complicit, and morally guilty for Gale’s death perhaps as much as if he had himself pulled the trigger.”13 And these acts of violence do not even take into account the enormous amount of harm that he knowingly caused by manufacturing and selling the highly addictive and destructive crystal meth to people all over the country.
Walt did indeed possess the requisite mens rea, therefore, to be held culpable for these and many other bad things that happened. Even if it were true that there were some bad things that Walt never could have imagined—such as the deaths of the 167 people aboard flights Wayfarer 515 and JM 21—it is not clear that Walt can be absolved of blame for these, at least morally, on the basis that to hold him responsible would be to hold him to the standard of strict liability. It was Walt who let Jane choke to death on her own vomit, and it was her death that sent her father into a depression, which, it’s not unreasonable for us to assume, led to the error and the deaths of the passengers, as well as his subsequent suicide. If this is what happened, then Walt may be held morally responsible for the deaths of those passengers, even if he cannot be held legally responsible, because he did something morally wrong in letting her die, and his moral wrongdoing ultimately led to their deaths.14 The same can be said about Hank’s death, and that of his partner Steve Gomez, at the hands of Jack Welker and his gang. Hank would never have met up with Jack Welker and his gang in the To’hajiilee Reservation if he had not been chasing Walt to bring him into custody for manufacturing and selling crystal meth. Walt does bear the moral responsibility for their deaths, because his decision to make crystal meth, and especially, to continue to make it after so many people were harmed, was morally wrong. As another commentator has said, “For the first time, the reality of what his descent into Heisenberg truly means hits Walt. He collapses, knowing that his deeds finally led to the ultimate sin. A family member is dead because of him.”15
Embracing the standard of requiring a mens rea, therefore, will not absolve Walt of moral blame.