breaking bad
Photo: Ben Leuner/AMC

This article is a preview from the Winter 2013 issue of New Humanist magazine. You can subscribe here.

Who needs religion when you have television? On soap operas, unlike in life, villainous characters almost always face their comeuppance. TV cops may now be required to have “complicated” private lives and dubious personal ethics, but we’re seldom in any serious doubt about the difference between good and evil, and on which side of the line the maverick cop ultimately falls. The persistence of the fantasy that justice is guaranteed – a religious fantasy – wouldn’t have surprised the great thinkers of modernity. Theorists such as Spinoza, Kant, Nietzsche and Marx argued that atheism was extremely difficult to practise. It’s all very well professing a lack of belief in God, but it’s much harder to give up the habits of thought which assume providence, divine justice and a secure distinction between good and evil.

The US television series Breaking Bad, an international hit whose final episode aired this autumn, escapes this impasse. But we have to be careful here – the series has been understood (its title invites this interpretation) as the story of how an ordinary lower-middle-class man becomes evil. The set-up was simple. Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston), a chemistry teacher at a school in New Mexico, is diagnosed with lung cancer. Unable to afford the treatment, Walt decides to use his expertise in chemistry to manufacture methamphetamine, or crystal meth, with the help of a feckless ex-student, Jesse. As the series progresses, Walt shifts from making agonised decisions about whether it is right to kill, to becoming a ruthless crimelord. Yet this is not the whole story, and to read the series as a narrative of Walt becoming evil is to resist what is most challenging about it.

The success of the show outside the US has provoked some amusing parodies. Imagine Breaking Bad set in the UK and Canada. Opening scene. Doctor tells Walt he has cancer – the treatment starts next week. End of series. What this points out is an opposition that was crucial to the drama: between the fragility of the physical body and the precarity produced by social relations. One way of measuring progress is through the extent to which human beings have managed to contain the inevitable suffering that nature causes the body. In this sense, Breaking Bad can be compared with Ken Loach’s recent documentary about the foundation of the British welfare state, Spirit of ’45. Loach’s evocation of a destroyed working-class progressivism brings the savage new Wild West that emerges in Breaking Bad into painful relief. Walt does so many “bad” things because he wants to remain a “good” husband, as defined by the Protestant work ethic. Much of the series’s mordant humour comes from seeing Walt pursue this ideology of work – it’s better to earn your “own” money, no matter how, than to scrounge from others or ask them for help – to all kinds of extremes.

In the final episode, Walt has to admit that the desire to build his drug empire brought him an intense libidinal satisfaction that had long since become autonomous from the ostensible purpose – providing for his family when he is gone – that provoked him into cooking meth in the first place. But for most of the series Walt clings to the idea that he’s doing all the drug production, the killing, the manipulation and the terror for the sake of his family. Ironically, the one thing that the family could not survive is the course of action Walt ends up pursuing. It could probably survive penury and debt. It could survive the loss of Walt’s physical body. But it cannot survive the loss of the image of Walt as an ordinary father figure, beaten down by life, an underachiever maybe, but still someone who “does the right thing”. It’s as if Walt destroyed the family in the very attempt to save it.

Perhaps the most complex and powerful character in the whole series is Walt’s wife, Skyler, played by Anna Gunn. The actor has written of the misogyny she faced from some Breaking Bad fans online as a consequence of playing Skyler: in a piece for the New York Times, she described how the character seemed to have become “a flash point for many people’s feelings about strong, nonsubmissive, ill-treated women”. This is especially depressing because Skyler is a nuanced character, not at all someone who simply rejects Walt at the earliest opportunity. Even though she deplores Walt’s adventures in crime, it is only at the very end of the series, when Walt’s actions have manifestly brought catastrophe to Skyler’s family, that she definitively breaks with him. Until then she struggles, impossibly but heroically, to reconcile her roles as wife, mother and responsible citizen. At the end, we feel that she is traumatised but not broken – someone who will eventually be able to escape the horrors Walt brought to her life, and who, astonishingly, is still capable of retaining some love for the husband whose pride, hubris and desperation have threatened to destroy her life and those of her two children.

The politics of the family, and how these connect with the American ideology of earning your own money and paying your own way, were, then, at the heart of Breaking Bad. In the episode “Ozymandias” – probably one of the most intense, distressing, yet also occasionally hilarious hours of television I have ever seen – Skyler finally breaks totally with Walt. Their son, Walt Jr, has just discovered that Walt is a meth cook. Sheer vertigo, horror: Walt Jr’s whole world has disappeared in an instant. He doesn’t want to believe it, he’s angry with Skyler and Walt, he can’t make any sense of it, his eyes show the deepest pain, confusion, shock. Skyler grabs a carving knife – an echo of what Wendy Torrance does in The Shining – but, unlike Wendy, Skyler stands tough. She’s tall, strong, she’s not cowering or afraid any more, and she suddenly knows what she has to do to protect herself and Walt Jr. She forces Walt out of the house. But before that, Skyler and Walt have grappled on the floor. Walt wriggles free, stands up and – hilariously, pathetically – tries to assert his patriarchal authority, tries to appeal to family togetherness. “Stop this! We – are – a – family!”

A scene like this gets right to the heart of why Breaking Bad was so mesmerically powerful. Even here, we’re aware that Skyler still loves Walt – not because she’s deluded but because she recognises that, even though Walt has become “a monster”, this isn’t all he is. In some sense, he still loves Skyler and Walt Jr; and the scenes in the final episode when Walt returns to say his last goodbye to Skyler, and he holds his young baby for the last time, and he watches Walt Jr from a distance, knowing that he will never speak to him again, are wrenchingly sad.

I think it was Lacan who remarked that when we talk about going beyond good and evil, we usually mean going beyond good. The modern world is fascinated by anti-heroes, people with a dark side, the pantomime madness and “evil” of Hannibal Lecter. What it is less comfortable with is the real atheist-existentialist revelation that “good” and “evil” are not written into the universe, but exist only in ourselves, in relation to our desires and interests. Soap opera melodrama keeps us believing in “evil” as a voluntaristic choice – people do bad things because they are evil. But in Breaking Bad, evil in that sense is nowhere to be found.

Certainly, it’s full of people who do “bad” things – that is, those who pursue actions that they know would either directly or indirectly hurt or destroy others – but they don’t do this because they are evil. Tuco, the low-level drug lord that Walt and Jesse tangle with in season one, is deranged and violent because he is a meth addict from a criminal family. Gus Fring, the slick meth overlord who makes his first appearance in season two, is a super-pragmatic businessman – so pragmatic, in fact, that he lives his life in seemingly permanent cover, disguised as the humble owner of a small fast-food chain. He kills ruthlessly, but only when it is expedient. Even when hillbillies with swastikas tattooed onto their necks emerge as the antagonists towards the end of the series, the writing never allows us to write off the most repulsive of them as totally “evil”, because they, too, are capable of mercy and acts of kindness.

Then there is Walt himself. One of the series’s subversive achievements is to draw attention to the way that our sympathy and identification with a character are a structural effect; one that is created both by the demands of genre and by the class structure of wider society. We initially sympathise with Walt in part because we remember other put-upon dads in popular TV series – such as Bryan Cranston’s character in Malcolm in the Middle – and also because the media constantly invite us to identify with the “hard working” lower-middle-class family man. Yet Breaking Bad shows that the difference between the “good”, “ordinary” man and a ruthless criminal is the thinnest of lines. There but for the grace of social security and the NHS go we.

Breaking Bad is available to view in the UK at