Breaking bad has been excellent – few will deny this. But there are a billion reviews, I’m more interested in how it ended. I think it made an extraordinarily poignant point.
Throughout the whole season, Walter continually justified every action he took with the mantra “I did it for the family” and he kept playing this record over and over to try and convince himself with this affirmation; even in the face of huge suffering to his family. As if causing suffering to his family was somehow moral, as long as he was doing it “for the family”. He wanted that 80 million dollars, and would kill for it “for the family”, as if his family needs 80 million dollars. In the first season he calculated he would need to leave them around 400 000 dollars, but this kept going up – even after he was left 11 million by the men who robbed him of the other 70, he still had to get that 70 million back, no matter what, “for the family”. Moralising ultimately led him to immorality, and the inevitable consequence: limitless hypocrisy. With this “moral” rationalisation, he could kill “for the family”, he was greedy “for the family” and selfish “for the family”. With an external rationalisation for his actions, no action was off limits. It’s this kind of mentality that drives extremists to perform immoral acts “in the name of God” or “for king and country.” External, unchangeable moral systems which attempt to deny reality: the inherant transience of reality and fluid evolution of morality. Morality, like the gene pool is not fixed, and if you attempt to fix it, things start to get ugly.
The series quite rightly only ended when Walt gave up moralising to himself and finally admitted that all he did, he did for himself – not for his family. He – and only he – was responsible, and he did it because he liked it, it made him feel alive. In the end it took losing everything he had ostensibly been fighting for – his money, his freedom, his dignity, his family – to finally wake up, be honest, and finally just be. Ironically (or perhaps not, which is the point) only when he gave up moralising was he in any sense moral. This is shown when he has a gun pointing at Jack’s head, and Jack thinks he’ll stop him from pulling the trigger by offering him his money back.
But Jack doesn’t know that Walt has finally seen himself for what he is, and doesn’t care about the money, because he has seen the moral system he has been placing on himself and he sees the bullshit self-image of the “family man” for what it is, a smokescreen he invented to justify his actions in the face of his imagined moral system. He can do immoral things, and remain moral, as long as it’s done “for the family”. Only after he admits this to himself and his wife is he in any sense at peace, and you can see the same in Skyler’s eyes when he tells her. This is the singularly most powerful scene in the whole series.
This spoke to me particularly because it relates to recent realisations in my life. I have clung to moral systems and judged others for actions that I have taken myself. Moralising allows you to break the externally-imposed moral code you so dearly cling to – why? Because you believe that having a moral code makes you moral, even if you don’t follow it: “yes I did that [you say to yourself] but I know it’s wrong, because I have a moral code – see, I am moral!” This was the same for Walt – anything action goes “for the family”. Only honesty can break the cycle, only honesty can Break Bad – honesty with others, but first and foremost, honesty with ourselves.