An Essay by Tim Akimoff
Warning: Contains Spoilers
At the end of last night’s series finale of “Breaking Bad,” my wife and I ended up discussing when we started watching the show and who brought home the first season on DVD.
Of all the things we could have discussed, this was not my first choice, But it was what came to mind as we both processed the show’s finale.
We are both members of Generation X, the dropout generation. And yet when the lilting melody of the Marty Robbins song, “El Paso,” came on to start the show, we could sing every word along with the golden-voiced cowboy. Because our dads both sang the song to us when we were little.
And in going back over the years of watching the show in Montana, where I was a newspaper reporter to Alaska, where I worked in television and we binge-watched during the cold, long nights and finally, to Illinois, where we sat and watched the show together in a house in a cozy little South Western suburb of Chicago, I realized that I had made a promise to myself many years ago. That I, a kid who grew up with super heroes, would come to understand why we are all now so in-love with the anti-hero.
The super heroes I grew up with were flawed in some ways. This allowed them to look more human, more normal. But their supernatural powers covered their flaws rather nicely.
Our ability to relate to our super heroes diminished with age. As we realized we could not leap tall buildings in a single bound nor become invisible at will, we traded our super heroes for ordinary, every day heroes. Firemen, police, teachers or our parents.
For some, they are enough. Faith in humanity rests on the perceived goodness of their hall of heroes.
For others, especially those of us who have witnessed the calamitous wreck of the soul that is a hero’s fall from grace, their is no redemption.
When your pastor has a 6-year affair with another pastor’s wife, redemption does not take place in the hearts and minds of those who were in his care.
Forgiveness, yes, but not redemption.
When your teacher is arrested for possessing child porn or your father for embezzlement, redemption is not a part of the equation for those who are directly in the sphere of influence.
The rise of the anti-hero, is, in my opinion, a natural exploration of the depths of a human soul in relation to the ethical and moral standards we have created as a society.
Walter White allowed us to see into the depths of a soul that, while completely sensationalized for the sake of television, is close enough to our own experiences to feel empathy, or pity or perhaps anger.
At first we wanted Walt to succeed, because sometimes we want the bad guys to get away with it, especially if the bad guy looks like us.
We empathized with Walt for the cancer, and we easily traded one evil diagnosis for an unknown consequence – methmaking.
Walt’s bumbling antics are a mirror of our own, should we ever decide to take up the cooking of meth.
Walt’s decisions reeked of desperation, which so many of us feel any given day with the freakishly fragile economy and the ongoing global hot-spotting by our government.
But we are not Walt. And he is not us. He is an anti-hero. The new archetype that we look to for solace and to see what we might possibly become. How far we could fall. And whether or not redemption is possible. Walt is our safety net.
Tony Soprano, Don Draper and Omar Little are a few of these soul mirrors. There are fewer female anti-heroes, but that is a question for another post.
Have you ever filled out material for a job application that required you to answer a seemingly bizarre set of questions? Questions like: When the bad guy gets away with a crime on television, do you feel good for that character, or does it make you feel bad?
We all desperately want to know what we could get away with, because we are all somewhat warped. It is part of the human condition. There are none among us who are perfect, but we have created pedestals for those we deem close enough.
Then we are crestfallen when their plaster crumbles, revealing their humanity.
Walt started off humbly enough, entering a world he knew nothing about on seemingly altruistic purposes.
But as the show continued, we see our soul mirror delve so deeply into the world of crime, we lose our connection with him.
At some point, it’s an exercise in endurance. Just how evil can a human like us become before they cease to exist as a recognizable human? What or when is the point of no return?
Many people said Walter White could not be redeemed. That his self delusion was so great, that he could never recover. What most people don’t know is that redemption is less recognizable in death and yet it’s somehow more common.
But I would argue that what made “Breaking Bad” one of the greatest shows of all time is precisely the fact that we waited until the bitter end with baited breath to see if Walt’s lost soul could come crawling back toward humanity even by just a few inches.
And we were rewarded with a successful, if sentimental, ending to Walt that answered not just the question above, perhaps it even answered a more universal question about the capacity of our souls.
Walt has done selfless things throughout the series, which reminds us that he still is tethered to us. But his capacity for evil became greater throughout the series. He learned it from others, and he developed an alter-ego, Heisenberg, like an anti-hero’s cape or mask, to further explore a new world powered by his delusions of grandeur.
But in the end, it was not Heisenberg who figured out how to preserve his hard work for his children, it was Walter White, husband, father, teacher, cancer patient and criminal mastermind.
In the end, Walt was us. A Volvo-driving suburban-dwelling father of two who delved too deeply and who had to pay the consequences of his actions.
In the end, Walt owns up to his delusions, when he tells Skyler that he did it for himself.
Walter White is us when he says he did it because he felt so alive, and if you measure the things people do to feel alive today, you can see quite a range, including wing diving and parachuting from space.
It’s true that Walter White did what he did out of love. But it was a love of self. And if you want to see the true depth of the soul in matters of evil, Walt is a pretty good barometer.
For me, Walt was a mirror image of our capacity to love and hurt those we are closest to by our delusions of grandeur. In the end, Walt loved his short-lived empire more than himself.
He loved Jesse enough to try and save him from the devastating hail of bullets. He loved Skyler enough to give her a way out, and as the beleaguered soul is inclined to do, he loved his kids enough to contrive a way to give them his ill-gotten fortune.
It’s not romantic, and it’s not even slightly heroic. It’s just the vast span of the soul from inherently evil to immortality.