On 'Breaking Bad,' Family Is a Motivation and a Liability

The show's drug dealers get into the business to protect and provide for their wives, girlfriends, and children—but devotion to family can be costly.

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"There's no better reason than family," says Walter White in the chilling final scene of "Madrigal," last night's superb episode of Breaking Bad. It's a sentiment that could serve as an statement of purpose for "Madrigal"—and perhaps the entire series—which has seen virtually every character betray their morals and their best judgment in an attempt to protect the ones they love the most.

The first two episodes of Breaking Bad's fifth season have turned on a simple hook: The kingpin is dead, long live the kingpin. Walt's attempt to become the new Gus, which seems likely to be the arc of the season, hinges on acquiring the help of his staunchest and most reliable ally: Mike Ehrmantraut, the endlessly capable "cleaner" who loyally served Gus until his death. It's a testament to Mike's skill that Walt is willing to offer him an equal partnership in the latest permutation of his meth empire, in exchange for his help with "distribution, support logistics, and supply."

But Mike is too smart to fall for Walt's version of an "equal partnership," which is obviously neither. As Mike sees it, Walt is a "time bomb," and Mike has "no intention of being around for the boom." Why does Mike betray his instincts, which are almost certainly correct, by the end of "Madrigal"? For the same misguided reason that Walt started cooking meth: For the (ostensible) good of his family.

Family was once, at least in theory, the reason for Walt's actions. Breaking Bad's pilot opened with Walt desperately addressing his family: "I just want you to know that, no matter how it may look, I only had you in my heart." Since then, whenever Walt has needed justification for his extreme actions, he's turned to "family," and most recently, it was Gus Fring's terrible threat—"I will kill your wife. I will kill your son. I will kill your infant daughter."—that set Walt on his path to triumph.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Breaking Bad universe is the idea that caring about people is just a weakness to be exploited. If Jesse hadn't cared so much about his girlfriend's son Brock—a pair that represented a new family for a man who had been ousted by his own parents—Walt could never have turned him against Gus Fring, who represented the latest in a long string of adopted father figures for Jesse. One of Walt's subtler cruelties was taking Jesse's need to protect his newly adopted family—feelings that Walt, more than anyone else, should understand—and using it against him.

But even the series' most powerful characters have been brought down by their attachments to their loved ones. Let's not forget that family was Gus' motivation—and ultimate downfall—as well. The murder of Max, the other "hermano" from Los Pollos Hermanos, was the reason Gus went out of his way to torment Tio Salamanca (who got the last laugh when he set off Walt's wheelchair bomb). It's hard to imagine, despite what he says, that Walt's family occupies a large place in whatever heart he has left, which makes him Breaking Bad's least vulnerable character.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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