How Shakespeare Would End Breaking Bad

The Bard would close things happily for Albuquerque, which means horribly for Walt & co.

Three episodes remain of Breaking Bad, the riveting series on AMC that tracks the descent of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin. The show has accurately been compared to a Shakespearean tragedy, and it's clear that the Bard's works have influenced Vince Gilligan, the show's creator. Perhaps, then, one might turn to the works of Shakespeare to try and divine how Breaking Bad might end—or at least, how Shakespeare would end it.

(If you're not caught up on the show, this is a good place to stop reading.) 

Let us first establish that the tragic hero in Breaking Bad is Albuquerque, New Mexico. Because of Walt's actions, the city has attracted ax-wielding twin psychopaths, sustained an airliner collision, suffered a dead and "disincorporated" child, and has been littered with innumerable ancillary bodies from the merciless drug trade. This is to say nothing of Walt's pure and highly addictive blue crystal methamphetamine and the ruined lives of countless addicts and their families. Albuquerque is a city under siege.

Shakespeare crafted similar such cities and states. The tragic hero in Hamlet is Denmark. By the play's end, however, where previously there was "something rotten," Denmark is now restored. The extent to which the board is reset becomes apparent when you consider the body count and who remains. Among the dead: Claudius, the most rotten of them all; Gertrude, who has something of dubious virtue; Laertes, whose moment of weakness dooms him; Polonius, whose nosiness is his undoing; and, of course, Hamlet, whose inaction led to the events in the first place. (Caught in the crossfire is poor Ophelia.) But when these characters are gone and the able Fortinbras steps in, Denmark's "unweeded garden" is saved.

In Romeo and Juliet, Verona is not a place in which you would want to raise your family. The Capulets and Montagues have left the city in total dysfunction. Indeed, the tragic hero in the play is the city. Consider that the final curtain doesn't fall with the death of Juliet, which would seem like the obvious stopping point. Instead, the focus of the play then shifts to Verona itself. Through the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, the city is healed. The title characters were simply instruments of some higher purpose.

Romeo and Juliet is especially comparable to Breaking Bad in that both works could have ended at almost any time and still have had reasonably happy endings. How many times could Walt have retired from the meth business? The day his daughter was born would have been the most obvious start for a new, clean, well-funded life. But his pride forced him back into the lab. Later, he could have let Gus Fring's death set him free. Obviously, he didn't.

Shakespeare wrote, "There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow," and if that is the case, what does it say about human beings, the paragon of animals? In Shakespeare's works, each of us has a certain destiny. We can try to thwart it or challenge it, but ultimately we must align ourselves with it. The consequences of doing otherwise depend on the world in question. If the world is benign, you get slapped around a bit and fall in line. If the world has a malignity or malice toward you, you're going to get slapped around and die. What can you do about it? Nothing. In either case, once Shakespeare's characters discover who they really are, the world harmonizes; it falls into place.

All of this is part of the "great chain of being," an idea from the Middle Ages that found new life during the Renaissance and remained resonant through Shakespere's time. According to the concept, everything has a place in the universe. From the top down, you move from God to angels to cherubs and to human world. In the corporeal realm, kings are anointed as the highest creature, followed by aristocrats, the clergy, landed gentry, and the peasant cast. Women rank lower than men; rocks are lower than plants. And so on. Regardless of whether you are a peasant or an aristocrat or a king, where you are born is where you stay. Problems occur when someone tries to step outside of, or reject, the order in the universe. The great chain of being will demand a correction.

Walt threw the universe out of joint the moment he stripped to his underwear and cooked a batch of meth with Jesse. When he rejected his place in society (that of a humble schoolteacher) he destabilized the world around him. He became the dark star around which those who orbited were depleted of innocence. Skyler grew to accept Walt's business and embrace his money. Later, she encouraged him to kill Jesse, who Walt considers to be "family." Hank, who was an early and unexpected moral compass, gladly put Jesse out as bait, knowing that Walt might murder him (i.e. Jesse). Gomez stood by Hank's side during that plan. For his part, Jesse, while angst-ridden and drug addled, still shot an unarmed (and harmless) man in the head, on top of a list of crimes to make Macbeth wince. (Just because you feel guilty while bearing witness to the chemical disintegration of a child doesn't absolve you of guilt.) Alas, Albuquerque. 

Presented by

David W. Brown is the coauthor of The Command: Deep Inside the President's Secret Army and Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry. Generally published under the pseudonym D.B. Grady, Brown is a graduate of Louisiana State University, a former U.S. Army paratrooper, and a veteran of Afghanistan. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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