Which Great Literary Work Explains Breaking Bad Best?

By Rich Bellis

All along, Breaking Bad has been likened to literary classics from antiquity onward. Depending on your view of the show, those comparisons prove either how justified or how preposterous the acclaim around Vince Gilligan's five-season exploration of morality really is.

Now that the show has wrapped up, which parallel to fictional-masterpiece history holds up best? Here's an accounting of the more popular ones, the less popular ones, even a few nobody's mentioned yet.

Shakespeare: The Bard wasn't discussed much at first, but as Walt's doings went from merely bad to downright evil, Shakespeare began to come up more regularly. Macbeth got mentioned most in recent weeks as Skyler took a turn as the play’s steely villainess in "Rabid Dog," urging Walt to kill Jesse to preserve what was left of their mutual safety. Like the prophecy that opens Macbeth, Walt’s cancer diagnosis sets him on the road to an escalating sequence of paranoid power-grabs, leading to the deaths of those closest to him followed by his own. Breaking Bad channeled the Macbeth vibes most explicitly in the penultimate episode with Walter's muttering at the gate of his bunker, just one "tomorrow" short of the Scot’s famous soliloquy.

Most Shakespearean tragedies resolve with the tragic hero stripped of destructive agency—in a word, dead—so that other, lesser figures can emerge to clean things up. "Felina," the series finale, does close with Walter White killed, but it also lets him handle much of the clean-up duty before he goes: securing a way for his money to reach his family; legal bargaining power for Skyler; bloody, bloody revenge; and death on his own terms.

By contrast, Shakespeare's tragic heroes seldom get what they want. Macbeth sure doesn't. Neither do King Lear or Richard III (even though, in Walter's taunting Gretchen and Elliott as "beautiful people," there was a hint of the ugly tyrant's manipulative disdain). Even more seldom do they redress their own wrongs, and when they try to, it doesn't usually leave their survivors much better off. In that sense, Walt is more akin to Othello or Hamlet than Macbeth. At its close, the scope of collateral damage in Breaking Bad reaches King Lear levels and is as devoid of hope, but Walt goes out with too much power and ego intact for the show to register properly Shakespearean returns.

Greek mythology: The vacuum-repair specialist who shuttles Walt into hiding seems even more Charon-like in retrospect, with Walter’s returning to Albuquerque like a ghost from the grave. Or like Orpheus from Hades, or Sisyphus back up (or down, depending on your perspective) that infernal hill. Then there’s Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, which hangs a curse over its protagonist from the very start, influencing his decisions and their consequences in ways he can't foresee.

Vince Gilligan has spoken about the show's moral machinery in terms of action and outcome. Time and again, Walter's intentions serve as weak justifications for his crimes, rather than as their ethical motives. That delusion of righteousness was both a source of fascination and the hallmark of his malevolence. In "Hermanos," Walt snaps at a young cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy with him, "Never give up control. Live life on your own terms ... Every life has a death sentence.” If Breaking Bad shares anything with Sophocles's play, it's the illusion of control. "I was alive," Walt finally tells Skyler, when he isn't any longer. Only in death or abjection is there room for free will.

Paradise Lost: You can't really talk about free will without bringing in Milton. "Walt’s dilemma is the same as Satan’s: how to assert a modicum of control ... against forces larger than oneself," as an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books put it. Like Satan, Walt also suffers because of this paradox, sometimes sympathetically. But Paradise Lost distinguishes crucially between mankind's shot at grace and Satan's irredeemability. As one writer pointed out, Breaking Bad is "a world of law devoid of grace" on all sides. By the series closer, Walt finally appears to look squarely at his own role in the evil around him, but he's not able to fully repent of it. Neither will audience sympathy, such that it is, save his soul or repair the fortunes of his many victims. As the cops charge into the meth lab where his body lays (that cavernous space a Pandaemonium in miniature), there's no paradise to be regained anywhere in sight.

Frankenstein: Heisenberg is Walter White's monstrous creation. The dual-persona trope has also elicited comparisons to Jekyll and Hyde and Batman, where two personalities jostle against each other with volatile consequences. Mary Shelley's creation seems the most fitting, though. Frankenstein's monster meets only with violence and isolation in his efforts to secure relationships with those he cares for—which leads him, in turn, to violence and isolation. Unable to live in the world, he finally removes himself from it, fleeing into the Arctic wastes. Had Walt stayed put in snowy New Hampshire, Frankenstein would probably ring truer. It's ultimately much easier to sympathize with the hideous giant striding away from his master. And Walter, of course, made sure at the end of Season Four never to deal with a master ever again.

The Shining: Jack Torrance is another former teacher who turns naughty, terrorizes his family, and memorably knocks. As in Breaking Bad, it's clear things are going to go wrong well before they actually do—even if the literal writing on the wall only comes later. But Stephen King's (and Stanley Kubrick's) family psychodrama is too paranormal and too self-contained to measure up to the complex happenings of Breaking Bad, to say nothing of its body count.

Curious George: A clever brown-haired creature strikes out from his accustomed habitat, puts on a funny hat, and disturbs the peace. If you like this analogy, you're probably more likely to see Breaking Bad as Hank's story, or at least as a tale of hot pursuit. After miscellaneous pratfalls, the Man in the Yellow Hat catches up with Curious George and puts him in the zoo. Had the series ended with Walter in Hank's custody, it'd be a nice fit. But nothing nearly that tidy or bloodless was ultimately in store.

Moby-Dick: Another story about chasing something mischievous. Walt’s single-minded mastery of the "empire business" recalls Captain Ahab's "monomania" (the novel's buzzword) no less than Hank's obsessive hunt of Heisenberg. Blue meth is as potent a cypher as the white whale: a thing of awful mystique where both infirm antiheros focus the anger, bloodlust, and delusions that drive them. Like King Lear, Moby-Dick is one of the few works to offer up a cast of victims commensurate to Breaking Bad's: poor, crazed Jesse as the maddened ship boy Pip; a rotating crew of Starbuck-like figures, their cries of conscience all in vain; and the compassionless tide (the DEA, the Schwartzes on Charlie Rose) of the universe closing over a doomed man's head.

Dickens: Recapping the series finale for New York magazine, Matt Zoller Seitz drew some clever, unlikely comparisons with A Christmas Carol, pointing to its sense of "closure galore, but minus any real sense of hope." That sounds right, but it leaves out one of Dickens's main preoccupations the same way most of the above-mentioned stories do: money. Take Great Expectations, for instance—a coming-of-age narrative bankrolled by a secret criminal benefactor. Of course, to see Breaking Bad this way, you'd have to imagine the whole series as belonging mainly to Walt, Jr., and that's just ridiculous. But both Dickens’s and Gilligan's works fixate on money—how the very idea of it shapes behavior and sets the parameters for virtually all moral action in the world.

Joseph Conrad plunged that same idea about money deep into the dark. In Heart of Darkness and Conrad's lesser-known, swashbuckling novel Nostromo, Conrad charts the ways capital lures people beyond the bounds of law and morality. The latter features a mad scramble among competing parties—the refined magnate Charles Gould, a band of brigands led by a renegade general (easy stand-ins for the cartel, Gus Fring's operation, or Uncle Jack's Nazis), and an initially upstanding local citizen nicknamed "Nostromo" ("our man")—for a hoard of silver in a fictional South American colonial city.

The desert borderlands of New Mexico are similarly lawless frontier. As in the Congo outposts of Heart of Darkness, paranoia and violence are states of mind that corrupt the soul. When the tyrannical Kurtz, on the brink of death, mutters "the horror, the horror," he reveals a glimmer of insight into his own evil that remains a far cry from contrition. The younger Marlowe escapes to tell about it, but like Jesse, he's shaken and damaged. In the longer novel, Nostromo himself is eventually corrupted by greed after routing his enemies. He steals Gould’s silver for himself and is accidentally shot and killed. Like Breaking Bad at the final tally, everyone pays but nobody wins.

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