In Breaking Bad, Walter White starts off as the most sympathetic of all possible meth cooks. A brilliant chemist, he is stuck teaching bored students at an Albuquerque high school. He does his best to support his pregnant wife and their partially disabled son, but earns so little that he must work night shifts at an area car wash just to make ends meet. Despite it all, he soldiers on dutifully until he is unexpectedly diagnosed with lung cancer. That trauma changes him. Suddenly he confronts the prospect of dying penniless. He doesn't want an impoverished widow or two kids without a college fund or even a small savings account. So he resolves to cook (and later sell) just enough meth to give his family a middle-class existence.
Of course, his plan from the start is to manufacture a dangerous narcotic. His profits will come from addicts whose lives are being ruined by his product. But we still begin in his corner. We see White as an unlucky man playing the hand he's dealt in a fallen world, where drug addicts will get high with or without his blue meth. Isn't it better, in a way, for him to manufacture Albuquerque's choice high? At least he isn't going to accidentally blow up his lab during a cook, or put out an impure product. Surely it's better for a dying, middle-class family man to be enriched than Tuko Salamanca, the cartel-backed sociopath who White and his product displace.
That's what we told ourselves.
* * *
America sometimes reminds me of Walter White.
Not in every way, of course. There isn't anything like a perfect parallel between the plot of Breaking Bad and the course that the U.S. has taken since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the unexpected trauma that made us look at our place in the world anew. I certainly don't think Breaking Bad's writers were attempting an allegory. But I submit that the show's arc (especially Walter White's character arc) imparts lessons about moral logic and its consequences that the U.S. ought to heed.
White starts off with everyone's sympathy. But as soon as the writers have us rooting for him to get rich (and get out) before he gets caught, they produce five seasons that amount to a slowly unfolding rebuke to everyone who felt any investment in his success.
The source of our moral discomfort?
White "has cooked crystal meth in bulk, hooking addicts from his native Albuquerque all the way to Prague," Ross Douthat explains. "He has personally killed at least seven people and is implicated in the deaths of hundreds more. He has poisoned an innocent child, taken out a contract on his longtime partner, and stood by and watched a young woman choke." Every season is more riveting than the last, in part because having bought into the logic that prompted White to start cooking, we are implicated in the predictable consequences, and they just keep getting more gruesome. Of course he wouldn't be satisfied with the initial, relatively modest sum of money that he sought. Of course he would become implicated in the violence of the black market. Of course lying to his wife and son would be corrosive, and of course exempting himself from core mores and norms would put him on a slippery slope, where the prospect of being caught or killed keeps helping him to rationalize "one last" horrific moral compromise, even when there are alternatives.
At some point, White crosses a line. Breaking Bad fans may not agree on the particular moment, but he eventually does something that causes a given viewer to think, "That's unforgivable."
But as abhorrent as we find his worst transgressions, as much as we tell ourselves that we could never condone them, we can't help but see how they flowed logically, if not quite inevitably, from the initial course of moral compromise he chose. It causes us to reflect on the earliest episodes and to reconsider our initial judgement. Is the lesson that it was always wrong to grant White any license to break bad? Or is there an alternative trajectory in which White could have cooked for a while without becoming a moral monster or doing much harm?
Either way, viewers can't escape the fact that White rationalizes even his worst atrocities with logic not unlike what viewers condoned when he first cooked. I'm not a bad person. I'm just trying to fulfill my responsibility to provide for my family. Bad circumstances forced me into these compromising positions—when I do bad things, it isn't the same as when other drug dealers do them. After all, I am not a criminal. Implicit all along is an unspoken rationalization. Walter White is a man who believes in his own exceptionalism. That's how he manages to think of himself as a good person, even as he orchestrates the death of an innocent man and poisons a child. As chilling as most viewers found that self-justifying quality, how many forgave him lesser sins early on in part because they saw him as an exceptional case?
* * *
Americans are, like Walter White, a self-justifying sort.
We see ourselves as exceptional. Often times we behave as if the rules that apply to the rest of the world, rules we want constraining them, don't and needn't really apply to us. We're not a regular nation, not like the Chinese or the Brazilians or even the French. Take it from The New York Times, our paper of record. Other nations forcing water into a prisoner's lungs is torture.
When we do it? Enhanced interrogation.
America doesn't torture. We're the good guys!
After 9/11 we wanted national-security officials to provide for our safety. Understandably so. They felt tremendous pressure to fulfill that responsibility. Couldn't they have done so without transgressing against basic laws, mores, and norms? Many in the Bush Administration didn't think so, but they didn't fully share that with us. They decided on what they thought was best for us, but thought telling us would be a bad idea: We might not go along with their plans for torture, indefinite detention, or warrantless spying. To be honest, many of us didn't really want to know the details of policy, or to follow the ideas of those making it to their logical conclusions.
What scary implications!
Over time, the consequences of the moral license that national-security officials granted themselves after 9/11 became impossible to ignore. Different Americans awakened to reality at different times. Some became apologists for the people in charge. A word or statute could always be twisted to launder their actions into what passed as legal, and it was easy enough to conflate "legal" with morally defensible.
Yet many others grew morally uncomfortable. Why?
Over 12 years, the United States has rounded up an unknown number of innocents and held them alongside terrorists at an island prison, without evidence, charges, or trial, keeping some for years even after deeming them no threat. The U.S. tortured an unknown number of prisoners in an official torture program, then destroyed evidence of it. Americans ran a prison at Abu Ghraib where many others were tortured and abused in the most disgusting ways imaginable. The Iraq War implicates us in the deaths of tens of thousands of innocents. Successive presidents set precedents such that American citizens can now be put on a secret kill list on one man's orders and killed without any due process. A 16-year-old American was killed in a drone strike with no explanation given to this day; scarcely no one in power demanded one. With the blessings of the White House, the New York Police Department has ethnically profiled and spied on innocent Muslim Americans who were deemed suspicious for no reason besides their religion.