The Moral Universe of 'Breaking Bad'

On this show, actions have consequences.


Breaking Bad's first season started with a man in despair. Working two degrading, unsatisfying jobs to support a pregnant wife and teenage son, protagonist Walter White's life didn't seem like it could get much worse. And then—like the punchline to the world's blackest joke—he was diagnosed with cancer.

In the years since that first episode, Breaking Bad's remarkable four-season run has seen its main character undergo a transformation unrivalled by any series in television history. In interviews about the series, creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan has repeatedly stated that his goal for Breaking Bad is to "turn Mr. Chips into Scarface." In the elaborate scheme that brought down rival Gus Fring in last season's finale, Walter White crossed a line that even Scarface refused to cross: he harmed a child. If Scarface was the old model for just how bad Walter White could get, it's time to set the bar even lower.

Last night's season-five premiere, "Live Free or Die," explores the immediate aftermath of the explosive attack that defeated Gus Fring and left a kingpin-sized hole in the southwestern meth trade. The promotional posters for season five of Breaking Bad show Walter on a folding-chair throne, surrounded by money, under the slogan "all hail the king." But there's no clear line of succession in the illegal drug business, and Gus didn't leave much of a kingdom behind. In "Live Free or Die," Walter and his partners in crime are concerned with a more immediate part of Gus' legacy: a laptop that may contain footage of the men working in the meth lab.

At heart, Breaking Bad is a tragedy in the most classical sense, and "Live Free or Die" sees Walter White in the throes of his fatal flaw: hubris. Having dispatched his chief rival and—for the moment—cheated the cancer that life unjustly dealt him, Walter's sense of ego is so inflated that it borders on godlike (his "I forgive you" to Skyler, which closes the episode, has a particularly disturbing, unjustified piety). If Breaking Bad were a more cynical series, it might be content to let Walter revel in the glory of his revenge.

But Breaking Bad, more than any other drama currently on television, is set in a moral universe (a quality it shares with The Sopranos, the closest Breaking Bad has to an antecedent on television). There's always been a kind of fatalism to Breaking Bad, from the plane crash over the White household that Walter inadvertently caused by letting Jane die, to the drug deal that Walter chose, both literally and metaphorically, over the birth of his daughter. Breaking Bad operates by the rules of science; every action causes an equal and opposite reaction, and at this point in the series, Walter is a man of very extreme action.

In "Live Free or Die," the immorality of Walt, Jesse, and Mike's plan to destroy the laptop—which, in addition to destroying the evidence against them, will destroy dozens of other unrelated pieces of evidence—initially seems to go unpunished. But the fates that govern the Breaking Bad universe have an ironic punishment to deal out. The magnet that destroys the laptop also breaks a picture frame that belonged to Gus, revealing the numbers of a series of offshore bank accounts—a piece of evidence that could easily prove to be far more damning than anything the laptop might have contained.

It's not yet clear what the long-term consequences of the newfound evidence will be, but "Live Free or Die" also opens a tantalizing glimpse into Breaking Bad's eventual future. The episode opens, jarringly, with a flash-forward to a nearly unrecognizable Walt's 52nd birthday, where he orders a solitary breakfast at a Denny's before entering the bathroom, where he trades a wad of money for a set of car keys. After exiting the diner, he opens the trunk of his new car to reveal a machine gun.

There's an inherent suspense to any flash-forward, which drops us into unfamiliar territory and asks us to puzzle out what might be happening. (Among the many dropped clues within last night's flash-forward, it's worth noting that the camera lingered on Walt popping a pill in the bathroom—a possible sign that his cancer has returned). But in Breaking Bad's case, the flash-forward also serves a deeper, more important thematic purpose: It reminds us that the fate of Walter White—and, by extension, the rest of Breaking Bad —is already set in stone. Walter White is on a path that he can't escape; no matter what happens this season, and no matter how long it takes to get there, his fate will lead him to that parking lot, and to that machine gun. There's a reason that virtually every critic (including me) predicts that Breaking Bad will end with Walter not living free, but dying: It's what he's earned. And Breaking Bad lets no bad deed go unpunished for long.