Tragedy, Thy Name is Heisenberg: Why AMC’s ‘Breaking Bad’ is so Good (Spoilers)


AMC’s Breaking Bad is, without a doubt, groundbreaking television (apologies to anyone with Dish). Both in its writing and acting, it defines what modern storytelling should be. While an average of 8 million viewers may not sound like a huge audience, for a cable TV show that’s outstanding (consider that The Daily Show or even Hannity garnish 2-3 million views a night, respectively). So what is it about Breaking Bad that draws in so many viewers and makes it a favorite among critics?

The reality is that Breaking Bad is a classic tragedy; the protagonist begins with the best intentions and the best goals, but an internal flaw not only prevents him from achieving these goals, but in the end destroys him. While the series has yet to reach its conclusion, it’s hard to fathom an outcome where Walter White doesn’t die. At this point in the story it would almost be an injustice for him to live or to enjoy his riches. After seeing what all he has done (and what he will do; it is my belief that he ends up killing Jesse), it would be an act of injustice to let him enjoy any sense of success. But why do we enjoy this? Why do we, as humans, enjoy tragedy?

I think we enjoy tragic myths because they point back to the greater myth of the Garden. In the Garden of Eden mankind was given dominion over all of creation, perfect fellowship with God, and free reign to do as he chose. Yet, he chose to eat the forbidden fruit and brought death and suffering into the world by doing so. It wasn’t that the fruit was magical – he could have walked across a forbidden path or swam in a forbidden lake – it was that he rebelled against God and chose to become independent. His tragic flaw was his own pride. Pride seemingly plays a central role in almost all the famous tragedies and Breaking Bad is no exception; the reason pride plays such a prominent role in the genre of tragedy is that it is the source of our own tragedy.

Thus, we see that Walter White is offered a way out early in the first season, a way to have his family taken care of and to have his treatments paid for. Because of his pride, however, he chooses to reject the “charity” and instead cook meth. This becomes a common theme throughout the entire series; he’s given an out or a way to take care of his family, but he ultimately turns it down because of his pride. Just like the pride of the Macbeth eventually led to his demise, or the pride of Oedipus causes him to murder the king (and the king’s pride results in him being murdered) which leads to Oedipus’ eventual demise, so too the pride of Walter White will eventually lead to his downfall. We are captivated by this, enough that over eight million people turn into a cable network to see what will happen next (and this occurs without Dish carrying AMC). We are captivated by this because we too are prideful and allow our pride to prevent our success.

Think of any war and you’ll realize that pride lays at the root. One side or both sides of the conflict were simply too prideful to be content with what they had. Both Marxism and Capitalism stand as eventual tragedies when put into full effect because at their core they are based on pride. Within Marxism the pride is of the working-class to not be content, but to desire all men to be equal in all things. How dare anyone excel past us. Our pride prevents us from rejoicing when someone else gains, or at a bare minimum remaining apathetic to the success of another (so long as the gain didn’t harm others in the process). In Capitalism we’re told that “greed is good.” But what about the super-billionaires who compete with bigger and better yachts, yet give little to nothing for charity? It is their pride that drives the Capitalist economy and their spending, but it will eventually bring others to ruin.

All of the above happens on a grand scale, but it also happens on private scales. At the root of every marital indiscretion pride sits there. Whenever a child rebels against a parent, there is pride at the root. Any time something negative happens to us that is a result of a human action, pride is there. Thus, the genre of a tragedy resonates with us because we empathize with the tragic hero, mostly because he represents the human experience. We empathize with Walter White, but more than anything, we should learn from Walter White (or Hamlet, or any other tragic hero) that pride accomplishes nothing. True success is gained in humility.

While humility is almost a vice in today’s self-esteem-driven-world, the reality is that humility is the key to success in life; not financial success or business success or even success in sports, but success at being a decent human being. Though implicit, tragedies serve as moral reminders that pride only results in our downfall. Walter White took up cooking meth in order to provide for his family and to live long enough to see them. As it stands, he’s made more money than he knows what to do with, but he alienated his wife and children. He said it best this season, pointing out to Jesse that cooking meth and being the best at it is all he has left; he’s lost his family. Thus, his pride has prevented him from truly uniting with his family. Had he been humble then he could be alive and be with his family and also not have to worry about a DEA investigation down the road (though he’s not aware of his brother-in-law’s most recent discovery). From this we should learn not to let our pride get in our way, but instead to simply be humble in our approach to life.

Being humble isn’t the easy way in life, but it certainly produces a much happier life. “Pride cometh before the fall” isn’t so much a pithy proverb as it is an absolute fact. Even the dead cannot escape the consequences of their pride as their legacies will eventually come to ruin and tarnish (even Steve Job’s legacy will crumble, hopefully when people have the moral fortitude to condemn him for using Chinese slave labor in producing his products). Even though Napoleon Bonaparte brought religious and even political freedom to the areas he conquered, his pride not only forced him to lose at Waterloo, but has also tarnished his reputation. Alternatively, an old lady who lived in Calcutta is viewed as a saint even by non-Catholics because of her humility. Ultimately, humility is a stronger force than pride; the humility of Ghandi to not take up arms against the British occupiers spoke far more than any bullet could or any attempt to become the general of a revolutionary army. The humility of the cross spoke far more than the pride of the fruit.

In the end, Breaking Bad follows the tradition of other great tragedies in teaching us that pride is our ultimate downfall. We know this, yet we continue on in our pride. But just like criminals like to watch Cops we too like to watch tragedies; sometimes it’s nice to see someone else suffering for their mistakes rather than being the one who suffers. And for that reason, we love Breaking Bad.

 

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One thought on “Tragedy, Thy Name is Heisenberg: Why AMC’s ‘Breaking Bad’ is so Good (Spoilers)

  1. I haven’t seen Breaking Bad, but appreciate all that you write about humility and pride underlying all world systems. Thank you.

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