Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Soul check: The moral decline of Breaking Bad characters, graded

Posted By on Tue, Aug 14, 2012 at 12:40 PM

The great TV drama is almost always thematic. The Wire, about the inevitably corrupting nature of system. Deadwood about the construction of genuine community from the most unsavory of elements.

And Breaking Bad about the loss of the soul. That’s always been the plan – to turn Walter White’s meek teacher into a murderous kingpin. TV has the power of gradual development, over hundreds of episodes, and Breaking Bad was always going to be about that.

Chemistry, season one Walter White tells us, is the study of change. This show hasn’t just shown Walter changing: now, the soul of every main character is at risk.

We’ve given each character a moral checkup, identifying not just their ability to do the right thing, but their ability to continue to feel right from wrong.

Hank Schrader:

Hank may be the only character on Breaking Bad to become more moral as the show’s ebbed on. At the beginning he’s loud, brash, and a little bit offensive. But then tragedy hits. He suffers from PTSD, he struggles at work. He makes the right choice and resigns after beating a suspect.

Then he gets shot, and barely survives. Yes, he’s awful to his wife during therapy – who wouldn’t be. But gradually, Schrader has pulled back his machismo and his rash decisions. He’s become more cautious, more sensitive.

If he survives Breaking Bad, he will surely pay a price professionally for being unaware that his brother-in-law ran a meth empire. But ultimately Hank’s grown so much that he’ll survive – able to give up that professional pride.

Breaking Bad's arcs of Walter White and his brother-in-law Hank run in opposite directions. As Walter is morphing into a monster due to his pride, Hank’s become the good guy through the power of his humility.

Soul remaining: 9/10.  

Skyler White:

There is a distance, I suppose, between evil and the bookkeeper of evil. It’s often choosing intentional ignorance, choosing to look the other way, choosing to draw the line in the sand at relatively-arbitrary places. Yes, Skyler became a willing accomplice of Walt’s drug trade last season. She even, at times, relished her skill at it. But this season, she shows the revulsion over the actions of her husband. Better than that, she experiences the revulsion of the consequences of her own actions. She’s horrified to see the consequences her actions have left her former boss paralyzed. She’s terrified of the man her husband has become.

And, in a sense, she is willing to sacrifice herself to the whims of a man she despises, to protect her children. She may do horrible things as the season progresses. But she, unlike Walt, is truly doing it for her family. If she dies this season – and the foreshadowing is overwhelming – she’ll likely do so a hero, not as the wet-blanket shrew that Internet commenters had her pegged as.

Soul remaining: 6/10

Jesse Pinkman:

Guilt forgives a lot. Or rather, guilt speaks to an inherent aspect of your humanity. It reminds you that your crimes are crimes, your sins and are sins.

And Jesse is full of it. He’s still a complicit meth cook, he’s still a criminal, he’s still responsible for horrible things happening. But he still – and the importance of this cannot be overstated – feels bad about it. Watch his face screw up as he cries over the fact that he almost “mistakenly” shot his partner. Watch him scream out, horrified, as a child is shot in front of him.

That’s not the scream of someone who’s thinking “this will get us in trouble.” It’s someone who still doesn’t want to see an innocent hurt. The moral differences between Walter White and Jesse Pinkman may not be vast, but this aspect is: Jesse is still capable of being redeemed.

Soul remaining: 4/10

Mike Ehrmantraut:

Mike’s an interesting case. Among Breaking Bad characters, he’s well liked. After all, he’s pragmatic, intelligent, and, perhaps most crucially, a badass without being a jerk.

He is not, however, a good person. Being a hired hit man is almost always worse. It’s dispassionate, it’s removed, it’s soulless. Mike’s given Walt lectures on no longer using “half measures,” in other words, not leaving loose ends untied. He’s said that there are two types of heists: “Ones where they get away with it, and ones where they leave witnesses.”

He’s a murderer. But yet, with his genuine (albeit extremely inconsistent) concern for Jesse’s well-being (after trying to kill him in season 3) and his momentary decision to let a mother with a child live, he’s not completely lost.

Of course, then he nearly killed the woman anyway after making an incorrect assumption. If Mike’s killed this season, in other words, it won’t be a murder as much as poetic justice.

Soul remaining: 2/10

Walt, Jr.:

Sure, the kid has his flirtation with the immaturity and pettiness of youth. But he still gets up in arms when his dad doesn’t get his just allocation and orientation of birthday bacon. You can’t get much more innocent than that.

Soul remaining: 10/10

Walter White:

Breaking Bad has always been the story of the moral degradation of its central character. It’s a tale of everyday pride and pettiness twisting into the worst sort of evil.

But witness the moral struggle he undergoes, when – in the first season – he chokes a drug dealer to death with a bike lock, for immediate self preservation. And witness the paralyzed hesitation he as he decides not to save Jane as she chokes to death on her own vomit. There, it’s less a decision to be made to protect his life, and more a decision to allow an inconvenience, an unpredictable variable, to be removed. In the next season, he distances himself, plays the part of the objective observer to trivialize the consequences of his misdeeds.

Yes, he takes risks to save Jesse and to save his brother-in-law. But in that moment as he lays in the crawlspace, feeling his life his doomed, letting out an insane, otherworldly laugh, he breaks. His soul is dead.  He’s able to poison a child (lightly, he would tell you) to bring about a shift in alliance. He’s able to blow up a room in a nursing home to kill his rival.

This season brings the final transition: There’s no hesitation, no moral struggle, no need for roundabout justification. His conscience is charred all the way through, devoid of feeling. He walks and talks like a man freed from the weight of a moral burden.

He just knocks, and then kicks open the door, ready to do absolutely anything he desires. 

Soul remaining: 0/10

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Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters was a staff reporter for the Inlander from 2009 to 2023. He reported on a wide swath of topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.His work investigated deep flaws in the Washington...