most stories are driven by a series of hard choices.
We cancer victims get a lot of credit for being heroic, but this isn’t really true, because heroes are defined by heroic choices, and we don’t really get to make any choices whatsoever. The medical gears that grind us up were set in motion long ago, and they’ll keep spinning long after we come out the other side, whether alive or dead.
Pretty much the only decision we’re allowed to make is whether or not we want to ignore our doctors entirely, and that’s kind of a no-brainer...unless you’re Walter White.
On most shows, even if they’re about unlovable leads, the lead’s bad behavior seems to be necessitated by the impossible decisions they have to make. Jack Bauer and Dr. House are sociopathic in pursuit of their goals, but they get results, dammit! Their unsympathetic behavior allows them the clarity they need to get the job done.
But this is not true at all of Walter White. Yes, he’s desperate for money and treated unfairly by the system, but the decisions he makes are unquestionably wrong. This show is about a man who comes to the breaking point and chooses to break bad, even though it was still possible to break good.
Walt could have just meekly submitted to the process and made the most of his final years with his family, and everybody would have been much happier with the result. Yes, they would have less money, but as Walt soon discovers (and as we can already guess in the pilot) nobody wants drug money anyway. It’s just a really stupid decision.
The wrongness of Walt’s decision becomes even more pointed in the fourth episode when we find out that Walt does have a lawful option for paying his medical debts: his wealthy former business partner is willing to pay for his treatment, but Walt is simply too proud and resentful to accept. Gilligan is keen to drive home that Walt isn’t making the best of this bad situation, he’s making the worst of it.
This was a shocking and brave storytelling choice. This show isn’t going to get you rooting for the bad guy. You’ll be empathetic towards his situation, but you’ll never really empathize with his decisions, because Walt’s decisions aren’t really tough, he just chooses to make them tough. Yes, he’s in a bad vs. bad situation, but he’s clearly choosing the greater of two evils.
So why does this work? Why aren’t we exasperated by Walt’s willful destruction of his life, even in the face of better options...especially after episode four? Well, we are, but we keep watching anyway. Why?
I think part of the answer is the fact that the show never settles down to a rhythm. Unlike “24” or “House”, “Breaking Bad” never wrapped one story and moved on to the next, so we never had to stop and tabulate the moral calculus in hopes of balancing the books. Just about every decision made things worse, so the entire show became one long downward spiral without any satisfying wrap-ups along the way. Everything was a cliffhanger for five brutal seasons.
This was a trade-off, because it meant that the show couldn’t go for eight seasons, as those others did. In the end, Gilligan stretched Walt’s story out as far as he possibly could, but Walt could only circle the drain for so long until he finally went down.
Was the trade-off worth it? Absolutely.
In pilot-writing class in film school, I worked on a pilot about a crooked prosecutor who specialized in convicting the innocent. My fellow students were horrified. Who would watch such a show? Well, I said, people watch “The Shield” so they’ll watch shows about evil law enforcers, right? I got blank stares. Then every single one of them said that, as opposed to my anti-hero, what Vic did was ultimately worth it. Now it was my turn to be baffled. Had they forgotten the end of the pilot, in which Vic killed a good cop who was about to catch him dealing drugs? How could that be worth it?? Eh, they shrugged, maybe Vic’s actions weren’t ultimately worth it, but in most episodes, his actions felt right, and that’s what kept them watching.
This is the moral hazard that Gilligan avoided with “Breaking Bad”, Walt’s actions never felt right, and yet we kept watching anyway. This was a genuine descent into evil. Walt had lots of motivation, but no justification, and that was where this show excelled above all the other anti-hero shows, dramatically and ethically. Gilligan crafted a totally-compelling anti-hero without ever letting us cheer for his bad behavior (or not for long, anyway).
This was a very worthwhile goal and the ultimate writing challenge. Next week, we’ll look at more tricks he used to make it work...