The King Must Die; Long Live the King: A Follow-Up on my "Breaking Bad" Theory


In January of this year, having watched seasons 1 through 4 of Breaking Bad  in a mad fit of new-fatherhood Netflix, I posited a theory about the structure of the show and the nature of its main character's ... er ... character. It was a theory that could not be absolutely proved until the series ended, and I was taking something of a gamble by announcing this theory before I was all caught up on extant episodes. Watching the first half of season 5, however, gave me no indication of my right-itude or wrong-ination. It would only be the finale of the series with which I could conclude with any certainty whether or not Walter White was a tragic hero in the classical mode.

The finale premiered on Sunday last. 

Here are the criteria I offered in my original post for proving my theory true:

  • There will be an antagonist in season 5.
  • Walt will die - preferably as a direct result of his hubris.
  • There is a God. Or at least a sense of divine order.
  • You'll tell me.

Yup. Yes (we can debate preference and directness). Yeah, damn it. And I trust you will, either way.

But here's the thing: I feel there was a serious cop-out here. Or, to be slightly more generous: An eleventh-hour diversion.

Without recounting my whole original case:
Walter White is a classic tragic hero, by which I mean he is a protagonist brought down by fate (or inevitable forces) directly related to his character. Walter's greatest character flaw is arguably hubris, which is a classic amongst the classics. The last bit of my theory is that the writers were aware  of the direct connection to classical tragedy, and utilized it with intention. I don't know if I can ever prove that one. But in a series that's shown so much specific intention throughout, it's difficult to conceive of a writing staff unaware of this profound connection.

Season 5 gave us myriad antagonists to Mr. White. In many ways, it was just a question of which would face the final confrontation with him - Hank, Jessie, cancer, neo-Nazis ... you name it. And, in that graceful spiral up and away at the end of the finale, we are witness in no uncertain terms to Walt's death. We are, perhaps, even watching him from the perspective of his soul ascending from his body. And even if that cinematic suggestion is a load of horse-hockey, the entire episode opens with the classic contemporary acknowledgement of divine order. Trapped in a snowed-in car (iridescent white walls, in a way) Walter White makes a verbal plea for something - God? Heisenberg? Chance? - to get him home. He'll do the rest.

(I think it was to God. And I think the writers did that so very much on purpose.) 

(Also: I just finally watched Room 237, and so at this moment am poignantly aware of how absolutely convinced one can be of one's own bat-poop crazy ascribed meaning. I trust, however, that similar to The Shining , Breaking Bad  inspires this kind of personal engagement because it is so specific, carefully wrought, and yet open to individual experience by way of not spelling every little thing out.)

(AND - as a particularly pertinent example of ascribed meaning - the finale featured a focal moment for Walt's watch. He abandons it on a payphone on his way back to Albuquerque, and it's held in focus as one of those significant objects the series so loves, reminding us of when Jessie gave it to him in better times, suggesting perhaps that Walt is ... what? Going to kill Jessie? Sacrificing his material gains? No longer on the clock? In fact, the writers realized he wasn't wearing the watch when they filmed the "flash-forwards" for the mid-season cold-open. Pragmatism. That's all they have to offer, in this case.)

And so, by my own criteria, I should feel very vindicated. And in fact, I enjoyed the hell out of the episode, and felt it upheld and fulfilled the entire series' conceit and quality. It's just that it mitigated its heretofore bold tragic nosedive, pulling up just at the last second. Sure, Walter died. But he also won.

It's a little bit like I was watching a sixty-two-hour production of Macbeth that, in its final couple of hours, rapidly transformed the Scottish King into the Danish Prince. "I did it for me," Walter confesses. "I liked it. I was good at it. And [...] I was alive." To thine own self be true, Heisenberg.

To put it another way, there was a slight taste of cake in my mouth even as I felt its sugary softness in my palm. Walter got to meet all his goals and find a bit of (admittedly bitter) redemption, and largely as a result of the insertion of the most two-dimensional and easy-to-loathe antagonists in the series since the twin Mexican assassins. Todd is, of course, unarguably a brilliant villain. It's just - Nazis? Even when they were initially introduced, I thought, "Oh, the only people in the world that it's acceptable to straight-up murder, you mean?"

Add to that Walt's sacrifice for Jesse, and ... well. In many ways, we were given something we wanted. Our hero remained a hero of sorts, the show's core relationship was honored, and we had a little McGuyvery bad-assery that never did nobody no harm (excepting Nazis). Walt died as a result of his hubristic (is SO a word) response to the Charlie Rose interview ... BUT, more directly because he saved Jesse. Walt lost the family he used as an excuse to pursue his criminal enterprise ... BUT he reconciled with his wife and got to say goodbye to the baby. Walt lost all his hard-earned cash ... BUT still managed to get $10 million (minus a bit for necessary criminal expenses) to his family. In many respects, if the show had fully committed to its Macbeth-ian overtones, it should've ended with Walt dying alone in the woods of New Hampshire.

But it's a tricky balancing act, and I felt very gratified as an audience. Gratification is not a goal of classical tragedy. Catharsis, yes, but of a different stripe. But I suppose this isn't tragedy. It's TV. And Breaking Bad  has never been a ruthless show. Oh yes, it's cruel, dark, and depicts a man so heinous and evil by the end that our sympathies are only retained by a filament of a suggestion of dual persona. But compassion and remorse were always there, too. That's part of what made Mr. White's fall into darkness so painful; so deliciously difficult that we were always left wanting more.

This is the first day of the rest of your life, but what kind of life will it be, huh?

Tragic heroes are emblematic of humanity - our determination, our weakness, our short-sightedness and our sense of higher purpose. Breaking Bad  delivered an enduring essay on what it means to be human, self-aware, face death, and fight on. If Heisenberg took a turn to Hamlet at the last, I can live with that.