Breaking Bad as inkblot test: Some post-mortem thoughts
The final episode of Breaking Bad aired this past Sunday night, and I haven’t been able to get it off my mind ever since. I think we were all (those of us who watched it, at least) witness at the creation of one of the great works of modern art, and I’m still processing the intricacies of it.
I’ve also been reading a lot of theories about it online, particularly at my favorite online hangout, the erudite community blog Metafilter, and I’m struck by the breadth of ideas and messages people have been able to glean from this show. And it occurs to me that Breaking Bad is nothing less than a Rorschach inkblot test, and like the Bible or the Constitution or any other creative work this multifaceted, you can approach it with virtually any narrative of your own and find that narrative within.
This should go without saying, but here I go saying it: Spoilers within.
For instance, let’s say you have a problem with modern capitalism, and you think big business is ruining the world. You can pretty easily spin Breaking Bad into a parable for your cause. Yes, on the surface, it’s the story of a bad man who did a lot of bad things to people. But it’s also the story of a man who ran a business that, in the process of maximizing its profitability and reach, indirectly hurt and killed people. Walter White was certainly the CEO of a business that led to those bad things … but is he any worse than the CEO of any apparel company that sourced its shirts and pants from that factory in Bangladesh, knowing the corners that were being cut? Of course, the answer is no.
Or let’s take a narrative that is a far cry from that one, that of an Ayn Rand disciple. Breaking Bad is a strong brew for you, my friendly neighborhood Objectivist: It’s nothing less than the story of an exceptional man whose creation was taken from him by the forces of mediocrity, a man forced to settle for a less-than-exceptional life … until the true Galt/Heisenberg within him rose to the surface and Built Something. His climactic visit to one iteration of that Something left him with a dying smile on his face, a laissez-faire life the only life worth living, family and commitments and respect for the lives of others be damned.
What’s your view of life and its purpose? If you had to summarize your beliefs about humanity in three or four sentences, what would they be? Write those three or four sentences down, and I’ll bet you can prove them true via the story of Walter White.
Now, I’m not saying this to suggest that any of these narratives are true. I’m saying this to suggest that the writers of Breaking Bad did more than make five kick-ass seasons of television. They created a work of modern mythology, and we are going to be thinking about it and studying it for a long, long time.
What’s that? You want to know my personal take on the ending and what it meant? Well, how nice of you to ask! I’ve been ruminating for days, and this is what I think it boiled down to:
Walt never really loved Skyler. Everything for him was about Grey Matter. Walt was a brilliant young scientist for whom things did not go the way he planned. He did not marry the woman he was truly in love with (Gretchen), he did not get to run the empire his brilliance created (Grey Matter), he instead ended up in a suburban house with a perfectly nice and cozy family and a dead-end job that he was far over-qualified for. And he would have been fine with that.
(At this point, the essayist holds the inkblot up to every 40- or 50-something man currently reading this.)
But then an opportunity came along, a chance to build a second empire using his brilliance. And he did it, and as he tells us before the very end, he was good at it. He did it for himself, and he was good at it. It is important to feel like you are good at something. And that’s why he used his last moments on Earth to visit one of his (stores, offices, rental properties, children, insert your own personal barometer of success here) laboratories, and there he laid down and died with an ever-so-slight smile on his face. He wasn’t good to the people who had been good to him for the past twenty or so years, and he certainly wasn’t good for the people that crossed his path, but he was honest with and proud of himself.
That’s what I think, anyway. It’s probably nothing like what the writers of the show had in mind. But that’s what made this show so very special. There is room within its narrative for whatever we want to bring to it.
An unrelated closing thought: I have not been able to get this song out of my head for days. Has there ever been a more perfect musical coda? Guess he got what he deserved …