“I deserve this.”
That’s what Breaking Bad’s drug-cooking anti-hero, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), said in season two when he got stranded in the desert with his meth-addict partner, Jesse (Aaron Paul). It could double as a mantra for Vince Gilligan’s crime drama, which airs its final run of episodes starting August 11. In a cable landscape long defined by gray-area dramas like The Sopranos, Deadwood, Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy, and Boardwalk Empire, this AMC series is deeply moral, even moralistic—as clear in its vision of what constitutes right and wrong as a forties gangster picture made to Hays Code specifications.
The mid-season premiere builds on the flash-forward we saw at the beginning of season five, and deepens its feeling of dread. Walter is alone, wary, and unkempt, hounded by unseen forces. He has clearly gotten, or is about to get, whatever’s coming to him. He’s killed people on purpose and inadvertently, including hundreds in a plane collision over Albuquerque. On this series, people reap what they sow with an inevitability that turns concepts of biblical justice into corollaries of Newtonian physics. What goes up must come down. Matter can never be created or destroyed. Send enough bad vibrations into the world and some of them will boomerang and knock you flat. Gus Fring, Mike Ehrmantraut, Tuco, Hector Salamanca, and the show’s other criminals were charismatic, but they were ultimately bad men. Walter is bad, too, and he’ll meet a bad end.
But that’s not necessarily the same as predicting that Walter will go out in a hail of bullets like Scarface, the gangster whose adventures he watched with his son, Walt Jr. (R. J. Mitte), in season five while his much-trod-upon wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), looked on in mute horror. Only the cast and crew and AMC know how it’ll end, but if the preceding seasons are any indication, it won’t be with tearful apologies and Walter’s DEA-agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) telling him, “Forget about it, buddy, we know you were under a lot of pressure.” Nor will it end in David Chase–style ambiguity that invites viewers to fill an ellipsis with their own moral urgency. This is Breaking Bad, a show on which, to invert Clint Eastwood’s famous Unforgiven line, deserve’s got everything to do with it. One way or another, Walter will be made to feel sorry for what he’s done. His story is a tragedy, and tragedies end with the hero destroyed by his greatest flaw: Walter’s is pride.
When Walter said “I deserve this,” he was out in the desert to cook enough meth to leave behind a fortune for his family, but at that moment he wasn’t rationalizing his new career. More likely he was thinking about how he’d killed a man in his mobile lab and another in Jesse’s basement, then gotten himself and Jesse held hostage by the maniacal drug dealer Tuco, whom Jesse shot—the first time the sweet-souled faux thug Jesse pulled a trigger on anyone. Or maybe he was thinking about the lies he’d told to his family, the people who stood by him when he was most helpless. Things got worse for Jesse in season two: He fell in love with a recovering addict named Jane, then drew her back into heroin use and woke up to find her dead of an overdose. By the end of that season, Jesse echoed Walter’s desert confession: “I deserve whatever happens.” Even more so now: After executing a man in cold blood at the end of season three, Jesse is officially a murderer.
Truth be told, Walter likely deserves more punishment than whatever he’ll get, be it the loss of his wife and kids or the searing physical agony of, say, being lowered into a vat of flesh-dissolving acid inch by inch over the course of a day. (That last image isn’t a spoiler, by the way, just a description of a dream I had a few weeks ago.) While rewatching the entire show again recently, I was struck by not just its definitive attitude toward acceptable and unacceptable behavior but the way that it frames its moral tale as a crime thriller with elements of science-fiction parable. It’s a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story about a repressed suburbanite releasing his inner psychopath—and considering how often Walter answers insults against his masculinity with violence, the show seems as much a commentary on the emasculated-nice-guy–rampaging-alpha-male dichotomy as Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella. But the show also contains echoes of the superhero—or, in Walter’s case, supervillain—story, with a devastating trauma (in this case, cancer) unleashing the beast within and turning him into a diabolical, all-knowing conniver. If he hadn’t christened himself Heisenberg, he could have been Brainiac.
The show is also a modern Frankenstein tale, with the meek but secretly prideful cancer sufferer raging against the dying of the light by creating the black-clad beast Heisenberg. According to Gilligan, the show’s main city, Albuquerque, was chosen for its tax rebates, but the setting beefs up the sci-fi vibe. New Mexico is the state that birthed the atom bomb and, with it, countless tales of monsters created by the fallout. Early in the show, Walter and Jesse took meetings at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque, talking drug deals while recorded announcements droned about the state’s history of nuclear testing. In season five, by which Walter’s schemes had escalated to the point where he was destroying evidence in a police locker with a gigantic super-magnet, the show seemed more like a sci-fi comic book than ever before. A few episodes after that, it took a sharp right turn into James Bond country, with Walter and crew boosting methylamine from a freight train. We buy Walter’s intellectual super-competence because it’s undercut by emotional immaturity and pathetic outbursts, and because Gilligan and his cinematographer Michael Slovis treat the American Southwest as not just a place but a mind-space, a stage for metaphorical as well as physical action. The time-lapse shots of scudding clouds, rising suns, and zipping cars echo Godfrey Reggio’s experimental feature Koyaanisqatsi, whose title translates as “life out of balance.”
In theory, it’s only Walter’s life that’s out of balance, thanks to his cancer diagnosis and his dangerous response to it. But the longer the story continues, and the more evil he puts out into the universe, the more he unbalances the lives of others. It seems no accident that Heisenberg evolved from a local villain to a regional one near the end of season two, which followed up Walter’s then-successful cancer surgery with the midair collision caused by Jane’s grieving air-traffic-controller father. If we see Walter’s cancer as a real illness but also as a metaphor, this seems in retrospect like the moment when the cancer left Walter’s body and was projected outward, hurting and killing other people. He could rationalize poisoning a child and bombing a nursing home and even letting Jane die as necessary steps to protect his own family, but there’s been collateral damage, too: the shooting of that helpless boy after the train robbery, the psychological and then physical wounds sustained by Hank as he investigated Heisenberg; the betrayal of Skyler, whom he deceived for two seasons, then drew into an ever-deepening criminal conspiracy and then kept as a virtual hostage in her own home; the unspeakable emotional torture inflicted on Jesse, who has remained more or less loyal to a father figure who has destroyed the few bits of happiness in his life.
Such awfulness begs for punishment, and Breaking Bad has never carried itself as a show that would deny the audience such a thing. It’s a show that believes in the need for order and takes only momentary pleasure in chaos because it’s too aware of the aftermath to glamorize it. The mid-season premiere is filled with overt religious signs and symbols: “Glory Hallelujah” playing in the office of criminal lawyer–lawyer criminal Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk); Saul telling Jesse he’s still “two miracles short of sainthood”; the way a morally compromised character with an upset stomach places a folded bathroom towel beneath his knees before kneeling in front of a toilet bowl, the whole sequence framed to suggest a Muslim praying to Mecca and a Catholic kneeling before an altar. (Breaking Bad is filled with images of coughing, vomiting, and spitting up blood, and in almost every case there’s a metaphorical dimension, as if what’s being purged is a psychic as well as a physical toxin.) “You need to stop focusing on the darkness behind you,” Walter assures the conscience-stricken Jesse. “Nothing can change what we’ve done.” And this was all just a phase they had to pass through before they could live “ordinary, decent lives.”
But there’s nothing ordinary or decent about a life founded on evil. On some level, Walter and Jesse know this, and Breaking Bad knows it, too. The reckoning is coming. Balance must be restored.
Breaking Bad; A.M.C Sundays, 9 p.m.
*This article originally appeared in the May 13, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.