Breaking Bad breaks through
For the best show on television, this year’s Emmy win was long overdue.

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Actor Dean Norris ("Hank") poses with a fan at the Breaking Bad Screening Lab in Hollywood. Dean Norris plays Walter White's DEA brother-in-law Hank on Breaking Bad.

  • Title:

    The Tyranny of Clichés
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Article Highlights

  • Last night’s Emmys were terrible.

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  • Breaking Bad represents something new in the history of television, it is a categorical improvement.

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  • The key advantage television has over film is time.

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  • Breaking Bad is the best show on television, and perhaps even the best ever.

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  • Once you step outside the borders of morality and the law, self-interest becomes self-justifying.

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  • Cuidon is entirely right that the essence of Breaking Bad is choice: Walter chooses to become evil.

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Last night’s Emmys were terrible. The lavish dance numbers, the painfully lame jokes, the creepy gay double entendre from Michael Douglas, when he accepted an Emmy for his even creepier portrayal of Liberace, made for a ploddingly unentertaining evening. And Jeff Daniels’s win for best actor in a drama series for his work in HBO’s faux-highbrow Newsroom was so ridiculous only an MSNBC roundtable could applaud it.

But they got at least one thing right: AMC’s Breaking Bad won best dramatic series on television. If you haven’t seen the show, AMC will run the entire series this week in a marathon leading up to the series finale. You should watch or record it. It not only represents something new in the history of television, it represents a categorical improvement in the very nature of television.

Nostalgia plagues us all, but conservatives are particularly susceptible to it, for obvious reasons. When it comes to popular culture in particular, we tend to romanticize the past. The clichés spring to mind easily: The music these kids listen to today! You can’t even understand the words! Clark Gable, now there was a movie star! And then, of course, there are myriad allusions to “the golden age of television.”

This last has always struck me as something of a misnomer. Most people tend to think that “Golden Age” means simply “the best.” But, according to the Greeks, from whom we get the term, the Golden Age didn’t mean, necessarily, “the best.” It was, rather, the first age of man, a past age of innocence in which man lived in peace and prosperity. As the ages of man passed — the silver, the bronze, the heroic, and finally the decadent iron — things in general were not as good as they once were; but that doesn’t mean the poetry got worse. Think of it this way: Adam and Eve clearly had a good thing going before the Fall, but that didn’t mean TV was better before they bit the apple.

In other words, what made the golden age of television golden wasn’t the caliber of the programming, but the innocence of the time. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t some fantastic stuff on the tube — there most certainly was — but the medium was also in its infancy, and it showed. First and foremost, technologically: The old rabbit-eared mono-speaker black-and-white jobs were really quite sad. And as for content, early network producers borrowed first from radio — The Goldbergs, Dragnet, etc. — and then extensively from the theater, which they saw as TV’s closest analogue. Kraft Television Theatre, Playhouse 90, and other programs brought everything from Shakespeare’s plays to Peter Pan and 12 Angry Men to a mass audience.

As great as all that was, it was nonetheless derivative. And, as TV matured, it also arguably got worse: The sitcoms of the 1960s and 1970s were on the whole not as good as those that would come in the 1980s and 1990s. The dramas of the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies were an even more mixed bag. (Fans of BonanzaCharlie’s Angels may send their angry letters to the New York office of National Review.)

In the 1990s, things began to change. Shows like David Milch’s NYPD Blue (whose nudity, unprecedented on broadcast television, helped inspire a Comstockish conservative reaction) and Homicide: Life on the Street were among the first clues that television was realizing its potential. The key was giving up on the idea that a story must be resolved at the end of each episode. Virtually every installment of Dragnet ended with the criminal in custody. Little House on the Prairie had always left the viewer with a resolution and a happy lesson. In the rare cases in which an episode ended with a “to be continued” or an end-of-season cliffhanger, you knew the next episode would answer all your questions. The one great exception was the soap opera, which never had any pretensions to be better than what it was.

In NYPD Blue and the shows that followed, both the story arc and the character arc stretched over whole seasons — and series. It’s actually surprising that this development was so long in coming. It’s hard to think of an artistic medium — particularly one with so many economic incentives behind it — that has taken as long to become truly self-confident. The delay can probably be explained by the fact that TV is in many ways not a new art form but a new combination of several old ones — photography, film, radio, the novel, the stage, etc. It took decades for writers to recognize fully that the whole could be so much greater than the sum of its parts.

That started to happen when pay-cable channels realized that unique programming was the best way to attract loyal viewers in an era when their monopoly on unedited Hollywood fare was crumbling, owing to the Internet. Just consider HBO’s Game of Thrones, admittedly an adaptation of a series of novels, but riveting, addictive, and hugely profitable in ways unique to television. In short order, TV has become, in the words of author Brett Martin, “the signature American art form of the first decade of the 21st century.” (This fact is causing a monumental panic in Hollywood as we speak. As John Podhoretz recently wrote in The Weekly Standard, Hollywood’s distress isn’t simply about a studio model breaking down, it’s “that movies have lost their sexiness, their power, their position at the red-hot center of popular culture. Television is better now, and it kills them that television is better. And it should.”)

The key advantage television has over film is time: It can explore both characters and ideas in ways that are simply impossible in a two-hour movie. Shows such as The Sopranos, Deadwood, Mad Men, Friday Night Lights, and The Wire simply would not work on the big screen. The result is a close visual approximation to a novel, which, unlike derivative miniseries (e.g., Roots, Shogun, Lonesome Dove), was intended from the outset to be on television, and which, unlike soap operas (even of the posh BBC/Masterpiece Theatre variety), lets actors and writers fully realize their potential.

This new art form is on impressive display in AMC’s Breaking Bad. It is the best show currently on television, and perhaps even the best ever. Moreover, it deserves special respect from conservatives. In a sense, it already gets that respect: It’s relatively popular in red-state America. As David Segal noted in the New York Times in 2011, Breaking Bad gets nearly the same ratings as Mad Men, but New York and Los Angeles aren’t even in its top ten cities. This prompted Segal to dub the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, TV’s “first true red-state auteur.”

From the outset, Gilligan set out to tell a single story over several years. “Television is really good at protecting the franchise,” Gilligan told Segal. “It’s good at keeping the Korean War going for eleven seasons, like M*A*S*H. It’s good at keeping Marshal Dillon policing his little town for 20 years. By their very nature TV shows are open-ended.” Gilligan saw an opening for something different. He also thought. “Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a show that takes the protagonist and transforms him into the antagonist?”

That is the idea behind Breaking Bad, the tale of Walter White, played brilliantly by Bryan Cranston — who had previously been known mostly as a very funny comedic actor (he was the Jewish-convert dentist on Seinfeld and the father on Malcolm in the Middle). It would be difficult to summarize all five seasons of the show in a brief space, nor am I eager to give away spoilers (though some of that will, alas, be necessary), so I will focus on the main character, who is in every respect the soul of the show.

When we meet Walter, he is a wildly overqualified high-school chemistry teacher who works part time at a car wash for extra money. (In what becomes a crucial plot device, Walter worked for a tech startup but took a stupid buyout for $5,000. The company went on to be worth billions.) In the first 20 minutes of the first episode, he is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Impeccably decent and upright, Walter is confronted with the horror of leaving his wife, teenage son (who has cerebral palsy), and unborn daughter destitute. This medical and financial crisis leads Walter to a moral crisis. He gets the idea that he could use his skills as a scientist to cook methamphetamine, a.k.a. crystal meth. And not just any crystal meth: The once-promising professional chemist knows how to make meth better than anyone else. Gilligan has said that his “elevator pitch” for the show was to turn “Mr. Chips into Scarface.”

The change that then takes place in Walter is so gradual, so human, that viewers are hard pressed to relinquish their fondness for him, even as he inexorably grows — transforms is probably the better word — into a monster. Gilligan calls it a “slow-motion wolfman story”: The Dr. Jekyll of Walter White slowly turns into the Mr. Hyde of his street name “Heisenberg” (not coincidentally, an homage to the author of the uncertainty principle).

The idea of the antihero is hardly new, of course; but that’s not what Walter White is. When we are introduced to Tony Soprano, we know he’s the bad guy. The moral universe of the Sopranos is a given, and despite all of Tony’s struggles in therapy, he’s ultimately incapable of being anything other than what he is. The same goes for the antiheroes of The Wire, Deadwood, and the far less laudable series Dexter. They all live by a code, are creatures of a system outside the borders of comfortable middle-class morality. Walter White is not like them. When we meet him, he’s a decent man living deep within those borders. He’s even a hero in the small ways good fathers, dedicated teachers, and faithful husbands are. And what he becomes is not an antihero but simply, straightforwardly, a villain. What begins as a kind of play on the Thomistic principle that it is moral for a man to steal bread to feed his starving child grows into a painfully realistic tale of how a good man becomes evil.

In the first season, Walter is confronted with the necessity — or “necessity” — of killing another human being. He has trapped a drug dealer in the basement of his partner, a former student of his who has turned into a lowlife meth-head, Jesse Pinkman. Despite establishing a rapport with the dealer, who goes by the handle “Krazy 8,” Walter agonizes over what to do with him. Still the man of reason, he sits down with a notepad and writes up a list of pros and cons. Among the items on the list: “Con: MURDER IS WRONG! Pro: He’ll kill your entire family if you let him go.” Walter ultimately kills Krazy 8, but under circumstances that he can justify as self-defense. Over time, though, Walter’s definition of self-defense grows beyond any moral justification, and his reluctance to kill shrinks to almost nothing. Once you step outside the borders of morality and the law, self-interest becomes self-justifying. Indeed, this is how pragmatism unchained from moral principles simply becomes a Nietzschean will to power. In a very different context, the philosopher Bertrand Russell realized this long ago. When nations shed moral principles and put their stake solely in power and pragmatism, Russell wrote in 1909, “ironclads and Maxim guns must be the ultimate arbiters of metaphysical truth.”

For the audience, the heart of the seduction of the first two seasons is that we sympathize with Walter as he is pitted against these horrible choices. In the first episode of the second season, titled “Seven Thirty-Seven,” Walter and Jesse watch a drug kingpin they are supplying beat a man to death. Sitting in their car afterward, they’re horrified by the spectacle and terrified by the likelihood that they will die, too, for having witnessed the murder. Walter’s response is to mutter some math calculations, almost like a prayer. He’s adding up his mortgage, the home-equity line, what college will cost for his kids, etc., until he comes to the number 737,000. That’s the dollar amount he needs to leave to his family to make sure they will be provided for. Once he hits that number, he’s out of the business.

But the choices Walter makes have tragic consequences. The lies he needs to tell to his wife, Skyler — magnificently played by Anna Gunn — ultimately destroy his marriage. She cannot abide the deception, and when she finds out about Walter’s new profession, she wants a divorce. This plotline is absolutely brutal to watch and is easily the best treatment of a family coming unglued in any television show. Ultimately, Skyler can’t divorce Walter because it would mean revealing that he’s a drug dealer — which would shatter her son, who worships Walter. Because of this choice, Skyler, too, finally becomes seduced into Walter’s world. Personal corruption is infectious.

But by the end of the second season, Walter’s cancer goes into remission. When he and his family get the news, he seems relieved, but when he retires by himself to the men’s room he goes into a rage, punching the paper-towel dispenser. What the viewer has only dimly suspected, thanks to Cranston’s incredibly subtle portrait, is now coming to the fore: Walter enjoys being Heisenberg.

One of the reasons he enjoys it is that, unlike the underachieving high-school chemistry teacher of his former life, Heisenberg is the best there is at something. While he could once live with the fact that his former peers have gotten rich in the private sector (off his ideas, he tells himself), it is now a source of seething resentment. The sins of pride and envy — not greed — are the secret to Walter White’s character. The arrogance of Walter’s intellect, married to the bitterness of not fulfilling his potential, seduce him to the idea that he can be in control, that he can set the rules, that he is smart enough to control all of the variables in life. When his wife concocts a cover story that will allow him to get out of the business and explain his newfound wealth — he’s a gambling addict who hit it big — Walter’s vanity won’t let him go along. He tells his son, “What is going on with me is not about some disease. It’s about choices. Choices I have made. Choices I stand by.”

Untethered from traditional morality, he’s set adrift, believing that he can chart his own course through raw intellect alone. Now that he’s cancer-free, the money is meaningless to him save as a measure of his ability and superiority. Gilligan and the other writers brilliantly draw out how envy of the success of others fuels a sense of superiority and entitlement. In one telling scene, White tells his students the (true) story of how the inventor of the synthetic diamond was rewarded by GE with a $10 savings bond. The subtext is that Walter never got the recognition he deserved as a scientist, and he yearns to correct that as a meth cooker.

By the first half of the fifth season, Walter’s transformation is near total. When offered millions to simply cash out of the drug business entirely, he rejects the offer. He explains to his partner: “You asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business. Neither. I’m in the empire business.”

The show is set in Albuquerque, N.M. (It was originally supposed to be set in California, but the tax climate made that unaffordable.) The austere desert backdrop often serves to hammer home the aloneness of the characters (Walt and Jesse are often lost in the desert with their RV meth lab). In real life, the low-hung ranch-style architecture of Albuquerque makes civilization itself seem like a recent addition to the landscape, a Potemkin village hastily erected to communicate the semblance of middle-class normalcy. Over time, that impression takes on an almost poetic stature, as the rules of society seem increasingly artificial, like cheap prefab furniture. There is a palpable sense that the seemingly humdrum exurban boredom of normal middle-class life is something one can exit simply by choosing to.

All this points to the inherent conservatism of Breaking Bad. Walt is a creature of his choices. Early in the first season, he declines a debilitating round of cancer treatments with only a marginal chance of improving his prognosis. “I just feel like I never had a choice in any of this,” he explains. “I want a say, for once.” As Jackson Cuidon of Christianity Today writes, “When you first watch the scene, not knowing the kind of person Walt is going to choose to be, it’s a poignant moment. Walt wants to spend his last months with his wife on his own terms, rather than as a powerless and weak and hollowed-out shell of who he used to be.”

But here I think Cuidon and other commenters are missing the point. When Walter says this in the first season, he means it. The problem is that, over time, he takes this desire for control over his own life and externalizes it to society. He goes from wanting a say in how he lives and dies to wanting a say in how others live and die. His response to cancer transforms him into a cancer in his family and in his community. Cuidon is entirely right that the essence of Breaking Bad is choice: Walter chooses to become evil.

Of course evil is seductive, telling us things we want to hear; the Devil, after all, is the Prince of Lies. But Breaking Bad is not a religious allegory (though it could be seen as one). The lies Walter hears are not coming from the Devil, they’re coming from Walter himself. (Gilligan has said that while he can believe there’s no Heaven, he can’t abide by the idea there’s no Hell.)

An even more striking aspect of Breaking Bad is the omnipresent backdrop of the horrors of drug addiction. Anyone who knows firsthand how the individual choice of taking drugs does not necessarily remain contained in the individual will find much of Breaking Bad achingly poignant. Walter convinces himself he is just selling a product, but it is not just any product — which is something he understood before his transformation. Meth is particularly evil, ravaging not just addicts but whole communities. Proponents of drug legalization may or may not be right that the costs of the drug war exceed the benefits, but that does not diminish the fact that such drugs destroy lives. Walter becomes evil as he rationalizes away that fact.

And here is where I think Gilligan himself has it wrong. “Walt has behaved at times in what could be regarded as an evil fashion, but I don’t think he’s an evil man,” he told New York magazine. “He is an extremely self-deluded man. We always say in the writers’ room, if Walter White has a true superpower, it’s not his knowledge of chemistry or his intellect, it’s his ability to lie to himself.” Okay. But what is evil if not the ability to delude yourself into believing you are the sole arbiter of what is right and wrong based on your self-interest? Freedom itself is not evil, but freedom devoid of conscience — rightly formed conscience — is very close to the definition of evil. The bully is free to do what he likes simply because he is stronger and it pleases him to do so. It does not matter that he tells himself his cruelty is warranted. Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot — the historical figures we use as stand-ins for metaphysical evil — all believed they were acting on their own personal definitions of the good. They didn’t feel constrained by the “slave morality” (Nietzsche’s term) of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

In season five, Walter says to Skyler, “When we do what we do for good reasons, then we’ve got nothing to worry about. There’s no better reason than family.” But by that point, this is nothing more than a motivational lie. Indeed, this is exactly the sort of thing Tony Soprano would say. We may love the character, but does any remotely morally sane human being dispute that Tony Soprano is an evil man?

Of the many conservative themes in Breaking Bad, the one I appreciate most is the fragility of civilization: Preserving it requires a constant struggle. When I say “civilization,” I don’t mean just the particular swath of time and culture we call “Western Civ”; I mean families, communities, and individuals. These can be healthy only when individuals are willing to take on faith that some moral laws — whether grounded in nature, theology, or simple trial and error — are there for a good reason. As Chesterton tells us, pure reason doesn’t get humanity very far. The merely rational man will not make commitments to causes greater than his own self-interest. We need binding dogmas to constrain us even when our intellects or appetites try to seduce us to a different path. When, through the arrogance of our intellect and the promptings of our egos, we decide that we can make the rules up as we go, we invariably relearn why we need those rules. In Breaking Bad, there are countless, sometimes hilarious, sometimes horrifying moments where Walter is given concrete evidence that he is not smarter than the accumulated moral wisdom of civilization. He rejects these lessons as merely illustrations of the failures of others, and lies himself down a path of ever greater evil.

Poetry is magical, transporting us to a golden age without sin. Novels are different: They are of the iron age. And that is why great novels are, by nature, conservative. I don’t mean that Tolstoy would oppose Obamacare or that Steinbeck was a supply-sider. That’s not the kind of conservatism I have in mind. Long before one gets into the partisan or ideological precepts and dogmas, there is at the irreducible core of conservatism the idea that human nature is what it is. Nation-states, technologies, cultures, even religions come and go, but what remains is humanity. Breaking Bad is one of the great novels of our age because it grapples with the crooked timber of humanity as it is, and painfully demonstrates that, once you choose to break out of the cage of civilization, you are not so much free as lost.

— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and the author of The Tyranny of Clichés, now on sale in paperback. You can write to him by e-mail at [email protected], or via Twitter @JonahNRO. This article was adapted from the August 19, 2013, issue of National Review.

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