Albuquerque. New Mexico. A high school chemistry teacher discovers he’s ill with cancer and turns to illegal production of a synthetic drug in order to make money and secure his family’s financial situation after his death. This is how Walter White, assisted by a former student, now drug addict, leaves behind the middle-class provincial life and embraces a path that quickly spirals downhill. With daring maneuvers to defend his image- a respectable man, in love with his pregnant wife, a good father to his eldest son whom he loves dearly- Walter ventures into the world of gangs.
He will end up dealing with Mexican cartels, killing, and becoming a drug trafficker. This is the story told in five seasons (2008-2013) of Breaking Bad, coproduced by Sony and AMC, the US channel that broadcasted the series. It received unprecedented critical acclaim, even if its audience wasn’t so big. The series was appreciated by a niche audience of a million and a half viewers, which rose to five million in the last part of the final season. But this often happens with series broadcast by pay networks.
Breaking Bad represents the culmination of a trend in American TV seriescentered on the idea of an antihero: a type of character who is morally compromised and then lets loose and commits bad actions. It’s the lens with which this tv series explores the theme of moral responsibility, or more precisely, the consequences of immoral conduct. Each step the protagonist takes towards evil reaps such repercussions that make more difficult for him to turn back. It is as though destiny sought punishment, following him on torturous paths to make him pay a heavy price for what he has done.
One of the many aspects that makes the series interesting is the fine “writing”, which prevents the public from being disturbed by the fact that Walter has dark shadows. The creator of the show, Vince Gilligan, highlights some elements that in his series are essential in order to sustain the audience’s empathy for this main character who carries out bad actions: the outstanding acting of the interpreter Bryan Cranston, the geniality of the professor in chemistry, , the piety aroused when we see him treated with contempt by his students or in his sickness. What counts most, however, is the human depth of his character.
Mr. White loves his family. What he does, he does for them. He repeats this continually. And Mr. White has a conscience. He is an old-school professor and a traditional father. He’s a well-mannered seasoned teacher, shocked by juvenile slang, frustrated with the looseness of morals , who teaches his students well and believes in education. He’s the kind of person who knows when he is doing something wrong, and he suffers because of it. And he has had to overcome himself to do it. For example, in the first season, he captures a drug dealer who wants to kill him, and upon discovering that he is going to free himself, Mr. White kills him after a long nagging thought. After weighing the many cons vs the only pro (to the point of writing them down), he concludes: “If I don’t do it, he’ll kill my entire family”.
For a good part of the series, it is love for his family that gives Mr. White the courage to continue on the bad path. At the same time, he retains a piercing awareness that his criminal behavior is incompatible with the bonds which are fundamentals for him. This is portrayed very well, for example, in the third episode of the second season. The teacher’s wife was already under pressure due to her husband’s illness and his mysterious disappearance that lasted days, after which he was hospitalized for a suspected dissociative state. She became even more worried and suspicious upon discovering a second cell phone. Nobody knew that Walter, who escaped from the hospital, had returned home. He was hiding dirty money and a gun. Still unseen, he secretly observes his family. In watching them, he sees his innocence is lost. With this feeling in his gut, and still hidden, he leaves his home and wanders around the city. He then returns to the hospital, where he undergoes chemotherapy. On the wall facing him, he notices a picture of a man rowing a boat to sea, with his loved ones off at a distance on land. Walter is inevitably moved. The viewer understands that the picture reveals to the character his destiny- the force of evil takes him away forever.
The thrill of the transgression and the fascination of evil, which are also ingredients of the show , aren’t everything. There is in Breaking Bad the tension of lost innocence, the sense of a painful distancing from such innocence.
Following the initial idea, the series takes the character’s path to the extreme. Walter White in the fifth and last season is another man. He identifies with the evil that has grown inside of him. But even then viewers are aware of how this character has suffered the training of the evil he has experienced throughout the series. They are aware of the struggle resulting in Walter from removing the best part of himself, his most intimate affections. This is apparent in the last episode, when Walt confesses to his wife that he has understood that all he has done, has been for himself, in order to “feel alive”- not for his family. Also further in the episode, when, wounded by death, he caresses the equipment in his laboratory that produced the best drugs in the world, even then, viewers love him because they can still see in his eyes the humanity he had at the beginning of the story, which the course of the series has drained: before his final shootout, Walt has just given an affectionate farewell to his daughter who is fast asleep in her bed, innocent.
Note: from a reduction of the article titled, “The crisis of the father in
American cable series: the cases of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and In Treatment”, published in Comunicazioni Sociali, 2014,