Breaking Bad: A Tragedy in Five Seasons

When I first saw the poster for the fifth season of Breaking Bad, featuring Walt enthroned in the middle of his “fat stacks” with the caption “All Hail the King,” I saw it as confirmation of something I had suspected for some time: the story of Walt’s rise to power is a modern-day Shakespearean tragedy.

Think about it.  It’s the tale of a man, basically good but full of pride, who becomes corrupted by power, losing sight of his good intentions and leaving a pile of bodies in his wake.  It’s not hard to see Walt as a Macbeth figure, consumed by his “vaulting ambition” while his wife is driven to near-madness by guilt, or to compare his blood-soaked campaign to become the reigning monarch of meth with Richard III’s ruthless climb to the throne. But obviously you don’t have to be an English Lit scholar to get that Breaking Bad is about how the lust for power can turn a decent guy into a despicable monster.

Even so, as we gear up for the second half of the final season, this connection to the classics could offer some insight into the way it might play out.

First of all, no matter how well-liked these tyrannical guys are at the start, they are hated by everybody in the final act.  We can expect to see Walt’s inevitable downfall come in part through retribution by any (or all) of the people he has alienated so far; Jesse is the most likely threat, since we have watched him develop his own kind of moral strength and he has been the most cruelly manipulated by his supposed friend and mentor.  There’s no shortage of others with good reason to want revenge, but Jesse is the one who has been the most deeply wronged- even though he doesn’t know it yet.

That brings us to the second point.  The tragic hero always thinks he is invincible.  Fate- or in Walt’s case, science- is on his side, and as a result he gets cocky and overlooks some little detail that ends up being his undoing.  We’ve already seen that happen, with Hank’s finding of the Whitman book, but if Jesse discovers those Lily-of-the-Valley seeds, it’s all over.  Whether or not he learns the truth about the deaths of Jane or Mike, the poisoning of little Brock will provide all the righteous fury he needs to take Walt down- or die trying.

Finally, irony always plays a big part in these things   There’s always been plenty of that in Breaking Bad, and it’s a sure bet there will be a healthy dose of it in the final endgame.  There are so many tantalizing possibilities- the ricin stash will surely figure prominently- but, once again, Jesse seems like the key factor.  He’s Walt’s biggest blind spot, having become both a tool and a surrogate son; it would be particularly fitting if Jesse were the instrument of his fate, since he himself has nurtured the young man’s development and would therefore have sown the seeds of his own destruction.  Irony doesn’t get much more classical than that.

Of course it’s impossible to predict what’s coming in the show’s final hours, but the Shakespearean influence is too strong to ignore.  I’m not suggesting that Walt’s downfall will begin with a cactus army moving to surround his house, like Birnam Wood advancing on Macbeth’s castle; but whatever twist of fate takes place, you can bet it will leave a lot of corpses on the stage when the curtain finally falls.


  1. joy says:

    He might as well be smoking the product…….

  2. Monica S. says:

    So true – modern day Shakespearean tragedy! I’m thinking of Julius Caeser, but there are so many great examples of your observation. Btw, a cactus army would be rad!

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