There’s no doubt, Breaking Bad has been topping the bill of TV shows worldwide for several years now. I’ve occasionally asked myself what makes the series so successful. Taken separately, it’s not sex. It’s not violence. It’s not immoral behavior. And not even suspense that makes the drama to appealing to the public.
In my opinion, the series owes its popularity to the concept which links all these together. A concept we all relate to, admittedly or not: the moral decline of the central character. A stance the average viewer is familiar with, taken by Walter White to an extreme: if doing your best to be the commonsensical champion of decency is not enough, then doing your best to become the antagonist in order to survive is the logical consequence.
One might argue Walter does more than covering his basic survival needs. Which is perfectly true if survival were a general notion. To some people, however, the sense of achievement or lifestyle is just as important as life itself. Naturally, such tragic characters would rather die – literally die – than lose what gives them their identity.
Of course Walter White changes – he breaks bad – but his shift is not a loss of identity. It’s a change of direction. And who is to say his new direction is bad? Sure, the title says it, common sense says it. But common sense is mere convention, and, as far as the title is concerned, I prefer to think Gilligan must have intended to make a mockery of the comfortable system of conventions we ordinarily abide by.
Gilligan creates a problematic character, not an honorable one. Heisenberg, Walter’s alias as drug kingpin, is not chosen randomly: it is an onomastic reflection of the metaphysical uncertainty which governs the entire series.
No moral value is absolute, and we all pay for our choices, Walter included. Where there’s no God, judicial or political instance to enforce punishment, the existence itself is a sentence. It is devoid of meaning, eating away all sense of value while forcing us to take responsibility for our choices, just as cancer is eating away Walter’s body.
This is the moral behind Breaking Bad as I see it. I consider most viewers sympathize with Walter – antagonist and central character at the same time – because they relate to him. There’s a Walter White in each of us that makes us applaud the Walter White on the screen.