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

Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad (AMC)


Jonah Goldberg

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.