When Walter White makes his exit upon the series finale of Breaking Bad, TV will lose its most compelling depiction of evil.
The brilliant high-school chemistry teacher turned crystal-meth kingpin, played by actor Bryan Cranston, is transformed into a loathsome killer before our eyes. Series creator Vince Gilligan says he set out to make Mr. Chips into Scarface. In Walt’s steady descent, the self-styled family man unleashes a moral chaos that has a destructive logic as stark as the show’s New Mexico setting.
When the unassuming Walt — a nonsmoker — is diagnosed with lung cancer, his family is already straining to make ends meet. He has a teenage son with cerebral palsy and a baby on the way. How will he pay for top-notch treatment? Will he die and leave his family with nothing? His brother-in-law, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent, inadvertently gives him the idea of producing meth for easy cash, and it turns out that he is exceptionally good at it.
From the bloody fallout from his first “cook,” Walt gets a glimpse at the howling hell that beckons. He enters the world of drugs anyway, in the illusory belief that he can keep the furies at bay through force of will and intellect.
When we first meet Walt, he embodies a workaday goodness. He’s the high-school teacher in front of a bored classroom. He’s the father helping hike up his disabled son’s pants. He’s the breadwinner working a part-time job at the car wash to help make ends meet.
By the end, he’s the basis of an international meth network. He’s capable of having multiple potential witnesses against him killed simultaneously. He’s a prodigious and talented liar.
The sin that undergirds it all is pride and a related thirst for power. Walt could have accepted help with his medical bills from an old college roommate who achieved great business success, but he’s offended at accepting charity. He will maintain control through his own meth-fueled earning power. In so doing, he becomes a cash-addled slave to greed.
In the final season, we see him rolling a barrelful of his cash through the desert, in a Sisyphean march under the sun to save some of his millions. Even as his cancer returns after a remission, he is at war against the old adage that “you can’t take it with you.” He schemes to find a way to leave his ill-gotten riches to his family, to make, in his mind, all his crimes worthwhile.
He is a classic example of what the late political scientist Edward Banfield called “amoral familism,” the inability to work “for any end transcending the immediate, material interest of the nuclear family” that characterizes backward societies and the mob. His supposed loyalty to his family, though, is only a thin tissue of self-justification.
Walt is a father figure to his former student and meth partner Jesse Pinkman and the real father to his teenage son Walt Jr. — both of whom he unhesitatingly manipulates for his own ends. His truest loyalty is to his own swollen ego. It tells him he is finally getting the riches he deserves and that he is smarter than everyone trying to compete with or catch him. His selfish choices will rip apart his family and put it in mortal danger.
One reason that Breaking Bad is so gripping is that the viewer can’t help rooting for Walt even when he’s at his most odious, because the memory of the put-upon underdog still lingers. Walt is a reminder of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s axiom that the line between good and evil runs through every man. But once he decides he can be his own moral arbiter, as National Review’s Jonah Goldberg notes, there’s no stopping his downward slide.
The critics call Breaking Bad the best show on television. Some other series will claim that honor soon enough. But there may never be a character who better illustrates the way to perdition.