Cheering For the Bad Guy

by Jonah Goldberg

Ross Douthat, a fellow Breaking Bad obsessive, has a long, good, spoiler-heavy post on how some critics are having a hard time coming to grips with the fact that the main characters are bad people. The case for Walter White’s evil (which I make at some length here) is pretty much irrefutable at this point. But now many critics are apparently rushing to the safe harbor of what some call Team Jesse (a.k.a. Jesse Pinkman — if you couldn’t figure that out already, you probably shouldn’t be reading this post anyway). If I’d had another thousand words, I would’ve discussed Jesse in my piece as well. But I think Ross and I are on the same page. He writes:

This is true of a lot of the horrible things that “happen” to him over the course of the show’s seasons. Jesse loses contact with his biological family not because his parents just abandon him, but because (we’re pretty clearly given to understand) they’ve been lied to and exploited by him for so long that they’ve reached the point where they know that their love is just enabling him. What’s more, there’s no hint of a childhood trauma here, no sign of parental neglect, no initial shock that catalyzed Jesse’s own break bad the way cancer catalyzed Walt’s. “Breaking Bad” isn’t a show like “The Sopranos” where everyone’s born and bred into the mob. Instead, Jesse’s upbringing mostly marks him as a yuppie kid who fell in love with the thug life rather than someone who never knew another way.

Here’s how I put it in my piece:

The idea of the antihero is hardly new, of course; but that’s not what Walter White is. When we are introduced to Tony Soprano, we know he’s the bad guy. The moral universe of the Sopranos is a given, and despite all of Tony’s struggles in therapy, he’s ultimately incapable of being anything other than what he is. The same goes for the antiheroes of The Wire, Deadwood, and the far less laudable series Dexter. They all live by a code, are creatures of a system outside the borders of comfortable middle-class morality. Walter White is not like them. When we meet him, he’s a decent man living deep within those borders. He’s even a hero in the small ways good fathers, dedicated teachers, and faithful husbands are. And what he becomes is not an antihero but simply, straightforwardly, a villain. What begins as a kind of play on the Thomistic principle that it is moral for a man to steal bread to feed his starving child grows into a painfully realistic tale of how a good man becomes evil.

Jesse is a harder case than Walt because when we meet him, he’s already a two bit drug dealer, albeit a charming one with some obviously redeeming qualities. Moreover, while always a criminal, he struggles more than Walt with doing truly evil things. 

Anyway, what I find so great about the way people struggle to categorize or condemn Walt and Jesse is that it reflects the novelty of the series. The viewers have been seduced into rooting for good people turned bad, which is wholly different than rooting for bad people in an already established warped moral universe. Unless you were a close friend or relative of Walt or Jesse, you would never describe them as good people in real life. And even if you did, it would only be because your emotional attachments got the better of you. No impartial jury would cut Walt any slack.  But it’s very, very hard to be impartial with these characters. Ross is absolutely right that the only objective hero in the show is Hank, the DEA agent and brother-in-law. But I’ll save any spoiler-laden analysis for next week, after the show is sadly over.