Life and Death on Basic Cable
Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad (AMC)


In the first season, Walter is confronted with the necessity — or “necessity” — of killing another human being. He has trapped a drug dealer in the basement of his partner, a former student of his who has turned into a lowlife meth-head, Jesse Pinkman. Despite establishing a rapport with the dealer, who goes by the handle “Krazy 8,” Walter agonizes over what to do with him. Still the man of reason, he sits down with a notepad and writes up a list of pros and cons. Among the items on the list: “Con: MURDER IS WRONG! Pro: He’ll kill your entire family if you let him go.” Walter ultimately kills Krazy 8, but under circumstances that he can justify as self-defense. Over time, though, Walter’s definition of self-defense grows beyond any moral justification, and his reluctance to kill shrinks to almost nothing. Once you step outside the borders of morality and the law, self-interest becomes self-justifying. Indeed, this is how pragmatism unchained from moral principles simply becomes a Nietzschean will to power. In a very different context, the philosopher Bertrand Russell realized this long ago. When nations shed moral principles and put their stake solely in power and pragmatism, Russell wrote in 1909, “ironclads and Maxim guns must be the ultimate arbiters of metaphysical truth.”

For the audience, the heart of the seduction of the first two seasons is that we sympathize with Walter as he is pitted against these horrible choices. In the first episode of the second season, titled “Seven Thirty-Seven,” Walter and Jesse watch a drug kingpin they are supplying beat a man to death. Sitting in their car afterward, they’re horrified by the spectacle and terrified by the likelihood that they will die, too, for having witnessed the murder. Walter’s response is to mutter some math calculations, almost like a prayer. He’s adding up his mortgage, the home-equity line, what college will cost for his kids, etc., until he comes to the number 737,000. That’s the dollar amount he needs to leave to his family to make sure they will be provided for. Once he hits that number, he’s out of the business.

August 19, 2013    |     Volume LXV, No. 15

Books, Arts & Manners
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .