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Breaking Up With ‘Breaking Bad’?

Guest Blog: "Breaking Bad" has a tidal pull, but the turn it has taken this season is starting to repel more than attract

It was this summer’s Sunday evening dilemma: Should I or shouldn't I? Keep watching or shut 'er down? "Breaking Bad" has a tidal pull — that's nothing new — but the turn it has taken this season is starting to repel more than attract

I'm not a violence junkie, so the allure has always been about lead character Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and his dilemma. And up until this season, it's been a great weekend date. Watching Walt break from could-have-been to powerhouse-and-then-some has been exhilarating to say the least.

It's been fascinating to watch White struggle with the morally impossible situations that are the inevitable price of grabbing so much power so quickly. It’s been equally fascinating to discover my own willingness to follow his descent into moral ambiguity, to allow empathy for a compelling character to trump my better judgment.

Maybe that's why it feels like a date: Watching BB tags to that attraction to bad boys so many women share. Young women are especially vulnerable to being drawn into someone else’s universe — even if (or maybe precisely because) the values in that universe are so different from the toe-the-line world of childhood. Jumping onto the back of that (insert dangerous motorized vehicle of choice), with no helmet and no way to reach the brakes — that’s the stuff!

The ride with Walt has been that good — or at least was until the end of season 4. Knowing that there was still a moral compass at work — and that once the adrenaline drained there would be an Old Testament-style reckoning — was part of the satisfaction. We had pushed our limits and rid the world of an evil guy without completely succumbing to evil ourselves. We had more than flirted, but it wasn’t a committed relationship.

And while there was still hope that the bad boy could be redeemed, I liked that season 4 ended on an open note. The door to normal had been unlocked, but whether Walt would walk through it and risk a return to a milquetoast existence was far from settled. Equally up in the air was whether I wanted that for him. I liked the ambiguity because it neatly expressed the reality of modern existence: We are always in the midst of a dilemma made inevitable by free choice and relative morality. And it never does fully resolve. We just get better at living with it.

This message was so perfect that, truly, the series could have ended there. But then along comes season 5 — a chance to spend more time with this compelling guy — and just like that, he outs himself as nothing but a schmuck. I know that it was always the intention of the show to transition the hero from Mild One to full-blown Wild One, but the way it's presented creates a big problem.

When the charming rebel suddenly reveals an unredeemable streak — when he shows up hammered to the big family party and insults your sister and paws your mother and unapologetically destroys your childhood mementos — I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s over.

So now the spell is broken. I no longer like Walter White, and I don't want to be around him. "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan may say that was the plan all along, but here’s a bigger problem: I don’t buy it.

Previously, I believed in Walt’s situation. I believed in him as a guy who had never mastered the mainstream means to success and so, faced with a threat to his family, was willing to entertain dubious options. I believed in his delight at finally being "the danger," even if it also kind of scared him.

I believed his shaky hold on power and his unchecked ego might make him sloppy for one critical moment. And I believed in his straddling two worlds, one where he was still an upstanding if troubled citizen and another in which he was a drug lord.

But transformation into a full-fledged, morally bankrupt monster is something else.

Ordinary people don’t, thank goodness, just become monsters. Even under extraordinary circumstances. They have to be carrying deep shame, or a hidden personality. Or they have to have been so brutalized that they have no choice but to shut their internal moral mechanism down.

People with this potential seem different even before their dark side emerges. But frankly, Walt showed none of the monster markers. Even the outside factors which pushed him over the moral line in the first place had mostly been addressed by the beginning of season 5. His cancer was in remission, his family was bruised, but not beyond recovery, and his two greatest dangers (discovery or death by mobster) had largely been removed.

As for the remaining factors, neither losing his nest egg nor his ambition to be the best at something — let alone a wish to be really rich — justified Walt’s transition into a ruthless despot. Equally unjustified was the sudden glamorization of Walt’s sordid world, complete with unbearable swirly music-video odes to the cook.

All this has left me an appalled outsider, watching at a distance the less-than-credible love-fest with slaughter and naked ambition. I’ll watch this show to the end, but with faint hope that the story can be redeemed. Too bad. 


Ellen Besen is media critic and former columnist for POV magazine. She is the author of "Animation Unleashed: 100 Principles Every Animator, Comic Book Writer, Filmmaker, Video Artist and Game Developer Should Know" (Michael Wiese Books, January 2009). Besen has worked in animation for over 35 years. Her work has been show in film festivals and venues across the globe, including MOMA and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.