Breaking Bad and making good - identifying with Walter White

July 22, 2018

I finally watched the final episode of Breaking Bad a few weeks ago. Yes, I’m a bit behind the times, but I don’t get a lot of time to watch TV. A few years ago, as a lot of people were making a lot of noise about it, I watched the first series. It was pretty good, although it didn’t seem to live up to the hype. Perhaps my expectations were affected by the fact that I’d recently come out of a serious relationship with The Wire. I started on the second series, but after a couple of episodes with Tuco, I couldn’t face it any more. There was too much unpleasantness, too many nasty people, too much negativity. We had a young baby, and I didn’t want to think about the world being like that. I wanted to shelter myself from the big, bad world, so we mainly watched comedies.

Then, a few months ago, after Lovefilm closed, we started a trial of Netflix. Flicking through the options, we decided to give it another try. Gradually, we found ourselves drawn in to that world, and we raced through the seasons, eager to find out how things would turn out, all the while being glad to have the NHS. As with The Sopranos, so many of the characters are unsympathetic, but still you find yourself unable to completely despise them. We were gripped, watching it almost every night, although we needed to watch something light as an antidote after every episode. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was perfect for that - absurd, and absurdly positive.

Eventually we made it to the final episode, and it was everything we’d hoped it would be - loose ends tied up in a gripping finale, with something resembling a strange kind of redemption. As Walt prepared to face the final curtain, he explained himself to his wife.

“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really… I was alive.”

Why did he do all of those terrible things? Because he was focusing on something that he was good at it, and because he was following the path that he’d laid for himself.

Strangely, it resonated with me, reminded me of myself.

But is it really so strange? Isn’t the universality of these extreme situations the reason why they appeal to us? Not many of us are cancer-stricken methamphetamine manufacturers, or Danish princes whose uncle has murdered their father, but we can recognise some of the struggles that these characters face.

As with many developers, I get obsessed with the problems I’m trying to solve - I can’t bear the feeling that I don’t understand why something isn’t working. I’ll wake up at strange times with an idea of how to fix something, or just an overwhelming urge to make progress.

Why do I so frequently work too hard? I shouldn’t be working extra hours, I should be spending time with my family while my daughter is still young enough that she wants to spend time with me. I tell myself that I’m doing it for my family, to provide for them, but that isn’t really it. I’m not getting paid overtime, and I’m not chasing a promotion. It’s about me. I have an addiction to work. When life is difficult, I can take refuge in the feeling that I’m good at my work, or at least distract myself from thinking about real problems for a while.

It didn’t occur to me while I was watching it, but in a way, perhaps Breaking Bad is a cautionary tale about the dangers of obsession, about the noble lies we tell ourselves as we persuade ourselves that we’re doing the right thing. It’s easy to imagine that we have to do things, that we’re stuck on a set of railway tracks that give us little choice about our next actions. The truth is that most of our apparent obligations have come from choices that we’ve made, and we can unmake those choices. We always have a choice. The difficult part is dealing with the consequences of our choices.