In the third season of Breaking Bad, AMC’s critically acclaimed drama, there was a flashback to the apex of protagonist Walter White’s life. While touring an empty prospective home—a home that viewers have come to know so well—Walter bemoans the lack of space for the many children that he plans on having. A young chemist in the burgeoning Sun Belt of the early ’90s, Walter holds his pregnant wife and says, “The only way is up.” This scene is perhaps the cruelest of the series, which chronicles Walter’s bleak descent into the world of border killings, drug cartels, money laundering and Faustian imbalance. The show touches upon most things desperate and failing in America’s huge, dry Southwest, and returns for its fifth and final season Sunday night.
The fall is precipitous. Walter’s pregnant wife will give birth to a child with cerebral palsy. Walt will get cut out of his business by his partners, and will begin teaching at an Albuquerque public school. His wife will unexpectedly become pregnant again as he turns 50. He will have to take a second job at a car wash, and then, finally, he will be diagnosed with terminal cancer. Facing the prospect of his family falling into poverty, Walt turns to cooking meth. Initially a sloppy, dangerous novice—the first enduring image of the series is Walt, standing in his underwear, with a gun, as a noxious plume escapes a shoddy RV—Walt enters the upcoming season having found his way to the top of a criminal empire, possibly with meth-dominion over the entire Southwest.
Over the course of the show’s four previous seasons, viewers have watched Walt go from a desperate, compassionate father and husband to a cold-blooded murderer and kingpin. Instead of passing from the earth and leaving a tidy pile of cash for his family, he has dragged them down with him. He has repeatedly placed them in danger. He has made them complicit in his crimes. Viewers wonder when his death will arrive—or maybe it has, for surely this must be hell. For viewers to still find Walt, a killer and pusher, immensely sympathetic, is the feat that makes Breaking Bad the benchmark of exceptional drama. The show is an exercise in ethics and impossible choice, rooted in the heightened reality of our country’s wracked and wretched West.
There are many sources to assign blame for Walt’s sorry condition. As a teacher, Walter shouldn’t have to take a second job just to provide for his family—it’s even hinted that the fumes from the car wash were the catalyst for his cancer. As a citizen, he shouldn’t have had to decide between cancer treatment and the well-being of his family (but privatized healthcare will do that to you). People usually deal with these obstacles legally. They do so by racking up more debt, burdening their families, placing more people in the red in states that vote deep red. But Walt resists. He uses whatever agency he has to die on his own terms. Because the stakes of drug trafficking firmly places our protagonist so far outside the status quo, because our hero is a criminal, the viewer is forced to ask, If playing by the rules only gets you so far, why bother? Breaking Bad dismisses the idea that your blue-collar job will provide for you, that, if needed, the State will, too, and that doing the right thing will be its own substantive reward. The show doesn’t aim to moralize or assign blame; it works to deconstruct these little fallacies that keep the poor from demanding dignity.