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.
Giancarlo Esposito, the great New York actor, plays Gus Fring, Walt’s drug distributor who sets him up with a high-tech lab. He is initially skeptical of this dysfunctional meth-cook. Gus knows that his product is the best in the region, a highly sophisticated light blue crystal methamphetamine that earns Walt the anachronistic name "Heisenberg" (as in Werner Heisenberg, the physicist whose own contributions to science helped irradiate Walt’s backyard). But Walt’s persistence, his need, brings Gus around to him. Eventually, after a tumultuous relationship, Walt emerges with Gus’s empire, and Gus is left without half of his face.
Bryan Cranston—who played the father in Malcolm in the Middle, another brilliant, albeit humorous show about poverty and a rough kind of family devotion—plays Walt with such a strain of desperation and hopeless energy to leave no doubt that he’s driven by love. He must provide for and protect the people he loves, even as they try to destroy him (his wife, Skylar, leaves him after finding out his secret; his brother-in-law, a DEA agent is hot on his trail). He even develops a love for Jesse Pinkman, his junkie sidekick and former student, whom he has manipulated, assaulted and many, many times nearly killed. Still, amidst the bleakness, there are humor and brief moments of joy. Hank, the DEA brother-in-law, is slowly becoming the good-natured heart of the show, although one suspects an ugly end. Bob Odenkirk plays sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman, plotting in his office, replete with plaster doric columns, to such an effect you feel as if his hair gel is going to rub off on the screen.
Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, is a veteran of The X-Files, another show that pulled back the covers and highlighted, hyperbolically at times, the absurd fringes of American life. He has said that he wants to demonstrate how every action, no matter how tiny, has its consequence. How becoming a criminal means having to do bad things. This extends to how our own war on drugs has begun to cross over the border. Because of our role as both customer and supplier, it was only a matter of time until the violence came home. As our smaller, poorer cities are inundated with drugs, we feel the consequences of abusive policies towards our southern neighbors, and our escalating involvement in Mexico. New Mexico slowly comes to resemble the older one.
Breaking Bad is a visceral, stressful show that isn’t too concerned with politics. It’s a study of people in bad situations. People who live on a moonscape in houses that look equal parts adobe and Sears. Southwesterners who rabidly defend their border, but from what exactly? “If the United States is to be pictured as a garden out of which the aliens must be kept,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in 2005, “imagine it with skulls and skeletons and mummies, not garden gnomes or pink flamingos, as its lawn ornaments.” Breaking Bad sees it with both—the desecration of a certain destiny we embarked on some time ago. The American West was taken illegally from Mexicans and Native Americans. We fought and we won it. We polluted and depleted it.
Last season ended with Walt on the phone with his estranged wife, seemingly relieved after cheating immediate death in favor of his imminent one. “We’re safe,” Walter tells Skylar. "I won."
This season we’ll find out the true cost of conquest.