Last night's Breaking Bad finale brought to an end one of the truly great series on broadcast television, and did so in a way that was thematically appropriate and narratively satisfying. After the debacles that were the series ends of The Sopranos and Lost, I will admit that I was somewhat concerned that Breaking Bad would not fulfill the promise of its early episodes. (By the way, there will be spoilers for the entirety of Breaking Bad in what follows. You've been warned).
Let me note that, while I had been intrigued by the premise of the show from the beginning, I had never really invested myself in Breaking Bad until the last month or so, when I watched the whole show in a period of about two or three weeks, anticipating the final few episodes. This is, I think, the best possible way to watch the show, since it allows you to appreciate just how concentrated its narrative time-frame is, and just how rapidly Walt's descent into the moral quagmire actually takes place. It also makes it much easier to detect the show's themes when you catch them coming at you in large chunks, rather than spread out over a period of five years.
As I watched the show, I was particularly interested in what its moral message might be. Was it an expression or celebration of nihilism, or in some way a glorification of its anti-heroic protagonist, or did it seek to plumb some deeper dimensions of the moral life? While, for example, The Wire kept us rooting for its assorted anti-heroes almost always until the moment of their endings, Breaking Bad seemed, from the beginning (indeed, from its title), to be aware that there is something "broken" in Walt. He's broken. Bad. Not just because of his cancer, though that's an apt metaphor for his moral decline. Not just because he has stowed away resentments for the whole of his adult life which seep out of him when he is desperate. These are aspects of his story, but they are not, as I view the show, what it's finally about, morally speaking. Walt is broken because Walt has no sense that there is any higher moral or spiritual order to the world he inhabits.
This is exemplified in the clip above, where he and Gretchen are calculating the chemical components of the human body. Once they've added it all up, it seems ... somehow lacking. As Walt says, "it feels like there should be something more." When Gretchen proposes that perhaps they've missed the soul, Walt's reply encapsulates the entirety of his worldview: "There's nothing here but chemistry."
But if that is true -- if there is in fact nothing here but chemistry -- then, I think the show is suggesting, why not cook meth? It's a variation on Dostoevsky's question: "If there is no God, why not commit suicide?" If in the end human life can be said to be nothing more than the manifestation of material processes -- physical, chemical, biological -- then, if you are in Walt's situation, what's to prevent you from making meth? I would suggest that any possible answer to that question that you could propose -- the harm it would do, the greater good, the Categorical Imperative, the damage to Walt's virtue, or his reputation, or his self-image, can all be neatly swept under the carpet by Walt's self-justification, and his insistence that, after all, once he's dead, there will be no Walter White left to suffer the consequences of his horrific deeds. And if there is no Walt (except perhaps in the wholly chemical materially determined memories of those he leaves behind), then his best course of action is to try to leave them with material security and fond memories of him.
Of course, his justifications are hollow, as he finally admits to Skyler in last night's episode. "I did it for me," he acknowledges. But allow him his self-justification for one moment and attempt to answer the question: If you are Walter White, and believe as Walter White does that "there's nothing here but chemistry," what morally compelling reason can be given not to do what he's done? We know, having seen the series, that Walt's schemes inevitably and disastrously spin out of his control, but at the moment he makes that initial decision, in the absence of the knowledge of where it will lead, could any moral argument dissuade him?
Morally speaking, there has to be something more to human life than chemistry. Morality is, I believe, the definitive refutation of a radically materialist brand of metaphysics. Even people who purport to believe that all of existence is nothing but matter in motion almost never behave as if they believe it. If they did, then they would be moral monsters, just as Walter White becomes. As human beings, we have to at least act as though there was more than just chemistry to human life. Because if we actually acted as though all of our motivations were merely the manifestations of our "selfish genes," then there would be no compelling reason not to act in ways that would make Ayn Rand's repugnant philosophy of self-interest look like Mother Theresa's Guide to Ethical Living.
Indeed, the other iconic scene from the series illustrates this point powerfully. Jesse, guilt-ridden over his murder of Gale Boetticher, seeks some form of solace in the recovery group that he had tried to exploit as his potential meth clients. Finally sick of the leader's shallow insistence that they needed to learn to accept themselves and refuse to judge, Jesse explodes:
"If you just do stuff and nothing happens," Jesse asks, "what does it all mean?" Jesse recognizes that his actions exist in the context of a larger moral framework, or at least, that they should. Otherwise, life really is just one damn thing after another. If our actions don't matter morally, he suggests, then there is no reason to believe that his murder of Gale is anything to be troubled about. The group leader's inane bromides about self-acceptance and "owning our actions" are an evasion of responsibility.
To be sure, often what we need to be told, in the words of Paul Tillich, is to "accept Acceptance." But, perhaps just as often, we need to be told that we are unacceptable. So when Jesse finally pushes the group leader to admit that Jesse is unacceptable to him, Jesse takes that not as rejection but as triumph. It means that, in some kind of moral framework, his actions really do have consequences.
The question though is, what kind of moral framework could that be? The materialist worldview, where nothing exists but matter in motion, has no potential to provide any framework that is more compelling than unabashed self-interest. Well, you might say by way of response, there is the social context in which you reside, or there is the greatest good for the greatest number, or there is your own happiness or the happiness of those most proximate to you. But against the backdrop of a universe as vast as ours, and a time-frame as enormous as ours, there is no form of temporal happiness or communal good that can definitvely override self-interest, particularly not, if like Walt, your own personal clock is rapidly running out.
And, arguably, most of the most awful characters on the show are seeking, through their misdeeds, some approximation of happiness, at least of a personal, if not a social sort. Walt seeks the happiness of finally being the acknowledged expert, the best in his field. Skyler seeks the happiness of domesticity. Jesse seeks some escape from his personal demons. Mike seeks to secure the happiness of his granddaughter. Even Gus Fring (at least according to Giancarlo Esposito on last night's Talking Bad) is seeking to elicit human excellence from those whom he mentors, whether it's Max, Gale, Walt, or Jesse. (As a side note, the incredulous reaction of Jonathan Banks, the actor who played Mike, to Esposito's argument was a priceless moment in the aftershow).
I don't think, despite my own religious perspective, that the answer to this question has to be religious. There are many moral frameworks besides religious ones that do not depend on a materialist metaphysical framework. And in the end I think one of the great insights of Immanuel Kant is that ultimately, the metaphysical form of the world is completely unknowable to us, making any attempt to definitively describe it completely fruitless. But regardless, if one were looking for a non-materialist, and non-religious metaphysic to embrace, there are many candidates out there.
That said, I do think that Vince Gilligan has some kind of religious perspective in mind as he contemplates Walt's actions. From the teddy bear's eye that looks up accusingly at Walt over the course of many episodes, to his final desperate prayer in his stolen car in last night's finally, there does seem to be some form of divine presence existing on the edges of the narrative. Gilligan once described the teddy bear's eye as "the Eye of God" and one could read Walt's unlikely discovery of the keys as a form of divine providence, offering Walt a final opportunity to seek some form of redemption before the end.
So, does Walt achieve redemption? Given the amount of evil he did, it is hard for me to say yes to that. If he did, he was perhaps to be found nowhere but in the moment of tenderness that he shared with his sleeping daughter before embarking on his final conflagration. I have disagreed with those who have said that Walt is a psychopath. It's been clear to me from the beginning, or at least from the moment that he brought a sandwich to Crazy 8 in season one and asked for a reason not to kill him, that Walt had to work to overcome his moral instincts. Indeed, I think that the point of introducing Todd as a character is to show what a genuine psychopath really looks like. Walt needs to justify his actions in the name of some higher purpose. He never wholly escapes the moral realm, even at his worst, where as Todd never enters that realm to begin with. Walt becomes a monster; Todd is a monster. So that moment when he strokes Holly's hair, saying what he knows to be his last goodbye, and knowing that there were no possible words he could offer to his family that would convince them of his good intentions, having abandoned all of his self-justifications, may be as close as he could come to redemption.
And, when he dies, his enemies scattered before him -- even Lydia, done in by a stevia packet and her own predictable nature -- he dies surrounded by the tools of his trade, a chemist to the end. Is it possible that he had come to realize in the end that there is not in fact "nothing here but chemistry"? I doubt it, but if he came to realize that there was a larger moral world to which he was accountable, and was prepared at the end to make that accounting, then perhaps some faint glimmer of redemption is possible for Walter White.