Breaking Bad and the Slippery Slope of Evil

27 Aug


I’m starting to think Vince Gilligan, the all-important creator of Breaking Bad and the name that appears at the end of each episode, is actually the Joker.  I’ve been enjoying the show all the way through Season 5. It’s an unapologetic page turner in TV form, but I’ve found that I’ve been mentally rejecting the character of Walter White in Season 5 just as Batman would fight against the Joker’s depraved traps.

I call Vince Gilligan the Joker due to the central idea of Breaking Bad sharing space with the Joker’s thoughts on evil in both The Dark Knight and the Killing Joke:

“All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day. You had a bad day once. Am I right? You had a bad day and everything changed”

Season 1 of Breaking Bad is pure pulpy goodness, and its an super villain origin story if I’ve ever heard of one.  We have the motivation, the secret identity, and the raging id: Cancer, Walter White, Heisenberg. I buy the cynical thematic elements of Breaking Bad; the criticism of machismo, the downfall of the middle class, but the character of Walter White operates on the same principles laid out by the joker, that of snapping on “one bad day” and making increasingly poor choices that lead to other eviler choices until you’re melting innocent children in vats.

I’m well acquainted with slippery slope arguments, mostly due to gay marriage debates, and they usually go something like “if gay marriage happens, then polyamory happens,” or something like that. Its a fallacy because it ignores the middle ground, or it assumes that one thing will naturally lead into another without each ‘thing’ being judged on its own inherit merits. Walter White, as a character, seems to be written without a middle ground, that is there is no one thing that would give him pause.  He is a man with no internal code, but my problem with him is that he didn’t start that way. It is almost as if he has been completely retconned from his Season 1 origin story; that of a caring family man who listed murder as a “con” in a list of pro/cons.

Compare him to Jesse, who shows up a small time criminal, but who has a clear line of caring for children that keeps him grounded even as he also crosses that line.  He doesn’t kill a child, but he indirectly leads to the death of one, he is haunted by his actions, the order he gave to a minion who did the deed, but he manages to continue his brand of evil. I buy Jesse’s ever evolving brand of evil. I see evil as a sometimes product of a fractured life, or as a product of a verbal order or paperwork. You see, there are patterns to evil, there is a history of violence, however small, but its usually there, and with most of the characters on the show we see some of that, but if you buy into the Walter White brand of evil, the “one bad day” could ruin us all thesis, then there’s no pattern.

If there’s no pattern to evil, if there’s no history, then we couldn’t tell the mass murderers from our neighbors. Its one of those weird myths we hear about all the time; “he was a nice guy until he snapped.” Was he? Or did we ignore all of the signs? Is Walter White a recent megalomaniac? Or was Heisenberg there since the start?

It’s interesting that the show made such a big deal showing the characters watching Scarface on TV, and I’m sure the in-universe comparisons will continue, but we should note that Tony Montana didn’t just suffer “one bad day,” he showed up in America with a rap sheet.
More on Breaking Bad in the New Yorker


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