In most ways, the debate regarding TV’s big four–The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men–will rage on as each team makes their case for why their show is superior. In many cases, this really will come down to individual taste. But there’s one way in which Breaking Bad, which returns this Sunday night for its final eight episodes, is clearly unique amongst the four. Breaking Bad is a show based on the wholesale rejection of a definitive element of most TV dramas. In conventional TV dramas, characters basically stay the same and the drama comes from watching their true colors emerge over time and seeing what happens as a result, or perhaps seeing what happens as they try to change but prove unable to do so.
The conflict between Lee Adama and his father William Adama in Battlestar Galactica is a perfect example of this. Neither Adama changes in some dramatic and undeniable way during the series, it’s simply that eventually certain events conspire to make their differences more apparent and throw them into conflict. You could say the same thing about the fights between Tim Riggins and Smash Williams in Friday Night Lights or the conflict between Toby Ziegler and the other senior staffers in The West Wing. The characters don’t change, but their surroundings do. (A similar thing happens with Don Draper in Mad Men, although it is made more complex by the fact that Don keeps trying to change but so far has struggled to do so, although the end of season 6 suggests that perhaps he’s finally made a breakthrough.) Typically though, when the surroundings change, differences that have always existed bubble up into conflict. The story isn’t about change, therefore, but simply about how events can come together to make what’s been there all along suddenly seem more apparent. But Breaking Bad is different. In Breaking Bad, the entire drama is based around seeing how characters change–something foreshadowed masterfully in the series pilot when Walt gives the following speech to his high-school chemistry students:
“Chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change: Electrons change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements combine and change into compounds. But that’s all of life, right? It’s the constant, it’s the cycle. It’s solution, dissolution. Just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation. It’s fascinating really. It’s a shame so many of us never take time to consider its implications.”
You could say, therefore, that the entire series is about chemistry. Viewed this way, Walt’s occupation as a chemistry teacher isn’t simply a convenient plot device to explain how he learned to make such a superior version of meth. It’s actually a clue that explains the entire series. Breaking Bad is the story of how a person who has given their life to understanding change is himself changed and how those changes in turn change the people closest to him.
Where the discussion of the series becomes more interesting is in trying to locate where the most pivotal change takes place. One theory is that it happens when Walt gets Jesse to kill Gale, a character the show takes great pains to show in a very sympathetic, human light. Indeed, they do with Gale what they opted not to do with Walt–make the choice to cook meth seem reasonable. Walt’s choice had always seemed like the fulfillment of a long-repressed soul longing to break out of the confines of an under-achieving middle class life, but Gale’s was seen as a much more controlled, rational decision. In a show featuring drug dealers, arrogant cops, addicts, mercenary hitmen, manipulative family members, and fraudulent business owners, it’s hard to find an innocent victim for Walt to kill. But in Gale the show’s writers provided that character. Seen this way, Gale is one of the few real victims in the story.
However, that’s not where the break for Walt happens. Killing Gale is a utilitarian act of self-preservation that can be understood alongside the choice to let Jane die, to kill Emilio, or, later, to kill Mike’s ten guys in prison. All those killings happen for the same reason–Walt needs to keep himself alive and out of trouble. The only thing that changes is the degree of planning and the scale of the killing, both of which grow as a consequence of Walt’s descent into deeper and deeper forms of evil. But none of those killings are the point where he breaks.
The break happens in the third episode of the first season, “…And the Bag’s in the River.” The episode begins memorably, with Walt and Jesse cleaning up the acid and bits of corpse that fell through the ceiling at the end of the previous episode after Jesse attempted to dissolve a body in acid in his bathtub. After cleaning up the mess and disposing of the first body, they have to figure out what to do with their live hostage, Krazy 8. As the episode begins, Krazy 8 is locked down in the basement with a bike long around his neck, tying him to a support beam. It’s a purposefully uncomfortable, demeaning way to treat a human being–and the fact is not lost on Walt. Make no mistake, the pride that will transform Walter White into Heisenberg is present even this early. But he hasn’t realized the cost of satisfying that thirst for transcendence. Up to now, Walt fully expects to keep his hands completely clean. He disappears to cook meth from time to time, Jesse handles everything else, he gets enough money to leave for his family, and then he dies. That’s the trajectory Walt is expecting. He thinks he’s found a way to live in two separate worlds–one in which he has his family and the other in which he can realize his long-suppressed ambition.
Krazy 8 is the roadblock to that storyline. Krazy 8 can go to the police or could kill him. And yet Walt doesn’t want him to be the roadblock. Walt feels awful about locking him up that way and begins bringing him food and water. Midway through the episode he is coming downstairs, carrying a sandwich on a plate for his prisoner when he has a coughing fit, collapses to the ground and blacks out. When he wakes up, the plate is shattered and Krazy 8 is sitting there looking at him. After that moment of vulnerability–a vulnerability no one else on the planet has shared with him–Walt begins to have a relationship with his prisoner and he thinks the relationship can save him. They talk and he learns Krazy 8’s real name and discovers that he bought a crib from his father’s furniture store 15 years before. It’s even possible that Krazy 8 had been there working when Walt and Skyler made their purchase. At that point, Walt decides to let Krazy 8 go. He goes upstairs to retrieve the key to the lock, but as he’s finding it he has a sudden thought. He rushes to the trashcan to find all the pieces from the broken plate and reassembles the plate on the counter–a single, knife-like piece is missing. At this point the disconsolate Walter goes back to the trashcan, feverishly looking for the final piece. When he can’t find it, he breaks down.
Why is that the pivotal moment? Because it’s the moment Walter realizes that their entire conversation, this incredibly vulnerable moment he shared with a fellow human being, was a charade. To put it in terms used by C.S. Lewis, this is the moment when Walter realizes he has to leave the tao behind. This is, in other words, the abolition of Walter White. In Lewis’s Abolition of Man, he describes the general natural law consensus of most major religious faiths as the tao. The tao refers to the objective values shared across cultures, the values that teach us that we ought to treat our fellow human beings with honor and respect and that there are right and wrong ways of behaving in the world to which human beings are accountable. If the tao is taken away, all that can be left is power. Lewis wrote, “The Tao, which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected.” While Walter’s rejection of the tao is not some logically thought-through rejection of natural law, it is a choice to leave behind the world in which the tao operates for a world in which the only law is power.
What Walter realizes as he discovers the missing piece from the plate is that all his vulnerability and care for Krazy 8 meant nothing to 8. Krazy 8 was still going to kill him the moment Walter let him go. And Walter realizes that in this new world the only way he can survive is to ignore that humanity, to renounce the basic kindnesses that had always been a buffer to his everpresent pride. He’s left behind the safe world of love and family and has entered a new world not defined by any sort of predetermined morality or rules.
On the one hand, he can finally realize the ambitions he’s quietly nursed his whole life. But on the other that realization will cost him everything. The moment is a kind of reverse conversion where Walter recognizes that he cannot maintain his life as he’s known it while also working as a meth cook. The tragedy of the thing is that it had always been Walter’s love of his family that kept his ambition checked. And so family becomes the one thing able to unleash his ambition as well. But unleashing that ambition in order to provide for his family will also cost him his family. That’s the tragedy of Breaking Bad. And the understanding of that tragedy is what crushes Walt as he sobs in Jesse’s kitchen. To keep his family, he thinks, he has to lose them.
So Walter walks downstairs and asks 8 to turn around. And as he reaches for the bike lock he asks him, “Are you going to stick me with that piece of plate?” before putting all his weight into pulling back on the bike lock and strangling him. It’s possibly the most horrifying killing in the show’s entire run, and it’s meant to be. This is the most unique of all the killings because it’s the one that taught Walter that he couldn’t just be a nice guy who happens to cook meth. If he was to become something more than a bumbling high-school teacher, he had to give up the morals he had lived by up to that point. To borrow from Heath Ledger’s Joker, Walter had to break the rules he’d given himself. And he did.
When Jesse returns to the house, the house is clean and Krazy 8 is gone, presumably dissolved in acid like Emilio before him. It will be some time, of course, before Walter turns into a full-fledged monster. Obviously there’s some debate about when we realize how evil he has become–is it when he lets Jane die? When he orders Gale’s death? When he poisons a child to get to Gus? But the pivotal moment when Walter turns comes well before any of those. It comes when Walter realizes that a piece of plate is missing, when he realizes that the only person who knows about his cancer means to kill him, when he realizes that he must choose between satisfying his pride and observing the tao. The rise of Heisenberg might happen later. But the abolition of Walter White happens in Jesse Pinkman’s kitchen.