Breaking Bad: Lessons in Morals and Ethics

[SPOILER ALERT: Stop reading if you have not watched the finale of Breaking Bad.” This entry contains discussion of plot points.]

On Sunday, September 29, AMC aired the final episode of the series, Breaking Bad. The protagonist in the series, Walter White, was a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with lung cancer who was caught between a rock and hard place with attempting to pay medical bills and wanting to be sure that his family was cared for after his death. Sadly, many people face dire situations like that of Walter White. However, few would consider the option he chose: developing a superior quality of meth-amphetamine and becoming the head of a drug syndicate.

Breaking Bad raised many ethical and moral issues. Perhaps the most obvious of these ethical and moral issues is summarized in the adage: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Walter began with good intentions. In the end, he killed more than a few people and wrecked the lives of his family members.

Walter embodies a fundamentally flawed moral perspective that can be found throughout society today: the ends justify the means. In Walter’s logic, his goal (to care for his family) justified every lie he told and each life he took. It’s this same logic that is used by politicians as they seek political gain, companies and corporations who deceptively advertise their products for larger profits, or even friends and family members who weave untruths so as to not hurt their loved ones with the truth. While Walter’s specific behavior as far different from that of most individuals, the ethical reasoning that he used to justify his behavior is all too common.

While many people have analyzed Walter’s behavior from a number of perspectives, I find it worth considering the behavior of two other characters in the series: Walter’s wife, Skylar, and his associate, Jesse. My interest in these characters is because Walter could not have accomplished all he did without these two individuals.

Over the course of five seasons, Skylar went through a series of significant transformations. There was a time when she was suspicious of Walter and confronted his lying. Later, something shifted inside of her. As she experienced increased isolation in her marriage and frustration over Walter’s secretive behavior, she found herself in the midst of an affair with someone from her work place. Such a series of events is all too common. But once she is caught up in the affair, she finds it difficult to maintain her moral compass. As an accountant, she agrees to keep a double-set of books her for her boss who is her lover, attempting to shield him from an IRS investigation. This pulls her further off center until she finds herself laundering drug money for Walter and hiding his secrets. While wanting to do the right thing emerges for her in her desires to keep her family members safe, ultimately she enables Walter in his manipulation of the family and his career as a drug kingpin.

It seems to me that the crucial flaw for Skylar was her inability to recognize her own self-worth. She was overcome by isolation and then by guilt and shame. These emotions led her to make decisions that enabled the cycles of evil to grow larger and more encompassing. She seems to consider suicide during season five. Pulling herself out of depression, she concludes that she’s in so far that she should continue in order to protect her children.

For me, Skylar epitomizes how people who lose a positive sense of self, caught in cycles of guilt and shame. Guilt and shame can open people to be manipulated into supporting something that they’d otherwise recognize as fundamentally wrong. Skylar’s perspective was so clouded by her negative self-preoccupations that she couldn’t see what was happening around her until it was too late.

Jesse is like many people who didn’t develop a sense of healthy boundaries in his life. Perhaps in childhood, his parents were overly permissive and didn’t allow him to experience failure so that he could learn from it. He struggles with addiction but shows moments of great compassion. Some commentators have described him as the character who was the conscience of the show. He often knew what was right, yet was powerless to do much about it. Too many people in life recognize the right thing, the moral thing, the ethically responsible thing, but they don’t have any power in life to do anything about it. Many of us feel such powerlessness in the face of the decisions made by politicians or in the influence of social trends that pull people off from balanced living. We scratch our heads and think, “That’s not right, but I can’t do anything about it.” Often that’s Jesse’s position. Even when he tries to do something about a situation he knows is just wrong, he is rebuffed or can’t find a strategy that works.

What I’ll miss about Breaking Bad is that the drama presented a series of characters struggling with moral and ethical issues. While the story was larger than life, the ethics reflected the realities of people who were much like us. In particular, Skylar and Jesse struggled to do the right thing and often aren’t sure how to do it. In the end, they suffered and so did many people around them.

© 2013 – 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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