Breaking Bad: Rooting For The Antihero
by, June 4th, 2010 at 04:48 PM
** Spoiler Alert: This article may contain spoilers for the AMC series Breaking Bad, from its first season to its third season.
What would you do to guarantee the financial security of your family? Most of us would probably work, spend wisely, save, and possibly invest. However, what would you do if you had only short time to live due to cancer? Would you be willing to participate in illegal activities to gain a substantial amount of money? Would you manufacture meth, steal, and murder, all for your peace of mind that your family will be financially stable when you die? That is the story and some of the ethical questions raised in Breaking Bad, AMC's award winning series about a high-school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with lung cancer.
Walter White (Bryan Cranston), after being diagnosed with lung cancer, begins to question what will happen to his family once he dies. After having an innocent conversation with his brother-in-law who is a DEA agent, Walt concludes that there is much money to be made from cooking meth. Walt enlists the help of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), a former student and current drug dealer, and together haphazardly cook and deal crystal meth. Walt must hide this from everyone he loves: his wife, his son who has cerebral palsy, his brother-in-law who is a DEA agent, his friends, and his co-workers. To ensure the success of his illegal business, Walt must steal meth cooking ingredients and hardware, murder other drug dealers, participate in drug cartel turf wars, and repeatedly lie to his family and friends.
The main theme and the main question posed by the show strikes an interesting debate. What would you be willing to do, how far would you go, for the sake of your family's economic survival? I would imagine, as depicted in the show, that doing such illegal acts would not always turn out roses. I would not want to risk lies being exposed and trust lost. I could not violate my principles and take those steps into unethical waters. Such debate is intriguing, but why is it that after I concluded I would not do what Walt chooses to do, I still watch the show and hope that Walt will succeed in the illegal drug business? What does it say about me, and the audience, when we root for an antihero?
An antihero isn't necessarily a villain, but is a protagonist who lacks the attributes of a hero. When Walter White was diagnosed with lung cancer, knowing he had no significant savings and that his chemotherapy would come with an exorbitant cost, he began to do questionable things, making his character an antihero. Instead of asking for financial help from charitable organizations, instead of accepting an offer from a rich friend to pay for his chemotherapy, Walt lets his pride win over his humility and begins to swim in dark waters.
At first, I felt sympathy for the character Walt, but with each new episode, I became less sympathetic and began to relate to the character less. For example, I could not have the stomach to dissolve a rival's dead body in acid and then flush the remains down the toilet one bucket at a time. I would loathe myself for having to continuously lie to my wife and children, and create new lies to cover prior lies. I could not participate in ruining the lives of the people that would consume the meth I cooked. Even so, I still found myself hoping that Walt would make millions, win the turf wars, and that his wife, son, and his DEA agent brother-in-law would never find out.
At the end of season two, after Walt's cancer went into remission, and after he had made his stash, things began to unravel. After lies were exposed, his wife left him, bringing their son and newborn daughter with her. Hank, the DEA agent and Walt's brother-in-law, was on the evidence trail that would lead back to Walt. Jesse, Walt's partner, was more wrapped up in consuming meth rather than cooking and selling.
At this point, I asked myself, why am I rooting for this scumbag? Walt had betrayed his family. He had put his wife and his children at risk because he was too prideful to accept charity from his friends. Without knowing that his dad was making large sums of money from cooking meth, Walt Jr. established a small online charity (savewalterwhite.com), and Walt Sr. began to launder his drug money through his son's honest and heart-felt website. Walt inadvertently pulled his brother-in-law Hank into the middle of a turf war that, midway this season, resulted in Hank being hospitalized for severe gun shot wounds. At the end of last season, season two, I realized that I should not be hoping for the success of Walt. I didn't admire the character, nor would I want to ever become like him. I began to cheer for his wife and her decision to leave Walt. I became excited when Hank got closer and closer to busting Walt and Jesse.
When I told some friends, who also watch the show, that I hope that Walt gets caught and fairly sentenced, they were perplexed. "Why would you want the good guy to get punished?" I argued that although Walt fulfilled his goal by making oodles of money for his family, the methods used to get that money were not indicative of a good guy. My friends didn't see it that way. Perhaps I'm looking at things in ways that are too black and white, but why do audiences cheer for antiheroes, like those found in The Sopranos, Prison Break, Dexter, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad? The only one of those series that I have stuck to watching is the latter, but I am close to ditching it. I find myself wanting less antihero series and more series about clear cut good vs. obvious evil. What do you think?
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