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Breaking Bad and the problem of evil - The Ex-Communicator

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August 2nd, 2011

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07:18 pm - Breaking Bad and the problem of evil
There has been a bit of debate online about the meaning of evil in Breaking Bad. Chuck Klosterman at Grantland argues that Breaking Bad is a dramatisation of a person deciding to become evil, as an act of willed change:
It's not just that watching White's transformation is interesting; what's interesting is that this transformation involves the fundamental core of who he supposedly is, and that this (wholly constructed) core is an extension of his own free will. The ... (change from Season 1-4) is a product of his own consciousness. He changed himself. At some point, he decided to become bad, and that's what matters.

While Amanda at Pandagon argues that Walt was always evil.
The show isn't about Walt becoming bad when he used to be good. The show is about how Walt is becoming the evil person he always was, but until now has managed to hide from everyone, including himself. The show isn't about how people can fundamentally change. It's more about the conflict between what is expected of someone versus what someone really, truly is. Walt is a fundamentally bad person who has managed to front his whole life

I think these are both great insights from people who have watched the show with care. And both these writers correctly say that part of the impact of BB is that we are made complicit with Walt, and we do root for him. Both these writers like Walt, they just think he's evil.

Perhaps a barometer of where we stand in the 'Walt is evil' spectrum is how gratified we are to see Walt beaten up last week. As Jesse says:
'I'm not saying getting beaten up is something you get used to... But you kind of get used to it.'

I guess I don't see Walt as evil. I am not saying 'oh, we shouldn't judge anyone' - but I don't feel that Walt has moved over to evil. I think his life before the first episode was fake and false. I feel he has become more authentic, more feral, and perhaps he needs to move farther in that direction to survive. Perhaps in some way if he owned his own actions more honestly he would be a better person, not a worse one.

And this show has made me think about what is evil, what is it for a person to be evil. Which is what good art makes you do, think about things even if you don't have an answer.

(cross-posted to breaking_bad)

(7 comments | Leave a comment)


Date:August 2nd, 2011 08:12 pm (UTC)
I never believed that people change. I just think they let hidden aspects of their nature emerge. I agree, everything we saw, see and will see about Walt has always been there. Writer Flannery O'Connor would say that human beings show who tehy really are when the situations get extreme. "A good man is hard to find" and that man has never been Walter H. White.
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Date:August 2nd, 2011 09:19 pm (UTC)
I think that the old Walt had constructed a life that was entirely faking it. To the extent I am not even sure he knew what was behind the fake.
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Date:August 2nd, 2011 11:17 pm (UTC)
I haven't seen Breaking Bad and I don't intend to... but those quotes and your thoughts are thought-provoking.

I wonder if your feeling that he has become "more authentic" is because he has thrown off his inhibitions, his societal conditioning to conform and be "nice". As for whether he is becoming evil or has always been evil... thing is, there is a seed of evil in every human being, an inherent selfishness inside. It isn't that a "good" person doesn't have that selfishness, but that they fight against it, that they desire to be good. So I think with Walt, the answer could be "both".

perhaps he needs to move farther in that direction to survive

There's one thing I've noticed in the self-justification of some evil people, and that is their declaration that there is no such thing as good and evil, there is only power; that the world is divided into weak and strong, and they are the strong. And of course they consider good people to be "weak" because they don't act to conquer others (and they can't comprehend that someone wouldn't want to conquer others). Justifying something in terms of "survival" sounds very similar to me. Is Walt travelling on a journey from weakness to strength?

Perhaps in some way if he owned his own actions more honestly he would be a better person

Perhaps. But I don't know if the journey he is taking is pushing him to become more honest with himself or not. Is he rationalizing his actions? If so, he's not becoming more honest.
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Date:August 3rd, 2011 07:28 am (UTC)
Thanks, I appreciate your response from your different perspective. Until recently I did not think that 'evil' was a very helpful word to apply to people. And in fact people who do what this character has done - specifically drug dealers, let us say in my town, killing people - I would call bad (and frightening) but not evil. Because they are caught up in an impossible situation.

But then I hear about other examples - and most are too upsetting to talk about in a blog comment - but let us say, I heard about a judge who had a financial arrangement with a private gaol to incarcerate teenagers for long periods for trivial offences. I feel that because the judges actions were unforced and systematic, yes I probably would say that's evil.

So, I feel that we have evil systems and power is used to project the bad aspects of those systems onto weaker people, who are labelled evil. While the people who ultimately benefit perhaps keep their hands clean.

Anyway, these are just some thoughts.

Edited at 2011-08-03 07:28 am (UTC)
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Date:August 2nd, 2011 11:37 pm (UTC)
more feral, and perhaps he needs to move farther in that direction to survive.

He's a modern urban reenvisioning of the old starving-trapper-turns-cannibal-discovers-he-likes-it-A-LOT myth/cautionary tale/excuse for gruesome Greyhound hijinks. With money standing in for meat of course. :-D
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Date:August 3rd, 2011 07:17 am (UTC)
That's very interesting. I can see exactly what you mean, and I think perhaps Vampirism is an old-world equivalent story.

I think what keeps Walt from that model is that he retains human connections with one or two people - though where is his son this season? - and he doesn't seem to me to be degenerating, and when I think of the old trapper I think of someone falling apart physically and mentally. Though of course as Colqhoun said in Ravenous - 'It does confer a certain.. vitality'. I'm talking myself round to this as I type. Why has Walt's cancer disappeared, because he is feasting on human blood.
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Date:August 4th, 2011 06:18 am (UTC)
Why has Walt's cancer disappeared, because he is feasting on human blood.

Yes. Vampirism doesn't work as well for me but then I don't actually know anything about that myth outside of Buffy and Lost Boys and, um...Buffy... But yes, he has--for the sake of his own and his family's survival (this would not work if it were a Canadian story...not yet)--turned to intraspecies predation, and goldarned if it's way easier and SO MUCH MORE DELICIOUS TO HIS EGO than he ever would of thunk.

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