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Breaking Bad: A modern morality play

“What makes the story of Walter White so special?”

“What makes the story of Walter White so special?” said David Sirota in Salon.com. About 10 million people tuned in this week to discover the fate of Breaking Bad’s complex anti-hero, as a series many consider the “best show in the history of television” came to an end. The show was a cultural phenomenon, sparking millions of water-cooler and online conversations among obsessed fans. Breaking Bad was filled with violence, plot twists, great dialogue, and stunning cinematography, but at its heart it was a character study of timid chemistry teacher Walter White, who starts cooking and dealing methamphetamine to provide for his family after he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer. Over the show’s five seasons, White “breaks bad,” devolving into a murderous drug lord. But even as the “murders, lies, and immoral choices” piled up, said Michaeleen Doucleff in NPR.org, viewers were rooting for Walt to the very end.

That’s because the show invited its audience into “an alternative moral code,” said Ross Douthat in The New York Times. Under great duress, Walt opts out of the usual moral norms, and viewers are asked to decide: Is it really so bad to kill, steal, and lie if it’s for the survival and protection of your family? That kind of Darwinian, “tribal morality” may be primitive, but it can be found “just below the surface of every human heart.” Walt was clearly a 21st-century Everyman, said David Koepsell in BBC.com. He was poorly paid despite his dedication, and screwed over by indifferent fate and society. But in this “modern morality play,” Walt slips further and further into evil once he decides that the ends justify the means. The message: “We sell our souls in bits and pieces.”

[SPOILER ALERT] It’s a shame, then, that the finale lets Walt—and by extension, the viewers—off the hook, said Willa Paskin in Slate.com. Walt gets to meet “death on his own terms,” as he makes sure his family will receive $9 million of his ill-gotten fortune, and then takes a bullet in a final gunfight with neo-Nazi gang rivals. Before he dies, he even has a moment of self-knowledge about his life of crime. “I did it for me,” he confesses to his wife. “I liked it. I was alive.” After spending five seasons challenging viewers to justify Walt’s descent into evil, Breaking Bad lets him exit “relatively redeemed.”

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