“Breaking Bad”--How Bad is Too Bad?
Meet Walter White of “Breaking Bad” in the show’s first season: a bumbling, Dad-jeans-wearing chemistry teacher diagnosed with lung cancer. When Walt decides to start cooking meth to pay for his own chemotherapy, we cheer him on every step of the way. It does not matter that he lies to his wife, enables his former student Jesse’s drug habit, or that his brother-in-law is a DEA agent. He is an underdog who can, literally, get away with murder as far as the audience cares.
Flash forward to the end of season three, and Walt is ordering his accomplice Jesse to kill innocent chemist Gale, the only other cook who knows Walter’s recipe. By the end of season four, our alleged hero is poisoning children and planting car bombs in a senior citizens’ home. How much bad can viewers take before they write off Walt and shift allegiances to a different character?
In terms of narrative strategy, director Vince Gilligan astonishes not only with the sadistic scenes he invents, but also with the relentless downward trajectory of his main character. Gilligan describes the reason why he keeps Walt bad in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, “He’s at a point where he does not take responsibility, and I guess, in a way, it makes sense that he doesn’t, because if he did, he would very quickly stop cooking meth and stop being a criminal, and then we wouldn’t have a TV show.” His strategy may keep us on our toes, but Gilligan is dangerously close to not having an audience.
By Renée Donovan