In hit TV series, Breaking Bad, Walter White’s slip into moral morass is a brilliant character study that highlights the human capacity for self-deception. In the beginning, we see Walter making noble sacrifices. He has the talent to make big bucks as a world-class scientist; instead he teaches high school chemistry. In a segment as powerful as any I’ve ever seen on screen, Walter chooses to undergo chemo-therapy that he doesn’t want because he empathizes so thoroughly with his wife’s needs.
His family desires that he extend his life by going through the treatment, but Walter makes a very compelling case that he needs to be thinking about quality of life and how he wants to be remembered. He wants to give all his energy in the time that he has left to those he loves instead of fighting the side-effects of chemo. He doesn’t want to leave his family destitute from uninsured medical bills. It is his decision to make, his body, his life. He announces his decision. In the next scene he wakes up alone in bed. No words are said. He looks at his wife’s night stand and sees the books she has been reading. She is pregnant and reading books about healthy babies. She has a special-needs son and there are books on his needs. On top of the stack is a book about battling cancer through healthy eating. Walter sees a jar of her lotion unscrews the cap and breathes it in. He shuffles silently to the kitchen and gently embraces his wife from behind. She is clearly frustrated, scouring the dishes. He simply whispers, “I’ll do it….I’ll get the treatments.” It is an act of pure love and tremendous self-sacrifice.
However, Walter decides that he will manufacture crystal meth to pay for the treatments. Here begins the tragedy of his moral life. Walter deludes himself into believing that all his actions can be justified because he is doing them for a higher purpose—pure love of his family. At first he is uneasy with the “ends-justifies the means” rationalizations. The decision to cook meth leads him into a violent and shadowy underworld where he is compelled toward deception and violence. In order to keep his newly found secret life a secret and to avoid being killed by drug lords, he keeps making unethical decisions all in the name of his noble effort to go through treatment and provide for his family.
He dare not hold the mirror up to his face to see what he has become. He dare not explore the moral rot too closely. Ever decision has consequences and leads him to more bad choices. We know it cannot end well for him.
I wonder about this ability to deceive ourselves. Walter is not alone. How many people chip away at their integrity every day? They don’t blow the whistle at work so that they can keep their income and provide for their families. They are absent from family functions because they are focused on making money for their family. We tend to think of ourselves as more noble than we ought.
During the show, it becomes clear that Walter likes to think he is doing bad things for a higher good. But he’s not. There are always choices for him. All choices have consequences. Walter breaks bad for many reasons. His new life is more exciting—even if it is dangerous. He can feel powerful and commanding instead of feeling like an uninteresting love and boring chemistry teacher. He feels more alive than ever and it covers regrets from other decisions he’s made.
Overall, the show is a summons for each of us to hold the mirror up and ask about our real motivations. What do we get out of the decisions we are making? Is it possible that we are not as noble as we want everyone around us to believe? Walter keeps breaking bad. We look at him so that we can choose to do otherwise and break toward the good. It’s amazing to think that every decision we make has a role in determining what kind of person we will become. Choose well.