The Harlem River Dispatch: Breaking Bad and the Shakespearean Descent into Villainy

…I am so far in blood, that sin will pluck on sin. 
Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye.

- Richard III, Act IV, scene ii.

I've just completed rifling through four and a half seasons of the award-winning AMC hit Breaking Bad after a month's-long viewing spree. Now that I've followed the story as far as it's been told, I can now confidently join in with the majority of the culture to acclaim it as one of the most compelling and well-told serial dramas in TV history.

Bryan Cranston, previously known for playing the aloof goof of a dad in Fox's Malcolm in the Middle, stars as Walter White, a mild-mannered but brilliant chemistry teacher who - after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis - resorts to cooking meth as a means to provide for his family. Vince Gilligan, the creator and runner of the show, has often said that Breaking Bad explores how a beloved schoolteacher like the titular character in Goodbye, Mr. Chips can eventually, by his own doing, become more comparable to Pacino's Cuban drug lord in Scarface.

It is a premise which Gilligan and his cast and crew have followed with admirable patience and consistency, marking with harrowing insight the descent of a soul from fair-intentioned to treacherous in a manner which is immediately reminiscent of not only Brian De Palma's Scarface, but of a tragedy more Shakespearean in scale.

Breaking Bad can be relentlessly dark, comically vile, and sporadically violent; so the hesitant viewer is apt to ask why they should want to embark on such a grim journey. Although the trajectory of its arc is directly aimed at the absolute pits of the human experience, Breaking Bad is still entirely worthy of our attention, for it does an excellent job conveying some important truths about our fallen natures.

That a man has the inherent capability to become a monster not only by the malfunctions of his brain chemistry but by the powers of his own reasoning and will has always been the most frightening aspect of our humanity. Monsters terrify us not only in that they have the disturbing ability to climb out of our imaginations and into the very fabric of our world, but in how they can arise out of our own consciences; we ourselves have the capacity to become one.

Because of this, many of the greatest storytellers and inspectors of the human spirit have bravely trod into this realm in order to fully explore and define its scorched and jagged terrain. William Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest of these storytellers, did so most effectively in his plays Richard III and Macbeth – and Vince Gilligan and the writers of Breaking Bad have wisely followed Shakespeare's road-maps in plotting out the despicable rise (and inevitable fall) of Walter White.

Shakespeare, though he was neither a philosophical nihilist nor Machiavellian in his politics, seemed to know intimately the minds of those who would be both. But by reputedly being a strict moralist and a faithful Roman Catholic, Shakespeare may have well believed in certain consequences to our actions in body, mind, and spirit, and the supreme sense of justice at work in his plays supports that.

Similarly to Shakespeare's narrative policies on morality and comeuppance, Vince Gilligan has stated that a primary concern in the telling of Breaking Bad is to support the idea that immoral actions do or at least should yield specific consequences. In an interview with the New York Times, he is quoted as saying:

If religion is a reaction of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished. I hate the idea of Idi Amin living in Saudi Arabia for the last 25 years of his life. That galls me to no end. I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen. My girlfriend says this great thing that's become my philosophy as well. 'I want to believe there's a heaven. But I can't not believe there's a hell.'

Though there are countless similarities between Shakespeare and Gilligan and his writing staff in the ethical mechanics of justice at work in either narrative, one glaring difference between them is the quality of the writing. Though the scripts written for Breaking Bad are exceptional for today's standards - often featuring long and provocative monologues for their talented actors to feast on - they still cannot compare with the poetical insight and craft of Shakespeare's writing.

Though a disturbing amount of so-called scholars and teachers think it their position to dismiss Shakespeare as unworthy of study in our modern day and age, investigators of the human condition will always profit in the study of Shakespeare. However, in order to fully grasp all of which the man intended to communicate, it is helpful to experience his words through certain lenses.

Because he wrote primarily for the stage, the most appropriate way to experience his works is to see them performed, preferably by master thespians. When an actor who is blessed with a particular sort of brilliance works on a Shakespearean piece, he is able to fully bring to life and effectively communicate the inherent power and meaning in Shakespeare's language.

In this video, Ian McKellen brilliantly breaks down and performs the famous soliloquy uttered despairingly by Macbeth during the last act of the play. Through McKellen's interpretation, we are able to see how genius this ode to meaninglessness is; it allows us a brief and unsettling glimpse into the mind of a man who is in the unrepentant process of damning himself.

It is also beneficial to know the historical, moral, psychological, and religious perspectives from which Shakespeare was most likely writing from. British Literary critic Joseph Pearce has written two books called The Quest for Shakespeare and Through Shakespeare's Eyes which provides impressive biographical and literary evidence of Shakespeare's subversive sense of faith as an underground Roman Catholic living and working in an oppressively Protestant theocracy. Pearce, in his writings, paints a vivid picture of Shakespeare's worldview as it opposed to the time and place he was living in in order to fully reveal the spiritual and psychological underpinnings to be uncovered his work. Pearce's findings and insights are especially helpful when dealing with such problematic and troubling characters like Macbeth and his manipulative and ambitious wife.

In his introduction for the Ignatius Critical Edition of Macbeth, which he edited, Pearce writes:

Whereas Hamlet knows that life is the quest for the definite amid the clouds of unknowing, Macbeth loses his head and soul in the unknowing clouds of his own sin-deceived ego. Far from seeing life as a quest, Macbeth is left with nothing but his own bitter inquest on life, 'signifying nothing.' This is the "deepest consequence" of Macbeth's rejection of faith and reason. In losing sight of the significance of others, or the Other, he loses sight of the significance of everything else. In choosing himself above others, he is not even left with himself. He loses everything. Even his own soul.

Pearce, in concluding in his introduction, directly quotes G.K. Chesterton, from an essay titled "The Macbeths." Chesterton ponders the actions of the Macbeths thusly:

Make a morbid decision and you will only become more morbid; do a lawless thing and you will only get into an atmosphere much more suffocating than that of law. Indeed, it is a mistake to speak of a man as 'breaking out.' The lawless man never breaks out; he breaks in. He smashes a door and finds himself in another room, he smashes a wall and finds himself in a yet smaller one. The more he shatters the more his habitation shrinks. For us moderns, therefore, the first philosophical significance of the play is this; that our life is one thing and that our lawless acts limit us; every time we break a law we make a limitation. In some strange way hidden in the deeps of human psychology, if we build our palace on some unknown wrong it turns very slowly into our prison. Macbeth at the end of the play is not merely a wild beast; he is a caged wild beast.

To bring the focus back to Breaking Bad, for anyone who has seen the program Chesterton’s words might be eerily reminiscent of one of the most distressing moments in the entire series. Occurring late in Season 4, at the end of an episode called "Crawl Space," we find Walter White desperately fearing for his life at the hands of ruthless drug lord, Gustavo Fring. As a last means of escape, Mr. White decides to retrieve all the money he's been stashing in the crawl space beneath his house, only to discover that his wife has recently used most of it to get her former boss and lover out of federal debt.

In context, Mr. White's display of madness is as resounding as it is hair-raising. Who could mistake Mr. White's hysterical wailing and despairing laughter as being anything but a vision of the hell of his own making. Mr. White, like G.K. Chesterton's analysis of the Macbeths, is given multiple opportunities throughout the course of the series to withdraw from his descent into lawlessness and immorality but - like Macbeth - ultimately decides to soldier on, intent on doing what he must in order to become his most desired self.

Where many modern forms of story-telling go wrong is the insistence on keeping all moral sense in a gray area. The problems which arise from this are evident in serial dramas, where over the course of the long run of a particular show, characters are unable to get any better or worse because they are so stuck in the middle ground. As a result, these characters are not allowed to develop beyond their predetermined faults and follies, and the larger story arcs have considerable trouble progressing. This is most evidenced in shows like The Wire and Mad Men, whose story arcs are frustratingly cyclical in that they constantly return the same morality and worldly understandings that their characters had at the beginning.

Breaking Bad remarkably doesn't suffer from that condition. Its protagonist isn't very interested in hanging around in "Gray Matter," in both the literal and figurative sense. In the first season, we learn that Mr. White and an old chum from graduate school named Elliott Schwartz (his last name being a German variant of the word for "black") once started a business together which they called "Gray Matter." At some point, Mr. White decided he wanted out of their budding business and sold his share of it to Schwartz for about five thousand dollars. In time, Gray Matter eventually became a huge success, leaving Mr. White terribly embittered over the years.

In mapping out Mr. White's moral decay throughout the show, we can spot specific faults in his character; we also catch glimpses of the distinctive reasoning behind his decision-making which prompted him to start "breaking bad." First, it is the desire to provide for his family in the wake of his sickness and potential death which drives him to start his new enterprise as a freelance meth cook. Then, it is shameful pride and spite which keeps him from forsaking his criminal pursuits and from accepting any financial assistance from friends like Schwartz to help pay his medical bills. More recently, we see that it is now megalomaniacal ambition and insidious cunning that is feeding the engine of his villainy.

William Shakespeare, probably to address the rising interest in Calvinism in England, often incorporated themes of free will and determinism into his most harrowing plays about villainy. In Macbeth, three witches taunt Scottish Lord with rhymes, riddles, and provocative images that predict his imminent glories and offer warnings of potential dangers. Once these premonitions have implanted themselves onto his mind, Macbeth, by his own bloody and treacherous will, conjures up his future as the witches predicted it, leaving in his wake the death of many.

Although no soothsaying witches exist to prowl about in Breaking Bad, the show does utilize a similar cryptic device to indicate at least to the audience where the story of Walter White is going. Since the very beginning of the series, many episodes start with an intriguing flash forward; sometimes they feature hysterical characters in the midst of an unbelievably intense and confusing circumstance, while at other times it is only a cryptic and disturbing image. Perhaps the most memorable of these was the pink teddy bear with half of its face burnt off floating in Walter White's pool. The significance of this image eventually was as much of an omen as the apparition of the bloody child summoned by the three witches in the fourth act of Macbeth.

Also like Shakespeare's plays, Breaking Bad includes a wide array of memorable characters that in faith or action either support or oppose the malevolent deeds of Mr. White, and many strongly resemble certain Shakespearean dramatis personæ, as well.

Even though Mr. White's wife Skyler (played compellingly by Anna Gunn) is not a carbon copy of Lady Macbeth in her motives and personality, she has in recent seasons begun to display similar tendencies and dispositions as the doomed and dread-filled Scottish queen.

Saul Goodman, the sleazy mall strip lawyer played with snarky aplomb by Bob Odenkirk, offers the same type of comic relief as the porter to Macbeth's castle did in Shakespeare's play, breaking tension by hilariously lamenting his post or by making fun of other characters who take themselves too seriously.

Along with Aaron Paul's vast improvement as an actor in his portraying Jesse "where's my money, bitch" Pinkman, the character himself has had a wonderfully complex arc. Jesse has gone from addict street punk to sober yet haunted drug manufacturer in an existential struggle to rightly define himself and his moral code. His reluctance to do no harm to others, especially strict when it comes to the lives of children, creates many complications with his relationship to Mr. White, and is reminiscent of Buckingham's eventual breaking with Richard III in Shakespeare's play.

Just as Shakespeare balanced the fall of Macbeth with the rise of Macduff, and the fall of Richard III with the rise of Richmond, Vince Gilligan has juxtaposed Walter White's descent into villainy with his brother-in-law's eventual rise to noble heroism. When we are first introduced to DEA Agent Hank Schrader in the first season, he comes across as an arrogant blowhard; but as the seasons progress, Hank endures multiple instances of physical and emotional trauma with courage and integrity. Ultimately, while bearing the scars and exuding the virtuousness of a classical hero, Hank positions himself as the only force persistent and brave enough to defeat this maniacal dragon which has overtaken his city.

This summer, the final eight episodes of the series will air, concluding the tragic story of Walter White and his family. Though Vince Gilligan has hinted at his preferences of administering a specific kind of justice in his storytelling, and that we ought to expect Mr. White's due punishment for his crimes, the question still remains whether he will somehow redeem himself before his story ends.

Despite how deep in the hole of immorality and sin Mr. White has dug himself, at any moment he could climb out of it and heal the wounds he has afflicted on his family, amending his life. In the first half of the last season, Mr. White had even expressed an intention to do so, though at this point his word really means nothing.

It will be interesting to look for any instances of grace that will save Mr. White's soul, even if means the losing of his life - and how might he accept or deny them. I have a hunch that Mr. White's fate at the end of Breaking Bad might have a very similar tone to the demise of Gollum in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, a character with which Mr. White has a lot in common. (For one, they're both equally obsessed with a totem which offers them absolute power; one, a particularly well-made little gold ring, and the other a particularly well-made batch of blue crystal meth...)

The second half of the fifth season of Breaking Bad starts again on AMC this summer, and Netflix is currently streaming the first four seasons of it on Instant Watch. You have plenty of time to catch up, and if you aren't too sensitive to the subject matter, we strongly suggest that you do. In the meantime, I will be taking a break from the drug-obsessed characters of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and spending some quieter and more congenial time with the tea-sipping lot of Downton Abbey.