Breaking Bad, capitalism and spiritual bankruptcy

Matthew considers what messages the tremendous Breaking Bad left us about capitalism and spiritual bankruptcy...

This feature contains Breaking Bad spoilers.

To me, what makes Walter White the most sympathetic and tragic anti-hero in television history is that his story at its core is about a man trying to find his place in the world. It has been argued by many psychologists as well as certain religious and spiritual scholars that the modern man or women is out of touch with the world around them. Breaking Bad argues that in American society, one of the main culprits for this detachment is the institution of capitalism. In a capitalist society, a person’s success is only defined by the accumulation of wealth and materialistic goods. Yet, there are no clear guidelines on how much wealth someone is supposed is to acquire. Is there a time when a person will have enough of anything? 

What Breaking Bad did so well over the entire course of the series was to show you how, when we chase wealth at all costs and abandon every meaningful connection that we have to our family and to the world around us, we are left as a completely empty vessel devoid of any form of happiness. In this regard, Breaking Bad took its inspiration from the likes of Scarface, which remains one of the most misunderstood movies in American culture. Breaking Bad, like Scarface, focuses on the idea that an excess of wealth and a protagonist’s lack of meaningful connection to the world is what will lead to their downfall. Ultimately, the lesson to be learned here is that when we chase capitalist dreams with an almost unrelenting fervor, we will not only be left unfulfilled but also spiritually broken.

What is the meaning of it all? That is the dragon Walter White is chasing, and how fitting that his line of business over the course of the show involves him making a particularly lethal drug, crystal meth, addicts of which are constantly trying to recreate the experience of their very first high. Perhaps because that first high gave them a quasi-spiritual and ultimately fake sense of meaning and purpose. Crystal meth serves as an excellent metaphor as a spiritual quick-fix to solve any feeling of malaise or social unease that may arise when someone feels disconnected to the world around them. The ironic twist to the tragedy of Breaking Bad is that in the end, Walter White finally understands that making the crystal meth was never about the money or about him trying to provide for his family. His actions as a businessman were solely about trying to show the world that his life matters, that his work mattered, and that in the end he mattered.

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The idea of survival of the fittest is often misinterpreted by greedy capitalists who oftentimes mistake greed for virtue. This line of thinking is unfortunately not uncommon in certain parts of American society. To make this point in another way, infamous fictional characters like Gordon Gecko, Michael Corleone, Tony Soprano and Tony Montana are viewed by some people as icons to imitate rather than as human beings to pity. You could say that Breaking Bad‘s Walt, in the very final moments of the penultimate episode, realises that when one attempts to live an excessively greedy and selfish life, you will end up alone, broken and find no meaningful fulfilment. If the series ended there, it would have already been a powerful indictment of the excesses of capitalism but it’s in the series finale when Walter realizes that it is his choices and not necessarily the institution of capitalism that lead him down a path towards spiritual emptiness.

Perhaps, capitalism is not a monstrous entity that makes people’s lives devoid of spiritual meaning. After all, capitalism at its core is an entirely democratic enterprise that champions consumer choice. You can say a lot of things about money, but when it comes down to who is allowed to help a company make money, absolutely nothing matters except that fact. Racism, religion, gender, none of these things matter to a company if you can make them cash. So perhaps as opposed to blaming capitalism for the ills of the soul we should look towards people who believe that they must act in an inherently selfish manner as the real culprits who cause these types of problems to exist. 

Walter seems to come to terms with this fact at the end of the series. He is responsible for all of the collateral damage that his business caused. He made a product that destroyed the lives of his community and it is very apropos that he should meet his end in a crystal meth lab, which essentially is a place where death is manufactured and sold. Arguably, what makes Walter the ultimate anti-hero is that he accepts personal responsibility for his actions, which is something that his ego refused to let him do over the course of the series and it is the main point that the truly heroic Hank was constantly trying to get him to come to terms with in the fifth season. Tragically, Walter’s justifications for his actions are not out of the ordinary – just consider businessmen who work for alcohol and tobacco companies, essentially they too manufacture a type of death. Do they not have a social responsibility for the product that they push? Moreover, what is to be said about the advertisers who dress up products of death like cigarettes for mass consumption? (Watch Mad Men for more on that).

In the end, it is Walter’s ability to finally stop making excuses and accept responsibility for his actions that makes him stand out amongst the other notable anti-heroes mentioned above. He risks his own life to save Jesse when he realizes that he was instrumental in destroying this kid’s life, and perhaps he also just found a moment when he had compassion for another human being in need. In this regard, it is also important when Walter confronts Skyler for the last time and admits to her that he was motivated by selfish reasons. This does not let Skyler off the hook for her role in this charade, but this rare moment of honesty between two human beings is exactly the kind of meaningful relationship that Walter should have been trying to have all along. 

Continuing to make the connection that it is excessive capitalism that’s the problem because enough is never enough, is a very poignant scene between Walter, Gretchen and Elliot. Walter confronts his two old friends who, still for reasons unknown though it’s reasonable to consider that their motives were avaricious in nature, failed to acknowledge Walt’s contribution to the successful Grey Matter company. As such, Walter has always held a bitter resentment to his two ex-partners and friends. Through a truly ingenious method, Walter hires Badger and Skinny Pete to pretend to be professional assassins, and convinces Gretchen and Elliot to take the nine million dollars he has left and give it to his son Walt Jr. on his eighteenth birthday. Nine million dollars is a great deal of money, and more than enough to take care of Walt Jr for life, unless… Well, we return to the question: how much is enough?

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There is also a fantastic scene in season five when Sklyer has to rent out a storage facility to hide the money that Walter is making because she cannot launder it fast enough. When money is sitting in an empty warehouse, or when it gets buried in the dessert it reverts back to what it is, pieces of paper. There is no intrinsic value to money when all is said and done. Having it is a wonderful thing but it can distort, twist and even corrupt people with even the noblest of intentions. It is this excessive greed that leads to Lydia’s demise because she simply cannot walk away from all of the money that she is making. Had she cut off ties with Todd, Walter would never had found her and been able to poison her. Lydia may be the biggest villain in the series because we have never seen her be motivated by anything other then money. Moreover, when Walter has the terrifying Neo-Nazi leader Jack about to die Jack makes one last plea with Walter about the “money.” To paraphrase Jack, he essentially tells Walter that if he kills him he will never find his money and before Jack can continue Walter literally blows him away. This scene was very reminiscent of a scene from the tremendous Psycho when Norman Bates flushes the money that Marion stole from her boss down the toilet. Both are powerful metaphors.

 

Arguably, the enduring legacy of Breaking Bad will be that it is our personal responsibility to make sense of the world in a socially responsible way. Success will be defined by our ability to transcend the world around us and make life better for everyone around us. This is also what makes Breaking Bad a show about a spiritual journey. Upon his enlightenment to these realizations, Walter dies, and if you would like to view this from a religious perspective perhaps once Walter comes to this moment of enlightenment he is ready to move on to the next plane of existence. If you are so inclined, compare the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey to the final scene of Breaking Bad; the similarities should be mind-blowing.

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