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Monday, May 27, 2024

Commentary: ‘Breaking Bad’ portrays the moral ambiguity of human nature

The hit drama makes viewers question their own moral compass


By RUMA POUDELL — arts@theaggie.org


Vince Gilligan’s award-winning show “Breaking Bad” has regained popularity among Gen Z following a flood of TikTok trends centering the show, including an edit of the character Walter White mining diamond ore in Minecraft, or all things. 

Within the “Breaking Bad” universe, White is the show’s main driving force. He is a genius in the field of chemistry working an underappreciated job as a high school teacher when he is suddenly diagnosed with a terminal illness. His diagnosis drives him to reevaluate his life and the legacy he wishes to leave — one that doesn’t leave his family in debt with medical costs. This motivates him to cook and sell crystal methamphetamine with the hope of amassing a fortune. 

As the story unfolds, death becomes a thematic continuity across the show. White and numerous other characters, including Jesse Pinkman, Mike Ehrmantraut and Gus Fring, are responsible for the deaths of a handful, if not a cemetery-full, of individuals. Although no one person has the right to take another’s life, the context surrounding each death leaves us wondering if their actions are justified.
When it comes down to survival, who would you choose to spare: yourself or your opponent? And, if you choose yourself, can you live with what you’ve done to another human being? Characters in this show often find themselves in these life-or-death scenarios, and they all have their own justifications for choosing themselves.

White wants to provide for his family. Pickman wants to achieve financial independence and avoid living a life of messiness. Fring has a drug empire to protect. Ehrmantraut has his granddaughter to look after and provide for.

But as the story progresses, the characters begin to engage in more and more unlawful activities with little to no reason or context. In a later season, White reflects on his actions, and he admits to enjoying his life as a drug dealer more than his life prior to getting diagnosed and starting down this path. 

Despite the monster that White obviously becomes, watching the show for the very first time left me sympathizing with him and even despising other less problematic characters. Gilligan’s dynamic writing with realistic portrayals of various issues leaves you with your own twisted sense of character as you focus more on White’s story and progression compared to others. 

Anna Gunn, the actress who plays White’s wife, is one character who was flawed but more of a bystander compared to her husband. She reported that she faced harsh comments in her personal life due to how much audience members hated her character, as they failed to separate the actress from her role. This shows how much you can sympathize with or scrutinize people differently for their misconduct, all because of the way their character was written. 

Gilligan’s portrayal of characters in “Breaking Bad” touches on the moral ambiguity of human nature as they go through their struggles surrounding addiction, family dynamics, illness and business. This forces the audience to get in the mud, where it seems there is no absolute right or wrong. 

Varying opinions among audience members highlights the fact that we are all rooted in our experiences and values, leading us to our differences in beliefs. As you watch the show, it may be a fun idea to keep track of whose actions you can justify and who has crossed your line of reasoning. 


Written by: Ruma Poudell — arts@theaggie.org