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September 30, 2013 at 10:20 PM EDT

Cynicism comes in many forms, and a few of them aren’t all that bad. In fact, upper-case Cynicism — the ancient philosophy — is a revealing lens through which to look at Breaking Bad. Let’s start old school. The first Cynics were anti-establishment eggheads who envisioned a culture where the individual had boundless freedom to undertake that great heroic act of self-fulfillment, the pursuit of happiness. But they defined that project differently from how we Americans do: The Cynics defined the pursuit of happiness as the unfettered chase of Eudaimonia (human flourishing) through the attainment of moral virtue — what we ought to do — through the power of reason and reason alone. They saw themselves as counterculture heroes; they took Hercules as their idol. Breaking bad? No, Cynics were outlaw personalities fixated on breaking toward the transcendent Good. They were also nature-loving ascetics who eschewed the materialistic values of society — specifically wealth, fame, and power — as toxic elements that poison judgment and perfect clarity. They wanted liberation from a cloudy, diseased mental condition created by any enterprise that cultivates pride, viciousness, and greed. They called this condition — how fitting — “smoke.”

I might be as delusional as Walter White, but I would like to think all of Breaking Bad was an ironic communion with Cynicism in service of producing a sly comment about a culture where “the pursuit of happiness” is all about satisfying our desire for fulfillment with stuff and status — by becoming “the beautiful people” to borrow from Walt. The Cynics might watch the credit sequence of Breaking Bad, see those letters from the periodic table — essential elements of nature, symbols of transcendent natural law — come together to form the title, watch them transmute into meth smoke, and think: Metaphor! And then they see Walter White and start pelting him with rotten figs, for Walt is the embodiment of everything that they would say is the enemy of human flourishing and an insult to their beliefs. Here is a man of great mental powers — all will and reason — who applies them to attain material satisfaction, not moral perfection, and worse, who makes and sells pure smoke and impudently calls it “Blue Sky.” He desecrates the philosophical conception of the pursuit of happiness by chasing after wealth (I only need $700,000! No, wait: Make that $82 million!), power (“I am in the empire business!”), and fame (“Say my name!”). Of course, Walt was also an immoral expression of the American dream as articulated by the Declaration of Independence: His entire arc has been a fight for life (the first battle with cancer; the Death symbols of The Cousins), liberty (the epic struggle for emancipation from Gus Fring), and the pursuit of his black-hat, Heisenbergian happiness (“You’re goddam right!”). But Walt’s perverse notions of fulfillment leave him vicious, greedy, and judgment-impaired: The height of his smoky monstrousness, from a Cynical perspective, comes when he shoots Mike in a fury, then realizes he didn’t need to. Oops. Sorry. My bad! If only I was more Cynical! Let me sit here in the quiet by the river and contemplate nature and higher virtues — no, wait, gotta go. See ya! One episode later, Walt’s greed-hazed gray matter goes crude-oil dark: He orders the assassinations of 10 people during two minutes of Manic Pop-Pop-Pop-Pop-Pop-Pop-Pop-Pop-Pop-Pop shivving.

Walt should have been Superman. Instead, he went Bizarro. Individualism and self-realization run amok. “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it, and I was alive.” And Breaking Bad says: But ain’t that America? Little pink(man) houses and Rage games, for you and me.

Yet the true tragedy of Walter White was that he bought into a profoundly cynical — not Cynical — moral vision of himself.

He never had much of one in the first place. If he did, what was it? An atheist can have a rigorously developed code. The Christian has the example of Christ to follow. What did Walter have, besides the law of the land and obligation to family? Breaking Bad seemed to take the Cynical view that the rules and norms of society are insufficient to save us from our worst selves. For Walt, that worst self had a name: Heisenberg. Walt created a whole persona for that man: Bald head, black hat, black T-shirt and glasses, black muscle car. An ensemble that seemed to be inspired by generic images of cool Hollywood criminality. There are those who argue that Heisenberg’s ruthless qualities belonged to Walt’s true self, that they’ve always been there and that sooner or later, one way or another, they were going to get out, whether Walt got cancer or not. But this view makes it sound like Walt was at war with elements that were forged long ago and are now immutable. Yet is it not true that evil acts cultivate evil character? I find it interesting that some Breaking Bad fans are actually uncomfortable with the idea that “Breaking Bad” was a present-tense phenomenon occurring within Walt; they want to make the premise and title of the show “Broke Bad Years Earlier and Is Finally Getting Around to Acting Like It.” It’s interesting to consider that we simply can’t accept the idea that a person, fictional or otherwise, would actively choose to be “bad.” (Just as we find it corny when people, especially in fiction, choose to be good simply for goodness’ sake.)

While Breaking Bad is certainly open to many interpretations, I’ve always read it this way: “Heinsenberg” was a means to an end. It was Walt’s Mr. Hyde — and his hiding place. It was a constructed personality — a part to play — that helped him cope with, and deny, the evil things he was doing. Yes, Heisenberg allowed Walt to exercise certain qualities that were essentially Walt. But Heisenberg became a thing unto itself, and Walt increasingly allowed it to take him over, in part because he needed it more, especially when he began craving more and more. The Walt-Heisenberg duality becomes a metaphor for schizoid homelife/worklife thinking, that we behave one way in our “personal life” and another way in our “professional life,” and that each of these personas have different, even contradictory moralities — but that’s okay because that’s just the way we do things, and it’s the only way we can achieve material-world success.

But season 5 judged this cynical perspective and demolished it. As Walt segued into empire-builder mode, as greed set in, he gave himself over fully to the wish-fulfillment fantasy of Heisenberg. The lines between Walt and Heisenberg blurred, and he lost touch with reality and humanity. The cost of this was measured in the lives of the “family” he allegedly loved. He forced himself back to Skyler’s life and bed — forced his perverted concept of “family” on her — turning her into a hostage, sending her from despair (the swimming pool “suicide” attempt; telling Walt, “I’m waiting for the cancer to come back,” maybe the most chilling moment ever in the show), to sell-out resignation. Fine, Walt. I’ll be your Bride of Heisenbergerstein. Can I have my kids back now?

Meanwhile, Walter’s surrogate son, Jesse, unsettled by Todd’s needless killing of The Tarantula Kid, yearned for his father figure to feel just as upset. Instead, Walt went about his work, whistling. This ambivalence, as much as his own despair, catalyzed Jesse toward his endgame. As with Skyler, Walt refused to take Jesse’s suffering seriously, and refused, for the longest time, to take seriously Jesse’s desire to quit. For Walt, Jesse and Skyler had become things, accessories for his black-hearted persona, or, at best, supporting characters in the grotesque cosplay of his life. But then the cancer returned, a big bad wolf to blow his Heisenberg straw house to smithereens. It shattered the lie of his internal matrix, and it was back to the desert of the real for Walt: no morality, no immortality, just a whole lot of money and family who despised him. He would lose those things, too, and in the end, during a final temptation in a Granite State bar, he chose to become the only thing he had left, the only thing that felt real as rock: Heisenberg.

In this way, Breaking Bad was as bracingly, usefully cynical as Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and even Christ himself in their nasty-wry attacks on self-deception and hypocrisy. In the Whites’ money-laundering car wash, and especially in Gus’ superlab of iniquity hidden underneath a laundry, I hear echoes of Jesus scolding insincere moralists for being “whitewashed tombs.” We also recognize in Breaking Bad the kind of cynicism dramatized by the Coen brothers and Stanley Kubrick in their stories of foolish men who degrade themselves by chasing worldly significance, who are tempted to such folly — and degraded further — by the corrupt influence of society and culture. Breaking Bad is The Shining exorcised into crime fiction. Walter White is Jack Torrance, blind to the demons that drive him. And the capricious shadow world of ABQ, built to expose and inflame your darkest self, is Walt’s Overlook Hotel.

But the truth is that the whole Chips-to-Scarface thing has always been a misleading frame to view Breaking Bad. Walt was never a solid, decent square who melted into moral quagmire under the duress of everyday heat. He was a product of an artistic vision that we need to be led by moral vision, lest we make a sh-t-happens world sh-ttier. The fact that I often agree with the show’s dim view of people doesn’t make Breaking Bad “accurate observation.” But it doesn’t need to be. Breaking Bad is designed to inspire personal reflection. It is an opportunity to reflect on and question my own worldview, my own attitudes about goodness, my own moral code, or lack thereof.

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Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.
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