Breaking Bad: A Shakespearean Tale

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Breaking Bad spoilers ahead…

In 1975, when Steven Spielberg was shooting Jaws, he told the producers, “I want the shark to explode at the end.” The producers said that was ridiculous. No audience would believe it. He replied, “If they’ve followed me this far, they’ll believe anything I show them.” He was right: in the final moments of the film, Chief Brody clung to the mast of the sinking Orca, the shark closing in, and fired a desperate bullet from his rifle that connected with the air tank in the shark’s mouth; and when the shark exploded a hundred feet into the air as a burst of water, blood, and sinew, audiences stood in the aisles and cheered. It didn’t make sense. It was, for all intents and purposes, silly to believe that such a thing could occur. But, audiences loved it (and continue to love it) because they wanted the hero to win. That is great storytelling.

The same goes for Breaking Bad. We have followed Vince Gilligan and his writers this far; we will believe anything he shows us. Since the first episode we knew one of two outcomes were possible: Walt would get away with it, or he wouldn’t. Beneath that we understood this: his family’s life would stay the same, or be ruined. That his undertaking had a specific and quantifiable goal only added to the tension. And when he hit that goal and continued onward anyway we entered into the realm of Shakespearean drama. Suddenly it was about more than a man caring for his family – suddenly it was about a man with an Aristotelian tragic flaw: hubris.

And why not compare Vince Gilligan to Shakespeare or Aristotle? He and his writers rely on plot before story, and allow their characters to create complex depth and moral ambiguity through the contradictions and consistencies that lay between their words and actions. It is Shakespearean drama in that we don’t know who to root for, who is good, and who is bad. Our sympathies bounce between characters (remember when we found ourselves rooting for Gus when he, Jesse and Mike went back to kill the cartel?), and no matter what happens, regardless of with whom our sympathies lay, we keep watching to see what will happen next.

Shakespeare had five acts. Vince Gilligan will have five seasons. Not a moment passes that doesn’t propel the plot forward – a plot which began with Walter White deciding to cook meth in order to take care of his family. In that decision there is an inherent understanding of law and order, and lack thereof. The situation itself has put an ending in our heads. We may want Walt to survive (well, maybe not now), but we know he won’t. It isn’t in his cards. Walt’s path unveiled his hubris – which, granted, may be a result of his brush with death (Cancer) and regret (selling his shares in Gray Matter Technologies for $5k, a company now worth billions) – but he has now become unredeemable evil. Or has he?

We don’t really want to believe that Walt is beyond redemption, but we know he probably is. What can he do to redeem himself? Kill the Nazis? Save Jesse? Why did he go back for the ricin in the flash-forward? It doesn’t matter. We will continue with him on his path, and we will eagerly watch whatever comes next. And if Walter White for some reason explodes in the last few moments of the series we will stand up and cheer.

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