Bryan Cranston as Walter White on Breaking Bad.
Bryan Cranston as Walter White on Breaking Bad.
This piece discusses plot points in detail from the first four and a half seasons of Breaking Bad, but nothing from the Aug. 11 season premiere.
If television's golden age has taught viewers anything, it is to expect that explosive, violent death is an integral part of serious storytelling. The history of literature and the history of film teach that there are other ways to achieve high stakes. But if you go looking for premium, celebrated television dramas that don't involve a lot of bloody kills, you will narrow your options considerably.
Breaking Bad, which enters its final run of eight episodes on Aug. 11, is no exception. But it is distinguished by the intimacy and seriousness of its approach to the killing of one person by another. There are indeed times when killing is merely a mark of senseless brutality — the Cousins of Seasons 2 and 3 committed a string of killings that mostly stood for the very limitlessness of their violence.
But the killings committed or attended by Walt and Jesse, the show's two leads, are consistently specific, not only narratively but also morally. In the first 4 1/2 seasons, almost never has a killing (or near-killing) around Walt or Jesse not been substantially different in some way from what's gone before, not presented some particular and wrenching new question.
Remember: In the opening shots of the first episode, Walt is already driving at breakneck speed with two bodies in the back of his RV: The man he has already killed, and the man — barely alive — he will kill later. What's more, we don't know it yet in those opening moments, but he is stalked by death himself — he has already been told he's dying of cancer.
Walt's path over the first season of the show, in fact, is fixed in that opening sequence, both because of the death he's caused and because of the death he will cause after leaving himself no alternative he can accept. It is those two bodies that immediately bind him to Jesse and, more tragically, bind Jesse to him.
Those two men, Emilio and Krazy 8, die because they introduce violence into what Walt naively believes is only an effort to sell drugs, cleanly and unarmed. The dealers show up with guns, and believing Walt is with the DEA, they are about to shoot him and Jesse when Walt fastens upon a plan to kill them by locking them in the RV and subjecting them to phosphine gas. He kills Emilio with chemistry, with school, when he finds himself with what he believes is no choice.
Krazy 8 is a different matter, of course. He does not die. He makes it back to Jesse's house, where he's chained up to a pole in the basement and, agonizingly, forced to wait while Walt comes to terms with the fact that he will choose to kill this man. A man who pointed a gun at him. A bad man, a dangerous man, a man who started it, and a man Walt believes will only come back for his family otherwise. But a man who, in that moment — unlike Emilio — presents no instant threat and could, in theory, be given to the police if Walt were willing to take responsibility for those things he'd already done.
In these first two episodes, these two specific acts of killing form a downward swoop, with the second part of the same sequence of events as the first, and yet so different. Those two killings set the course of the show's investigation of morality.
The Wire involved just as much death, and was just as brilliant and just as brutal. But The Wire was largely uninterested in the morality of individuals; it was interested in the morality of systems: How do schools do violence? How do prisons? How do governments and economies? If anything, The Wire believed that the morality or immorality of the system was always both more socially important and more narratively consequential than the morality of any one person. Even a good boy became a killer; even a good cop became corrupt.
Breaking Bad is the same kind of intense examination of right and wrong, but on a personal level, and the deaths do a lot of the work. Over the course of the series after he kills these two men, Walt will sit with his conscience again and again, and he will find its leaky valves again and again, and he will give himself permission to ignore it, then conclude it's a weakness, then stop hearing it speak at all.
Walt gets almost to the end of the second season before he kills again. This time, it's Jesse's girlfriend Jane, who chokes on her own vomit as Walt willfully chooses not to intervene. And it wouldn't be heroic intervention; it would just be rolling her over. He makes a conscious decision to interrupt his instinctive reaction to a choking person because it's expedient for him — largely because she's meddling in his dealings with Jesse — for her to die.
Again, this killing is ethically specific and his actions are measured. On the one hand, Jane was nonviolent and was mostly a threat to Walt's business and — if you want to extend to Walt the benefit of all doubt that he might act out of something other than self-interest — to Jesse's sobriety. On the other, Walt was technically passive, not active, and Jane died because of her own drug use. These are new complications: shared fault, acts versus omissions, and the difference between a dangerous person (Krazy 8) and an inconvenient one (Jane).
Walt's actions become even more indirect but the consequences even more devastating when Jane's father, an air traffic controller, is so devastated by her death that he inadvertently causes a plane crash that kills 167 people. Those 167 deaths are, by far, the most the show has ever and probably will ever carry out at once. But Walt's responsibility is even more attenuated. As the story continues to interrogate his monstrosity, it takes this moment to crank the consequences as high as they will go, but drop his involvement about as low as it will go while still seeming to be involvement at all. More new questions: What is your responsibility for the unforeseeable consequences of an immoral act? What is your responsibility to know that killing has a comet's tail of unforeseeable consequences?
Almost exactly a season later, Walt kills two drug dealers up close, on purpose — but his immediate concern is Jesse, who was in the middle of confronting them with a gun and planning to kill them for murdering his girlfriend's young brother. Walt arguably chooses to kill the dealers himself rather than have Jesse confront them and potentially be killed or do the killing. Again, tension: This is both Walt's first planned, active murder and the most important step he's taken to protect Jesse. There is a mirror between this killing and Jane's a season before: That was a brutal betrayal of Jesse (who had so little and loved her) and this is saving Jesse's life. What are the implications of an immoral act undertaken in part out of loyalty and perhaps to right a past wrong? Does righting a past wrong count if you do not confess it?
The next crucial killing, one episode later, is arguably the most devastating of the entire series thus far. Terrified that Gus is about to have him killed and replace him in the meth operation with Gale, Walt plans to kill Gale to secure his own safety. Gale is a gentle, harmless, apparently nonviolent man who happens to work in the meth business and be good at it. Jesse pleads with Walt not to do it, but Walt insists there is no choice. When Walt is taken before he can commit the act himself and finds himself about to be killed, he manages to get word to Jesse that Jesse — who began as the bad kid with whom the naive Walt teamed up but has by now emerged as the fundamentally screwed-up but probably harmless kid Walt is in the process of irreparably destroying — will have to kill Gale to save Walt's life. And Jesse does.
There are times in the next 2 1/2 seasons when things seem to be better or worse for Jesse, but this is his point of no return. This is how he is extinguished, not by the violence done to him but by the violence he chooses to do. Surely, there's a morality question here about Jesse and about killing a relative innocent to protect a friend, but there's also one about Walt, and about the act of persuading someone to commit a brutal act out of loyalty to you from which he will never recover.
Jesse kills again at the end of the fourth season, when he has to shoot two guards to get out of a shootout. But this is primarily the warm-up to the season-ending sequence of events that turns Walt into a monster forever. First, he poisons a child — doesn't kill him, but places him in grave danger — specifically because Jesse loves him and because if Walt persuades Jesse that the poisoning was Gus' fault, Jesse will join Walt in committing his first murder that is a pure power grab against a dangerous rival, a simple part of a high-stakes drug war: the murder of rival dealer Gustavo Fring (and some bystanders) with a pipe bomb in a nursing home.
After that, it's easier: He kills some of Gus' men while destroying the superlab and simply treats it all as part of the game.
But Gus' murder is important for another reason, which is that it's shot in a way that indicts and involves the audience. After the explosion, there is the indelible scene in which Gus walks out of the bombed room and appears to have survived. Seen in profile, he straightens his tie. And it's then that the camera swings around to show you that the other half of his face is gone, his skull exposed, and he drops dead to the floor.
But in that moment, you as the viewer have time to think: Was I relieved? People liked Gus by then. Many had once sympathized with Walt. Some still did. Were you glad Walt didn't kill Gus? Were you glad Gus got away? Did you feel frustrated that Walt was foiled? All these thoughts had time to begin to form before the switch was flipped and Walt's victory was revealed. Were you happy to see that the man's face was, in fact, blown off? Disappointed? Indifferent? What have you begun rooting for?
In the first half of the fifth season, every limitation that had once existed on what Walt would do or would cover up was history. Walt's associate, Todd, who was working for him during a chemical heist meant to facilitate meth manufacturing, shot and killed a completely innocent, uninvolved child for simply coming on the scene at the wrong time. Walt later killed Mike, who had been his associate, and then had a dozen guys murdered in prison, all just to keep people from talking.
It was into this atmosphere of a completely amoral Walter White, transformed completely into the self-described empire builder known as Heisenberg, that Breaking Bad set up the confrontation that most of us could not have anticipated would be the fulcrum of the series' final sequence: Walt versus Hank.
Hank began as a jerk and a blowhard, but one of the best decisions Vince Gilligan and the other writers have made for this story is to slowly teach that he was a good cop and a good man, smart and savvy, loving to his wife as Walt tormented and terrorized his, and infinitely more trustworthy and humane than Walt will ever be again.
And in the final episode of the fifth season's first half, Hank found evidence that seemed to put things together for him: Walt is Heisenberg. Walt is a drug lord and a killer.
Gilligan and Bryan Cranston have both talked about the fact that one of the things that makes Breaking Bad different is that it shatters the general understanding that people don't really change — probably the fundamental organizing principle of The Sopranos, for instance. Everything Walt will become is certainly there in some form from the beginning, but it is activated and provoked and spills over whatever levees of morality there are in him. In the pilot, he wouldn't even get his good clothes dirty.
The ubiquity of creatively disgusting murder in television drama can make your eyes glaze over. Bodies cut in half, flayed, burned, eaten. But one of the many reasons Breaking Bad will be remembered the way it will, eulogized the way it will, and missed the way it will is that its killings always mean something. This is a universe in which killing a person changes you. It matters, always.