~ On What Makes Breaking Bad and Other Good Stories Great

imageWhen asked how he pitched Breaking Bad to the networks, Vince Gilligan said that he wanted to take the audience on one man’s journey from “Mr. Chips (a fictional beloved school teacher) to Scarface.”    And it is this idea that makes the show compelling.  It asks the audience a question that we wish there was a clean-cut, straightforward answer to: how does a good person go bad?

Initially, we are given a protagonist (like the fictional Mr. Chips) we can all identify with, Walter White.  A man who, like many of us, desired to do what was “right” his whole life, making a few mistakes here and there, but overall, living honorably.   Unfortunately, in our society, careers centered around self-sacrifice and humility, like being a high school science teacher, are not often rewarded with riches and respect.   Yet, Walt seems content.  He loves his wife and son.  He has another child on the way.  Sure, life hasn’t been without its difficulties and disappointments, but he has what we all desire to have: a happy family and a clear conscience.

And then he learns he has cancer.  And not just any cancer.  Lung cancer.  I’m by no means an oncologist, but it is common knowledge that this kind is one of the deadliest.

It is the injustice of this diagnosis that allows the audience to forgive Walt for resorting to cooking meth to pay for medical bills and to provide his family with some sort of financial security before he dies.  We find it hard to believe, just as Walt does, that this one ethical compromise will lead to moral ruin. And that is Gilligan’s genius: giving us a character that reflects some part of who we are, so much so that we try to make excuses for him in much the same way we often do with our own bad choices, probably telling ourselves the same things Walt told himself to minimize any initial moral misgivings.

This is what makes the show and all good storytelling great, getting the audience to identify with aspects of the characters, and then having those characters do things we would never think we are capable of, both good and bad.  It causes us to ask the question, would I, if put in similar circumstances, do the same thing?

In bad storytelling, the answer is straightforward.  In great storytelling, it’s unclear.

I can still recall one of the first times I experienced this troubling uncertainty while reading Elie Wiesel’s Night in high school. At 15, I had an unshakable faith in my ability to do what was right no matter the circumstances or obstacles.  Yet, reading Wiesel’s story about his experience during the Holocaust, his account of how human beings could devolve into savages when faced with death and deprivation, made me question my own “goodness.”   When confronted with horrors and human cruelty I never had imagined had existed before reading Night, I began to doubt my beliefs about myself.   What if I was dehumanized and hanging onto to life with the frailest of grasps?  Would I be capable of disowning the person I loved most in order to ensure my survival, just as Wiesel did near the end of the book?

Again, in bad storytelling, the answer is simple.  In great storytelling, it’s ambiguous.   Which is why Breaking Bad is such great storytelling.

The phone call during last week’s episode, “Ozymandias”, epitomizes this complexity.  While no one would argue Walt is still the same  “good guy” he was at the start of the series, a fact evident in the vitriolic lashing he gives to Skylar on the phone, his intent in doing so undermines the neat view of him as a “bad guy”.  Even as he is saying horrendous things to his wife, his intentions are good.

And this sliver of goodness connects us back to the original Walter White, the Mr. Chips character who used to be “good like us.”  We may be horrified at Walt’s transformation into Heisenberg, but so would the loving father and high school teacher Walt used to be if he could see the man he would become.  This is why Hank’s simplistic black-and-white view of morality is hard to swallow, why his and Marie’s belief that Walt and Skylar are now strangers is flawed.   Because even though we may no longer wish to empathize with our protagonist, the audience must admit that, like Walt, we have all made moral compromises in our lives.  If we are honest with ourselves, we recognize our capacity for cruelty even though we may not exercise it as Walt does.  And so it becomes harder to distance ourselves from Walt’s ultimately “bad” self.    We have followed him along this journey, going from making excuses for his first steps down this dark path to questioning our complicity when we see where it has led him (and us).

And it is that ambiguous depiction of moral degradation that causes us to ask, not am I like this, but could I be like this?

And the answer, if the story is great, is never simple.


95 thoughts on “~ On What Makes Breaking Bad and Other Good Stories Great

  1. guillermoillustration

    Great analysis of the story. I want to point at what happened on last episode when he confess to Skyler that all he did was not for his family, at the end he confess being “Heisenberg” made him feel alive, as he said on past episode to Jesse about the feeling of satisfaction to be the best at something… He died after slay his enemies, the wanted to take the “blue meth” his formula to the grave with him, he died claiming revenge, beyond good and evil at this point, a great story of an anti-hero.

    1. vivaviamedia Post author

      Thanks for the compliment. I liked that detail in the last episode as well. I think it shows how we often “lie” to ourselves, saying we are doing something for “good” reasons when in reality, the truth is we are doing it for ourselves. Ironically, Walt admitting this selfishness somehow redeemed him a bit.

  2. stollrofl

    From having not seen a single episode of Breaking Bad to watching every single episode in the space of a few weeks, I was pretty happy I decided to start watching when I did. Incredible show, non-stop amazing writing and acting, definitely one of my favorite series of all time.

  3. Pingback: On What Makes Breaking Bad and Other Good Stories Great | What Was Found

  4. zachary

    The best storytelling involves conflicted characters and stories that embrace the idea that little in life is black and white. Your analysis here is strong.

  5. joshmorey1

    Reblogged this on Josh Morey and commented:
    What a compelling break down of such a well written story. You put into words the emotions and ideas i had about it and good story telling as well. I connected with this on a more personal level though as well because i am also using your depiction of “good writing” in an english paper of mine, it really is in the unclear and thoughtful endings that cause us to reflect. Thanks for a great read!

  6. Pingback: Inspirations – Week Eight | Josh Morey

  7. elrifai

    I loved your analysis. I’ve just finished watching the show, and I completely agree with what you said about the difference in bad and great storytelling. Challenging our own motives in situations and making us think about being in that person’s shoes is extremely powerful.


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