Breaking Bad is a critic’s nightmare incarnate. As character study, as serialized drama, and as visual tableau, it has always been so self-assured as to defy criticism, revealing film and television writers to be the irrelevant, fawning sycophants that they frequently are in the bargain. Though perhaps less conventionally structured than the seasons that preceded it, the fourth season of Bad allows no respite from that pattern, inviting awe at the directness with which it has carried out its central thesis since the pilot: once your break bad, you don’t stop. Unlike other shows operating at the level that Bad does, there is little room for interpretation, subtext, and second guessing as to what it’s trying to tell us. The best that a lowly writer such as myself can ask anyone to do is consider it.
Consider how back in the first season, it was possible to find rational excuses for Walt’s (Bryan Cranston) decision to go into the drug trade. He had a son (RJ Mitte) with special needs, an unplanned baby on the way, and a cancer diagnosis that assured his premature death. But perhaps even more than that, he was aging rapidly in a way that would leave his promise unfulfilled, and the world around him never gave him an opportunity to forget how great it was. He had once contributed to work that had won a Nobel prize in chemistry; he then struggled to hold the attention of teenagers who were his vast intellectual inferiors who would nevertheless make more money than he ever would honestly in the space of only a few years. Had your friend come to him with the problems (and proposed solutions) that Walter White had, you may have counseled against it, but it’s unlikely that he wouldn’t still be your friend.
Consider just how many had broken bad (a colloquialism, by the way, that essentially means to go to the dark side) around him before the notion had even occurred to poor old Walter. Even before he had met them, many in the drug trade worked in a thriving industry that society officially condemned but unofficially sanctioned through its faltering War on Drugs. It’s been argued that Bad holds a certain degree of social commentary by mere virtue of the fact that certain decisions would not have needed to have been made in a society with more equally distributed resources and a better health care system. It's a fair point. No matter how you judge what Walter White does, there’s no argument that the path to Hell wasn’t already paved for him by the selfishness of bureaucrats in government and industry.
Consider just how many people break bad in his wake. His own wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), comes to accept the decisions that he’s made. His brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), is driven well beyond the purview of his job in order to accomplish its stated goals. His partner, Jesse (Aaron Paul), had been a drug dealer well before Walt entered his life, but would most likely have never been a killer. Walter may have inspired their actions, but is he responsible for them?
Consider what a soul mate he has found in Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), and just what they both have done to bring them to this season, in which their mutual destruction (one physical, one moral) is ultimately assured. Both are professionals in the purest sense of the word, and might have produced a brilliantly efficient (if entirely illegal and destructive) company together had their own human loyalties not gotten in the way. They might have been better had they not been forced to make certain decisions; then again, do our decisions merely reveal who we always were in the first place?
It is this humanity that Breaking Bad has, more than any other show, asked whether or not we can live with. Every decision that Walter has made has led to harm befalling the innocent, but in nearly every case, his inaction would have arguably led to equal or greater of the same. His choices, both responsible and otherwise, have always represented an attempt to control the dark forces at work in the world, no matter how much he overestimated his own ability to master them. Whether the world is bad or he is can probably never be said with complete certainty (though in all likelihood, it's probably both), but the fourth season may be marked as the point when Breaking Bad stopped asking that question, and simply stood back and watched him go full measure.
As with any series, final judgment on any component will have to wait until the show itself is completed, but the fourth season will be released on Blu-ray and DVD tomorrow, June 5. If you're not caught up yet, I highly recommend that you get it, if for no other reason than to have a platform to ask yourself these same questions.