ALERT: Spoilers ahead.
It will take some time for those of us who watched Breaking Bad to absorb the layers of that show, and the near-perfect ending of the series, aired this week. When the show began, Walter White was a high school chemistry teacher, struggling with cancer and mounting bills — and, we soon discovered, a tragic personality flaw that led to him missing out on being a rock star chemist and billionaire. Jesse Pinkman was a ne’er do well dropout druggie with a penchant for nothing in particular, except maybe a quick buck.
When the show ended this week, much had changed. It turned out that Walt was not just a guy who started out a couple degrees off course and got swept into a dark underworld that he couldn’t escape. In a final and belated bit of self-awareness, he tells his former spouse, Skylar, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was, really … I was alive.” Previously, he’d told himself and anyone who would listen that he was doing it for his family. But he wasn’t.
And, as viewers, we began to see that over time. Walt had several opportunities to extricate himself from the drug trade, and do so cleanly, but every time he chose to stay in. And the longer he stayed in, the more people got sucked into the gravitational black hole that was his life. In the end, dozens of people died because of Walt. Skylar was reduced to a chain-smoking bag of bones. And Jesse…
Jesse ended up as a prisoner in a Neo-Nazi camp, forced to cook meth. It was as perfect a depiction of hell as any I’ve seen. As we discovered in the last episode, he survived by fantasizing that he wasn’t cooking, but was a carpenter, making beautiful, delicate items in his wood shop.
Jesse tried to escape Walt’s gravitational pull long before, but it was too late. He was too far in the black hole already. He pulled away as hard as he could, but instead got sent to hell. And in hell, Satan rules. At least in this hell, only Satan can free Jesse, and that’s exactly what happens.
At The A.V. Club, Todd VanDerWerff writes,
There was a good reason for Breaking Bad to be able to do this: It is, fundamentally, a religious show. I don’t mean that Walter White needs to find Jesus or Buddha or Allah (though he probably would have been better off if he turned to anything that wasn’t his own hubris). I mean that this show occupies a world with the concepts of good and evil, where “the right thing” and “the wrong thing” exist…
…When Breaking Bad began, it sometimes seemed to push too hard to suggest that everybody was a sinner, where the difference between Marie’s kleptomania and Walt’s meth cooking and murder was largely a matter of degree. Yet the show quickly disabused itself of this notion. Everybody’s a sinner, yes, but that matter of degree is important. Walter White isn’t just a sinner. He’s a man who pushes further and further into his dark heart, who unleashes all manner of destruction upon the world, both at large and in his own home. He is a murderer, many times over; he is a man who abuses his wife; and he is a force of fear for everyone who sees his true face. He is, for lack of a better word, Satan.
Of Satan, René Girard writes,
Walt has indeed abandoned all inherent and socialized standards of morality. By the end, it’s clear that he is not troubled by anything he’s done. The only thing that troubles him is that others, like his wife and his brother-in-law, don’t love him for it. He is, in my opinion, the logical outcome of Nietzsche’s Übermensch — he’s abandoned all metaphysics, he is completely this-worldly, he has no moral compass, no fear of God, no worry about any eschatological comeuppance.
Like Jesus, Satan seeks to have other imitate him but not in the same fashion and not for the same reasons. He wants first to seduce… Satan likewise presents himself a model for our desires, and he is certainly easier to imitate than Christ, for he counsels us to abandon ourselves to all our inclinations in defiance of morality and its prohibitions.
But Walt’s at his most evil when he seduces others into his schemes by tapping on their desires. Both Skylar and Jesse fall into this trap, and many lesser characters do as well. At one point it seems that Skylar is ready to stand up to Walt — more than once, she’s holding the phone, ready to dial 911. But each time, Satan sweet talks her, or threatens her, and she hangs up, pulled more deeply into his seduction. Then she uses drug money to pay her way out of a problem. Then she has a new car.
Jesse, too, falls for Satan’s seductions. All that money, more than is really imaginable, and all Jesse can come up with is to buy a really big stereo and give his “friends” pizza and drugs.
And then Satan flips, just as Girard predicts:
The road on which Satan starts us is broad and easy; it is the superhighway of mimetic crisis. But then suddenly there appears an unexpected obstacle between us and the object of our desire, and to our consternation, just when we thought we had left Satan far behind us, it is he, or one of his surrogates, who shows up to block the route. This is the first of many transformations of Satan: the seducer of the beginnings is transformed quickly into a forbidding adversary, an opponent more serious than all the prohibitions not yet transgressed.
Let’s rewrite that middle sentence: “Just when Jesse thought he had left Walt far behind him, it is he, or his surrogate, Todd, who shows up to block the route.”
All Jesse wants is love, the love of a woman, the love of a child. And yet, because Satan first seduces him, then becomes his adversary, that love is destroyed each time. The child he loves is poisoned. The women he loves die. Jesse has lost himself to Satan, and he ends up in hell.
In the final episode, Walt’s own death is imminent, by bullet or by cancer. And he breaks from his Übermensch. He prays: “Just get me home, and I’ll do the rest.” His prayer, to Whomever, is the first ever crack in his non-metaphysical world. We all know that Jesse doesn’t deserve to spend an eternity in hell, and Walt finally seems to recognize that, too. So Satan journeys back to hell and releases his disciple.
At least in the universe of Breaking Bad, only Satan has that power, and I, for one, am glad that in the final act, he uses that power for good.