Breaking Bad gave us the ending the fans demanded, rather than the one Walter deserved

After the show's creator Vince Gilligan spent years promising moral retribution - did Walter get off too lightly?

Breaking Bad is not the best television show ever made. Either those who say it is have never seen Deadwood, The Wire or The Sopranos – or they have not understood them.

The programme is often described as an HBO-style drama in which a terminally ill chemistry teacher in New Mexico starts producing crystal meth in order to provide for his family, but really it is the story of a middle-aged loser searching for significance. It is an answer to the question: “If you had six months left to live, what would you do?”

In the very first episode, aired in 2008, Walter White attempts to hold his students’ attention by playing tricks with Bunsen burners. “Technically,” he says, spraying chemicals across the naked flames to create vibrant flashes of colour, “chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change.”

Over the next two years, Walter is transformed from a sympathetic family man with poor health, no money and a second child on the way into the drug lord Heisenberg, driven by monstrous ego and ruthless enough to eliminate those who jeopardise his personal empire. The plot progresses like a volatile chain reaction, its pace distracting viewers from the questions they ought to be asking: is Walt still good? Was he ever?

Like Whitman, the poet for whom Walter is named, Breaking Bad’s protagonist contains “multitudes”. He is pitiable, attractive and deadly all at once. Scores of zealous admirers have taken to social media to defend and rationalise his crimes. Bryan Cranston, the actor who plays Walt, found himself so in love with the character that he believed in his motives being pure right up to the final scene.

“If religion is a creation of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished,” the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, has said. “I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.” This duality drives the series: behind the interplay of cause and effect, of every action and its consequences, there is always a desire for justice. When a plane exploded above Albuquerque at the end of series two, Gilligan explained it as nothing less than “the judgement of God” on Walt.

That is why it was surprising that the final episode, broadcast on 30 September on the online streaming service Netflix, gave us the sort of ending the fans demanded, rather than the one Walter deserved.

Perhaps Gilligan feared the abuse the Sopranos creator David Chase suffered in 2007 when the show concluded with an abrupt cut-to-black, just as its mobster family appeared set for execution. Or maybe the kernel of the finale was not Walt’s death but rather the death of his self deception. Either way, Breaking Bad is essential viewing: a Molotov cocktail of poverty, science and decline.

Breaking Bad's Walter goes from family man to drug lord. Image: Getty

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

Photo: Getty
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Linking Chester Bennington's suicide to Linkin Park's music is dangerous and irresponsible

How we write and talk about suicide is a matter of life and death.

We are so wrong about suicide. What we want more than anything is for it to make sense. To turn the life of the victim into a good story, with all the narrative beats leading up to a satisfying conclusion in their death. No mess and no untidiness. That’s especially true when the person who has died by suicide is famous – someone on whom we are already used to writing our own meanings. We start to wind myths around them.

So when Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington apparently died by suicide on Thursday, this is what happened. People started looking for patterns, turning his work into a prelude to his suicide, even implying that his death brought greater meaning to Linkin Park’s tightly-wound songs. “Linkin Park star Chester Bennington’s hurt made beautiful music,” said one headline;  “Those lyrics […] are of course now extremely poignant,” remarked one obituary.

It should be obvious why it’s tacky to turn a human death into an intensifying filter for our own aesthetic responses. It’s perhaps less obvious, but more important, to understand why this is dangerous. Saying that Bennington’s suicide proves the worth of his music comes under the heading of “[promoting] the idea that suicide achieves results”, something the Samaritans warns against in its reporting guidelines. The reason for this warning is that such narratives contribute to the risk of “suicide contagion”, where other people attempt suicide in imitation of the reported act.

Two things make contagion an especially urgent issue here. Firstly, Bennington’s confessional lyrics mean his relationship with fans was always one of intense identification: for many, his words expressed their own most private and painful emotions, binding singer and listener in shared feeling. Secondly, Bennington himself may have been influenced by another suicide, with reports emphasising parallels between his death and that of Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell in May (and not, it must be said, emphasising them with much care for reporting guidelines).

“Suicide influence is strongest on those who are close to the victim in some way, or like them, in all meanings of the word,” writes Jennifer Michael Hecht in Stay, her thoughtful book on suicide as a social phenomenon. Bennington was a fan, a friend and a professional peer of Cornell’s. All the conditions for “closeness” were there – so why is there such carelessness about emphasising that same “closeness” between Bennington and his audience?

This is the truth about suicide: it is always a hideous accident, a terrible conjunction of urge and opportunity that tears through families and communities. There’s a temptation to think of suicide as a crime in which the only victim of violence is also the perpetrator (no mess and no untidiness), but this is so wrong. Those left behind are victims too. Exposure to suicide, whether through immediate bereavement or through media representations and reports, is a key risk factor in suicide attempts.

I suspect we would all feel better if suicide was an unstoppable reaction to uncontainable internal forces. Then, we’d have no collective responsibility. People like to share a quote from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest where the author (who himself died by suicide) writes: “The person in whom Its [ie depression’s] invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise.”

But suicide is hardly inevitable. Ninety per cent of people who survive attempted suicide once will not die by suicide. What does that mean for those who complete suicide at first attempt? How many of them, if they hadn’t had the dumb luck to be unsaved or unsavable, would have gone on to want to live? Suicide is a theft from the future self who could have chosen to go on, as well as a theft from those left grieving.

You can see how impulsive suicide is by looking at how suicide rates fall and rise. When particular means of suicide are taken away – for example, the detoxification of household gas, or the restriction of sales of paracetamol, or the introduction of barricades on tube platforms – there are fewer suicides. Not fewer suicides by that method, but fewer suicides overall: there is little substitution. And when suicide is given extensive, sensationalist coverage, rates go up.

How we write and talk about suicide is a matter of life and death. What if Foster Wallace or Cornell or Bennington had been lucky and survived? Their work would be the same. Same greatness, same flaws. The happenstance of suicide adds nothing, only wounds, and the media is morally derelict when it suggests anything else. We should never be careless of each other or ourselves when our carelessness has mortal consequences. 

If you've been affected by any of the issues addressed in this piece you can call the Samaritans on the free helpline 116 123.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.