Let us, for the moment, look past all the critical love AMC's Breaking Bad has garnered over the last few seasons. Let's set aside the boatload of Emmys and the Peabody Award it has won. When we trim away all that red-carpet tangle, we're left with a very simple story—one that plays out, at times, like a parable. It's a tale of a reasonably decent man who, for a noble purpose, "breaks bad"—and how that bad, in turn, breaks everything it touches.
Bryan Cranston's Walter H. White stands at the center of this story—its tragic hero, its comic villain. He begins his journey as a high school chemistry teacher who lives a quiet, suburban life with his lovely wife, Skyler, and his disabled son. It's clearly not the life he would've chosen, but he pushes through day by day … until he learns he has incurable lung cancer. Walt's dying. And if he dies, there'll be no one to support his family.
So Walt signs away his soul. He teams up with Jesse, a former student and current petty criminal, and the two begin to cook methamphetamine—all with the object of funding Walt's experimental cancer treatment and provide for his fam.
Walt cooks. Walt deals. Walt cheats. Walt kills. And even when his cancer goes into remission, we still see Walt die a little bit every day, his humanity slipping from him like blood from a wound. He becomes inured to the horrors that surround him, accepting of the monsters he deals with—and the monster he's becoming. Breaking Bad is a study in brokenness, an illustration of evil. It is, in some ways, a brilliant rumination on humankind's depravity—the wrong we'll excuse if the end is "right," the lies we'll tell ourselves to forgive our own sins and stubbornly move down our own blighted paths.
"Breaking Bad, more than any other drama currently on television, is set in a moral universe," writes Scott Meslow of The Atlantic. "There's always been a kind of fatalism to Breaking Bad, from the plane crash over the White household that Walter inadvertently caused by letting Jane die, to the drug deal that Walter chose, both literally and metaphorically, over the birth of his daughter. Breaking Bad operates by the rules of science; every action causes an equal and opposite reaction, and at this point in the series, Walter is a man of very extreme action."
But while Walt's tale can be taken as that powerful parable, the path which we must take to get to the moral at the end is as dark and depraved as any we see on television. The violence and the murders and the sheer horror of this world is categorically oppressive, absolutely harrowing in its brutality and realism. Certain episodes explore sexual subplots. Viewers hear both s- and f-words (the former uncensored, the latter bleeped, at least when the show airs on television).
"If Walt and Jesse are horrible human beings, then what does that make us, the loyal viewers?" writes Matt Zoller Seitz for salon.com. "Complicit. They're our stand-ins. They are capable of almost anything, and there is almost nothing we won't watch them do. It's the line about how to cook a frog in a pan of water; the show's writers turned up the heat so gradually that it isn't until season two or three that you looked down at your arm and thought, 'Hey, are those blisters?'"
Breaking Bad tells us that we can't excuse evil for an uncertain future good. And by its own measure, we can't excuse Breaking Bad either.
Walt survived Season 4—the equivalent, his lawyer says, of winning "the Irish sweepstakes." But no matter: He wants to return to the drug trade. Meanwhile, the DEA circles ever closer to the operation's former core—flicking its uneasy eyes on hit man and cleanup guy Mike. Lydia, a bigwig for the operation's corporate cover Madrigal, asks Mike to kill 11 people to keep secrets safe. When he refuses, she hires another hit man to eliminate Mike.
"You know, it gets easier," Walter tells his horrified wife, who's only now starting to realize what kind of man her husband's become. "I promise you it does. What we do we do for good reasons. … There's no better reason than family." It's tragically flawed logic, of course, but family is indeed the episode's overarching theme. We see Mike play with his granddaughter. We see Lydia beg her own executioner to leave her body behind for the sake of her 5-year-old daughter. "She has to know I didn't leave her!" she begs.
One man commits suicide, electrocuting himself with a defibrillator. (He slumps to the bathroom floor, eyes open.) Another is shot in the head. (We see the hole and the gore coating the back of his neck; blood covers a painting behind him.) Still another is shot four times in the chest. Characters drink alcohol (on the job), and cigarettes serve as hiding places for other substances. They say the s-word twice, along with "a‑‑," "h‑‑‑" and "d‑‑n." Jesus' name is abused once, and there are a couple of misuses of God's name as well.
Jesse and Walt's underworld employer, Gus, kills a henchman with a box cutter. He slices through the man's jugular and blood spurts from the wound like a fountain as he struggles, spattering everyone in the room. When he finally bleeds out on the lab floor (the scene lingers and lingers), Gus calmly orders Jesse and Walt back to work. And so they mop up the blood and dispose of the body by way of an acid bath. Viewers hear the chemical hiss and see it smoke … and witness the gory, pinkish aftermath.
A corpse is on display with a bullet wound underneath the eye and blood pooled beneath the head. A partly paralyzed character must, with the help of his wife, use a bedpan to defecate. (From the side we see the two pull down his pants and position the pan.) A secretary shows a great deal of cleavage. Walt's estranged wife lies to a locksmith to get access to Walt's condo. The s-word is uttered five times, joined by several other profanities and abuses of Jesus' name.