One of the greatest flaws associated with people’s perception of Breaking Bad is that it is a drama. This is not the case. I can understand why people would have that idea, but it still isn’t true. What the series is is a tragedy. I would argue that it is one of the greatest American tragedies every written. I would also argue that it is the completed version of what was meant to be the greatest America tragedy that could not have crashed and burned harder at the finish line. Some of you might be able to see where I’m going with this, but for the rest, let me first give you some context into the difference between drama and tragedy.
Before we get too far into this, let me say that my definitions of these terms are open to dispute. For real, feel free to argue the shit out of my statements and call me an idiot. That’s fine. But this is how I see things.
A lot of people think that the difference between drama and tragedy is that drama makes you feel happy and tragedy makes you feel sad. That is oversimplification. Here are the differences, from what I’ve gathered. Drama is where ideals conquer rationality. It’s where the thing that should happen does, not the thing that would happen in something more realistic. A great example would be every film where the hero saves the day just in time. The success of the hero, or their failure at the point of the plot, usually involves some kind of fate or destiny, either implied or obvious.
In contrast, in a well-done tragedy, rationality conquers ideals. It is a story where the thing that logically would happen does, instead of the thing that we believe should happen. The reason that this happens is because the hero of the story has one damning flaw. They have some character failing that stops them from achieving the end that they desire. A good example would be Willy from Death of a Salesman. His horrible flaw is that he is lying to both himself and his family, and it is tearing the family apart. It isn’t just about being sad and stuff. No, the story has to make a point about the lead character(s) and how that flaw of theirs dooms their efforts.
This brings us to Walter White and his darker persona, Heisenberg. When Walter started his dark descent into the world of cooking meth, his motivations were very pure. He was trying to save a little money to help his family. Granted, it was a plan that was born out of a combination of desperation and the desire to put his vast knowledge of chemistry to use, but it still had its roots in something good. Or did it? Walt had been burned out of a company he founded. It was a decision that forever burned in his memory and made him filled with hate. That was, in my opinion, the birthplace of Heisenberg.
His first hints are in a clothing shop when he is out with his family. Having been diagnosed with cancer, the darker persona is creeping back in. You truly get a good look when a bunch of bullies are making fun of his son who is suffering from cerebral palsy. He attacks the leader of the bullies. There are other smaller instances of his appearance, but in my opinion, Heisenberg doesn’t truly come back until the murder of Krazy-8. Walt knows that he has to do something, but he is too weak to kill the man himself. When he realizes that the man intends to kill him when he lets him go, Heisenberg appears. He strangles the man to death. This marks the first appearance. The second is after Jesse is beaten and nearly killed by Tuco. He is given his trademark appearance as he uses his chemistry knowledge to make a daring deal, following a controlled explosion at his headquarters. This act, and the violence behind it, gives Heisenberg his shape. It gives him the keys to desires for death and carnage that he never got to exact before and shapes the rise that follows.
The thing that marks every part of Heisenberg’s continual rise in power is death. Each time he gains a new seat of power, people die. It is because he is finally getting the recognition that he feels he always deserved. After the mishap with Tuco, he truly achieves greatness when he allies himself with the drug kingpin, Gustavo Fring. Gus has a massive operation that was posed to go worldwide. The blue meth that Heisenberg was famous for was now everywhere. He had reached a level of infamy that Walt could never have dreamed, and this was what he wanted. When he finds out that Pinkman was cooking behind his back, he gets violently angry, seeing it as an affront to his good name. However, when he realizes that Gus is a problem, he then kills him in one of the most daring and impressive ways of using unlikely allies.
When Heisenberg has finally taken the throne from Gus, there is almost none of Walt left. While he may sometimes sound like he is being amiable and nice, it is all part of the game. He is consistently using people. However, there is the fact that the goal in his mind of helping the family is something he has to fight against. It is the last vestige of Walt that he can’t get rid of, no matter how dark his acts become and how hard he tries to not be the person Walt wants him to be. However, the final ascent of the throne marks his downfall.
Like any good tragedy, there must be a downfall. The downfall of Heisenberg comes when, by pure chance, Walt’s brother-in-law and DEA agent Hank finds a book in his bathroom that was a gift from a former associate. That small thing that has the 1% chance of happening, like in all tragedies, does. And it makes the fall of the main character. Hank quickly figures it all out, but has no evidence. It becomes a battle between Walt and Hank, which is reminiscent of the final parts of the duel between L and Light in Death Note. And just like the end of that series, it all culminates in Walt’s lie being undone and Heisenberg being exposed to the light. In the episode “Ozymandias,” it is just like the final sequence between Light and the people who have all busted him in how he takes it. Even after Hank is killed, his fall continues.
The final end of Heisenberg is after he ends up in the woods of New Hampshire. Having lost everything, he departs and leaves the broken remains of his former life behind. At first, Walt is a destroyed man who has nothing left. However, he realizes what he has to do and then something interesting happens. Where once Heisenberg used Walt to help him get his way, Walt now uses Heisenberg in order to get a final redemption before finally ending his time on the world and leaving the legacy that he was so famous for behind.
The original Godfather films were meant to be a trilogy that was in the same vein as a Greek tragedy. It was meant to tell of the rise and fall of Michael Corleone. Originally, the third film was supposed to be a civil war between Michael and the last remnant of moral fiber in the family, Tom Hagan. However, they couldn’t get Robert Duvall back on the project, and we all remember what we got. Unfortunately. That story was a lot like the rise and fall of Walter White. It made for an impressive look into a very interesting and complicated character, with whom a lot of debate can be had about what he’s really like. I made my opinion known, but maybe I’m wrong. If you believe differently, great. Let me know how you see this character and his role in the series.
I think I’ll close out with a quote from the man himself.
“My family hates me. This is all I have left, and you want to take it from me.”