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What's the problem with 'Breaking Bad'? Rooting for the bad guy

Published: Friday, Oct. 11 2013 12:30 p.m. MDT

Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston, hiding out in the woods of New Hampshire in a scene from season five of "Breaking Bad."

AMC

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I came late to the “Breaking Bad” party. I watched my first episode of the hit AMC series on Netflix right after the finale to the series had already aired on broadcast television. I had avoided it despite positive recommendations, because the premise of a high school teacher morphing into a drug lord in order to pay his medical bills was a bit seedy for my tastes. Think “Welcome Back, Kotter” with methamphetamine.

But the more I read about the show, the more it intrigued me. Vince Gilligan, the creator of “Breaking Bad,” insisted that the theme of the show was that “actions have consequences,” and his goal was to demonstrate that depravity leads inexorably to destruction. Conservative commentator Ann Coulter called the show “the most Christian Hollywood production since Mel Gibson's ‘The Passion of the Christ'” because it so clearly illustrates the wages of sin.

So I watched. And, to borrow from the druggie jargon that peppers the series, I was hooked pretty quickly. And even more remarkably, both Gilligan and Coulter were right.

No effort is made to sugarcoat how evil Walter White, the show’s protagonist, becomes over the course of five seasons. Gilligan describes his character arc as a journey from “Mr. Chips to Scarface,” and that’s exactly the way the story goes. It has all the elements of a Shakespearean tragedy, and just as many grisly deaths.

Yet here’s the problem — you spend every episode rooting for the bad guy.

Look! Walter’s about to be caught in a lie to his longsuffering wife! Watch out, Walter! If your brother-in-law Hank, the DEA agent, opens that door, you’re going to end up behind bars! Hide those stacks of hundred dollar bills in the diaper box, Walter, before your pure and innocent son gets a look at them!

With every episode, “Breaking Bad” leads Walter White right up to the edge of total ruination, only to grant him a last-minute reprieve. And all the while, we at home are sitting on our hands, panicked that this monster might get caught and end all the fun.

Is that a problem for anyone else, or is it just me?

Granted, I haven’t watched this all the way through, and the word is (spoiler alert!) that the guy finally gets his comeuppance in the end. But so what? By that point, you’ve spent so much time identifying with him that you’re mourning for the monster instead of celebrating the victory of justice.

Righteousness in “Breaking Bad” comes in the form of moralizing windbags and nagging spouses. The exciting people are the ones with the drugs and the guns. In addition, I’m a little disturbed that I now know so much about cooking meth. (That’s the lingo, see. You don’t “manufacture” meth. You “cook” it. Like brownies, only instead of flour and sugar and cocoa, you use pseudoephedrine. This is something I know now. Thanks, “Breaking Bad”!)

It is true that no effort is made to glamorize the drug world, but no extra effort is necessary. Damage is done just by showing this milieu to the masses.

Alexander Pope put it this way:

“Vice is a monster of so frightful mien
 as to be hated needs but to be seen;
 Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
 we first endure, then pity, then embrace.”

Pope may have preceded “Breaking Bad” by a century or two, but his review is spot on. Fact is, if you watch “Breaking Bad,” you may get hooked, too. And you may eventually embrace it.

You have been warned.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.

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