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What 'Breaking Bad' Can Teach Us

What 'Breaking Bad' Can Teach Us

[Warning: This article may contain some slight spoilers]

If you’ve been keeping up with Breaking Bad, here’s a scene that will be familiar to you. Every season, at least once or twice, the camera finds Walter White quietly surveying his shifting empire. The one-time unassuming family man and chemistry teacher is not a self-styled king; a Machiavellian overlord who brings ruin to all who oppose him—even and especially if those people were once close to him. The show does a masterful job of just occasionally reminding us just how far White has come and how far he’s brought himself. You never quite get used to the new Walter. He always seems twisted.

And, well, even if you haven’t been keeping up with Breaking Bad, that’s a scene that ought to be at least somewhat familiar to you. It happens all the time.

Since the dawn of time, the slithering serpent of Eden has undergone a multitude of cultural wardrobe changes. Yet, in every epoch, the Great Deceiver hides in plain sight, whispers utterly convincing lies into our gullible ears, and patiently waits for us to make a hell of heaven.

Despite awareness of his machinations, we have always been infatuated with this former Angel of Light. Breaking Bad’s Walter White is among the latest costumes donned by this charismatic creature of the underworld. But first, let’s look at a brief history of Satan’s literary and cultural personifications.

Back when tweets only originated from birds, Dante’s Inferno enjoyed millions of likes, shares and comments in large part due to its simultaneous portrayal of contemporary events and their eternal, spiritual ramifications. In this classic work, Dante portrays Satan as a rather impotent being, so powerless we almost pity him. Forever trapped in a frozen sheet of ice, Satan endures the most brutal of all punishments: isolation. He is portrayed like a child told to sit quietly and think about what they’ve done, and readers may even feel sympathy for his plight.

300 years later, John Milton released Paradise Lost, the sequel Satan desperately needed to revamp his meek image into the menacing yet suave Evil One, setting the standard for villains ever after. As cool as James Bond, as introspective as Freud, and as diabolical as The Joker, this Satan oozes charisma to the point where we find ourselves slowly nodding our heads in assent to the details of his unfortunate life circumstances. We too have been frustrated with God, angered by His actions, confused by His ways and hesitant to believe His truth. 

Milton’s Satan accomplished something much more devious than Dante’s: He made us want to be like him.

Today, Satan is seldom a specific character, but more an idea of evil as embodied by the villains we know so well, such as Darth Vader, Sauron, Voldemort, The Joker, Colonel Kurtz and Jack Torrance. These cultural icons of evil share three intriguing, defining characteristics: deformity, pride and an inevitable end.

Vader’s deformity seeps through his singular breathing, evidence of his enormous physical suffering. Then again, Sauron is only an eye. Voldemort and The Joker have visible scars, while Lector, Kurtz and Torrance all suffer from deep emotional wounds. Though these scars may serve as a visual cue that these are in fact “the bad guys,” might they also serve as a point of compassion? 

These villains also suffer from unbridled hubris, believing themselves gods of their own respective universes. Unwilling to relinquish power in any form, they follow their ego wherever it may lead, justifying every means in order to reach their preferred ends. If people have to die in order for them to get what they want, so be it. To them, death is nothing more than a practical next step on their daily to-do list. 

Lastly, they always get what’s coming to them. Justice is served in one form or another, whether it means they’re ultimately redeemed in some way, like Vader’s reconciliation with Luke, or they’re brought down by the hero. Frodo defeats Sauron. Harry kills Voldemort. Batman captures The Joker. Willard kills Kurtz at Kurtz’s own request. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy who eventually freezes to death, an echo of Dante’s depiction of Satan’s punishment.  

On the whole, our popular depictions of evil are less likely to be redeemed than they are to be destroyed. We collectively salivate at the thought of their comeuppance. While we’ve been conditioned this way through hours of TV and movies, might there be something at a soul level that causes us to resonate with these repeated notions of good making evil suffer its just rewards? This echoes one of Breaking Bad showrunner Vince Gilligan’s favorite quotes, “I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.”

Which brings us back to our mutual friend Walter White. Unassuming yet menacing, brilliant yet overlooked, Walter “Heisenberg” White may be the perfect villain, a contemporary Satan who’s pulled us into his RV ride to hell. 

Walter’s deformity is his cancer. The diagnosis causes him to drastically alter his appearance. Still, it’s this diagnosis that occurs within six minutes of the pilot episode, before we’ve even met “Heisenberg,” that causes us to instantly empathize with Walter White. The foundational cause for his diabolical actions is also the strongest glue that binds the audience’s sympathies to Walter’s circumstances.

As the show progresses, so too do the boundaries of Walter’s ego. The final scene in the epic episode “Face Off” shines a devastating light into Walter’s worsening soul. It is in this show-stopping moment we realize his confidence in himself has achieved monomaniacal proportions. Eventually, either Walter’s ego will have to break, or everyone else around him will have to bow to King Heisenberg.

Concerning the series’ last eight episodes, Vince Gilligan said, “Redemption is a pretty tricky thing. You’d have to be pretty saintly to say that Walter White could be redeemed at this point. I don’t think I’m saintly enough to say that.”

Despite those condemning words, Gilligan related that the ending would be “victorious.”  

In a best guess for the finale, Walter’s partner in crime Jesse will protect Walter’s family from Walter, but will die trying to do so. If this occurs, Jesse will have willingly sacrificed himself as an attempt to redeem his own broken bad past. Jesse’s trajectory on the show is the antithesis of Walter’s, a clawing toward redemption despite its ultimate cost. 

Walter White will not die in the finale. That type of ending is too easy for a show this smart. He will suffer the same way that Dante’s Satan suffers: alone. Priest and writer Richard Rene wrote, “Although the final episode has not been aired, it is safe to say that Walter’s current trajectory may well end in a personal hell where he is the single, undisputed ruler, simply because he is the only inhabitant.” 

All that Walter has said he’s worked for—his family, their well-being, his own professional respect—will be stripped from him by season’s end. He will not die, but he will be left with nothing but an eternity of regret and all the time in the world to think about what he’s done. 

Walter White will fulfill the prophecy of every cultural adaptation of Satan throughout the ages. He will have created his own “hell of heav’n,” as Milton put it, and he will ponder Colonel Kurtz’s words for an eternity: “It was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.” 

Such freedom to choose gave birth to Satan. Frighteningly, free will is simultaneously the foundation of his actions and the glue that binds us to him. The responsibility of free will is the deformity we share, if you will.

We’re well aware of our selfish tendencies. But we don’t know what our end will be. All we know is that our inevitable end depends on our current choices. We can choose to be “good” or “evil,” to pull back from temptation and seek redemption, or to stretch our grasp far beyond our reach, toward a gleaming apple just beyond our fingertips.

This is an adapted excerpt from The Gospel According to Breaking Bad, which released as a Kindle ebook August 11. An updated and expanded ebook and print version will be released in late 2013 following the series’ conclusion. Download the first chapter for free at

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