Breaking Bad, like The Wire, is damn fine TV. But, where the Wire tried to show us everything that’s wrong with modern America, by showing us everything that’s wrong with modern America, Breaking Bad goes exactly the other way. In its protagonist, Walter White, we find the contradictions of modern America distilled down to a single man: he does all the wrong things for the right reasons. When he finds out he’s sick, he argues convincingly that he does not want to be well because being well felt to him like sickness and sickness feels like being alive.
Somewhere along the spectacular descent of Walter White from "contributor to a Nobel Prize in Chemistry" to a pitiless feud with the drug cartels, he asks himself "at what point did it all go wrong?" The act that precipitates the question is characteristic of the depth of the show. They build a whole episode out of Walt’s obsession with tracking down and killing a single fly that threatens the purity of the ‘product’. The fly – tiny, irritating, but surprisingly durable – is what went wrong. What went wrong was Walt’s conscience: he had one. It is characteristic of Walt's inability to see himself, or the situation he finds himself in, that he focuses instead on the point where the whole enterprise turns back on him or someone like him, when the kind of guy he could share a beer with becomes the victim rather than those at the bottom of the food chain, the desperate consumers of the chemically sublime crystal meth he produces. In the end, that news comes to him out of the clear blue sky. Walt is smart enough that he should have seen it already. Instead he wastes his intelligence on micromanaging the focus of his conscience, from his family, to his partner, to his employer. By such careful accommodations Walt ensures that he doesn’t burn up in the descent, but the effect is pyrotechnic anyway. He does it so well we cheer him on the way down.
Clues to where it might have gone wrong can be found in the starting point. The Nobel Prize is never mentioned - the camera tracks briefly over it in the first episode – but, for Walt, life has never quite equalled the promise. He contributes to a Nobel Prize, but doesn't win it. The company he helped build has brought riches, fame (and the girl) to the other founding partner, but not to him. Even teaching high-school chemistry, a task he relishes in a way that makes you wish he'd been your chemistry teacher, hasn’t quite worked out the way he’d hoped. It doesn't pay the bills and his students look down on him; literally, when they find him washing hubcaps at his second job in a car wash run by a man in possession of the second greatest set of eyebrows in western civilization.
Walt has always been the also ran, the runner up but it’s hard to say at first whether this was just bad luck or some flaw in his character. It might be considered a very bad flaw that the comfortable life he has isn’t enough for him, but then again, when all around you have more, even only slightly more, who doesn’t feel left behind? Luck, as it happens, plays a decisive role when Walt finds out he has lung cancer: the kind where you don’t get better.
Ordinarily one might consider lung cancer to be bad luck, but for Walt it might not be. It doesn’t just make him feel alive; Walt realizes – as if for the first time – that he is alive. In an exquisitely awkward scene in which Walt’s family pass round a cushion that confers on them the right to speak honestly about Walt’s cancer and what treatment Walt should take, we see how Walt sees himself. He sits silent, smothered, beneath the accumulating weight of other people’s thoughts and feelings, the family argues and bickers over what’s right for Walt till he can’t take it anymore. He grabs the cushion and delivers a speech that to the family – and maybe to Walt himself – is about dying right, dying with dignity and without threat of financial ruin. He makes it sound like a noble choice. To us, Walt’s choice to die gives him the only means he has found to be alive. And those means are not noble at all.