As Breaking Bad has grown tenser over the course of five seasons, it has emerged as a somber condemnation of old-fashioned masculinity. Poisoned by feelings of inadequacy brought on by terminal lung cancer and his inability to support his family as a high school chemistry teacher (and part-time car-wash employee), Walter White (Bryan Cranston) turns to cooking meth. His career change brings a financial windfall, as well as an unexpected new identity: the übermacho doppelgänger Heisenberg. No longer life’s doormat, White revels in his new alpha-male status as a feared mastermind of a growing drug empire. To protect that terrain, though, means doing terrible things—first lying, and eventually committing murder. Yet to White’s way of thinking, these acts could be forgiven for the most understandable of reasons: He needs to be a good provider for his family, whatever the costs.
White hasn’t been alone in his slavish adherence to outmoded types of masculinity: From Dean Norris’s backslapping, emotionally closed-off DEA agent Hank Schrader to Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman, a 20-something addict enamored with gangster rap’s overblown machismo, Breaking Bad is at times a bleak portrait of the dangers of engaging in an endless dick-measuring competition.
But with one episode to go, even machismo’s spiritual dead-end has taken a backseat to the show’s darker and more despairing proposition—one about the all-consuming nature of evil. Testosterone guides the men of Breaking Bad; they rationalize their actions by believing they’re behaving the way “real men” do. And in a sense, viewers—who continue to defend White’s actions even as they’ve gotten progressively more sadistic—have permitted such rationalizations. Perhaps earlier in Breaking Bad’s run, we could convince ourselves that White could outlast his adversaries, in the process eluding the wickedness surrounding him. But that hope has proved naive. As Breaking Bad reaches its finale, the show has convincingly argued that unchecked masculinity can produce unspeakable evil. In such a hostile environment, if the characters flirt with such evil, they’d better be ready to commit fully—or else they’ll be destroyed.
The final slate of episodes began in August with the principal conflict between White and Schrader. At long last, Hank discovers the mysterious Heisenberg he had pursued is actually his brother-in-law. The realization inspires Schrader to punch White in the face, a perfect example of the macho edict that’s ruled Schrader since the show’s beginning. But rather than striking back, White calmly warns Schrader, “If you don’t know who I am, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.” Since that face-off, Breaking Bad has focused on how some characters’ macho hang-ups have been resolved, to their detriment. Those who have chosen to let go of antiquated thinking about what it means to be a “real man” have saved their souls—scant consolation when they end up dead or wishing they were.
In Breaking Bad’s pitiless worldview, sentimentality has no place. White’s onetime partner Pinkman has been thoroughly undone by his inability to live with the consequences of his bad deeds. Rather than savor his share of the meth money, Pinkman throws bundles of cash out the window of his moving car like he’s delivering newspapers, as if extricating himself from the loot will somehow free him of his guilt. From here, his life spirals downward, largely because he’s unable (or unwilling) to match White’s fiendishness. When White advises him to leave Albuquerque and assume a new identity, it’s Pinkman, not White, who gets weepy. White gives his old partner a long hug, but the feeling behind it is bogus: White understands that emotions are a weakness in the life-or-death struggle in which they’re all engaged.
When DEA officers arrest White and he spits “Coward!” at Pinkman, it’s a rebuke to the younger man’s violation of this unspoken, manly code—a code that Pinkman never could live up to. Pinkman’s not dead yet, but he might as well be. His life is a literal and metaphorical prison. He’s trapped in a cell, forced to keep cooking for the neo-Nazis who have taken over White’s meth operation if he doesn’t want to see more of his loved ones killed.
Pinkman’s development of a conscience would have seemed impossible at the show’s start—not that it’s done much to help his plight at its end. The same goes for Schrader’s personal growth. When we first met the bald, beefy DEA agent, he was the sort of bully who would have ridiculed White in high school. But while White is busy becoming a ruthless criminal mastermind—the sort of man who intimidates his brother-in-law—Schrader gets in touch with his feelings, an occurrence inspired by his frequent near-death encounters with the powerful Salamanca drug family, whose members have hardcore ways to send a message to cops who mess with them.
As a result, Schrader becomes a more sensitive soul, his confrontation with evil forcing him to reassess his macho posturing. (Granted, he’s no saint: He is unconcerned about White possibly killing Pinkman during their plaza meet-up if it means he could finally bust White.) But not only does Schrader have to learn how to walk again, he has to change the way he treats others around him, especially his wife Marie (Betsy Brandt). In fact, it’s his stronger bond with Marie that makes his heartfelt phone call to her right before his death such a stinger. The old Schrader never would have bothered to tell Marie that he loved her in that pivotal moment. And while it might have been a cliché—characters who are dead meat tend to offer up unreserved sentiments right before their demise—in this case it signals his growth. But it’s telling that Breaking Bad doesn’t reward that growth: Ultimately, Schrader is just another corpse along the road, another victim whose death affects White but who ultimately pays the price for not being seduced by masculinity’s darkest urges.
So where does this leave White?
After embracing his Heisenberg alter ego early on, White tries to have it both ways, killing and scheming in the name of protecting his family—even if he doesn’t want to admit just how much his expulsion from Gray Matter Technologies also still drives him. At the show’s conclusion, White still wants to believe he can justify his bad acts and control the maelstrom around him. The character’s tragedy isn’t simply that he has overrated his own intellect—it’s that he still can’t acknowledge his evil deeds. If he had, maybe he wouldn’t feel so conflicted, calling his son Flynn (RJ Mitte) while hiding out in New Hampshire, convinced he can somehow explain this whole nasty business to the boy so he’ll understand. But it doesn’t work—just like when he tries to gather Skyler (Anna Gunn) and Flynn so they could escape together. They want nothing to do with him—they see White for the monster he is—even though he indignantly cries, “What the hell is wrong with you? We’re a family!” Arguably, he’s survived this long not just because of his brains but because of his willingness to cross moral lines that other characters won’t. For him to pretend those deeds can be forgiven because of his honorable intentions is unbearably sad.
That’s why it is appropriate that Breaking Bad’s penultimate episode ends with White still wrestling with the two sides of his personality. No longer able to handle the separation from his wife, son and young daughter, White calls the DEA to turn himself in. Shortly thereafter, however, he happens upon an episode of Charlie Rose in which his former Gray Matter partners insist White hadn’t had much to do with the company, a claim that jabs at the same macho pride that’s been his weakness from the beginning.
For White, embracing evil always has been justified by masculine impulses: providing for his family and proving himself as the leader of the pack. But with only about an hour of show left, his decision to return to Albuquerque seems to be as much about getting revenge for Hank’s death as it is to determine, once and for all, who he is. Is he Heisenberg? Is he Walter White? Is he a nice guy who gets pushed around? Or is he the biggest, baddest guy in town? His colleagues at Gray Matter don’t recognize him anymore—and after 61 episodes, he probably doesn’t want to recognize himself, either. Part of White must think that saving the day will prove he’s not the bad guy. But as we’ve seen with Schrader and Pinkman, trying to be the good guy might only speed up White’s demise.
Tim Grierson is Playboy for iPhone’s critic-at-large. His new biography of Wilco, Sunken Treasure, is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter.