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.