Beware: Spoilers for everything up until the final episode of Breaking Bad.
Todd VanDerWerff wrote a great piece at Grantland comparing the trajectories of Dexter and Breaking Bad. The main point is that Dexter has always avoided making its protagonist the bad guy. Yes, he’s a serial killer, but a) he only kills bad people, and b) he’s a lovable, cuddly guy when he’s not murdering people.
VanDerWerff cites the end of season 2 as the defining moment: After pitting Dexter against the suspicious and driven Sgt. Doakes, the show had two choices: Dexter would be exposed as a murderer and caught, or Doakes – who was essentially a decent guy, despite being a tremendous asshole – had to die. Doakes died, but not at the hands of Dexter, handily absolving the protagonist of breaking his code and killing someone who wasn’t a horrible murderer and/or rapist.
For the first two seasons, Dexter had a real sense of danger: This was a man who needed to kill, who enjoyed killing, even if he tried to abide by a code. While the series has had a few high points since then, the tone has been markedly different: Dexter is the good guy. The audience will always be on Dexter’s side.
This is in stark contrast to Breaking Bad, where Walter White has done some truly fucking terrible things. There’s always an element of justification for his crimes – protecting his family, or simple self-preservation – but they’ve consistently been diluted by greed, entitlement, and anger. No one could fault Walt for killing Crazy 8, who certainly would have killed him if the tables were turned. But what about Jane? Or Mike?
There are those who still stand by Walt 100%, those who see him as a good man who only wants to look after his family. But others, who are not insane, will at least have questioned some of his decisions. As in real life, it’s simplistic to say that Walter White is a Good Person or a Bad Person. (Matt Zoller Seitz has an excellent piece on this subject.) Walter White has done things to protect his family and friends, but he’s also acted out of pride, greed, and anger.
Breaking Bad has insulated Walter White’s morality with its antagonists. Whatever you may think of Walt, he pales next to Tuco’s violent rage, Gus Fring’s cold calculations, or the Salamanca cousins being creepy as fuck. Perhaps it doesn’t matter that Walt put himself and his family in the orbit of these dangerous men through his own actions; once he was in these less-than-ideal situations, he had no choice but to play their game.
After battling these monsters, it should come as no surprise that Walter White became a monster himself. The first half of season five is about Walter White the victor, and the villain: He’s beaten Gus, but as ever with Walt, it’s not enough. Illusions of Walt as a guy who just wants to look after his family fall by the wayside. He could have quit; he could have run and hid, with his family or without. It’s not simply that he wants more money; he needs to show everyone how brilliant he is, how much he’s in complete control.
The turning point of the season is the murder at the end of Dead Freight, which breaks up Walt’s alliance with Jesse and Mike. It’s not committed by Walt, but his reaction is much more matter-of-fact than that of his colleagues; the death of a child is unfortunate, but not a dealbreaker. It feeds into Walt’s delusions: So long as he can keep his hands clean, so long as he’s not the one pulling the trigger, it can all be rationalized.
But who did pull the trigger? Todd. Who is Todd? I don’t know.
Todd first appeared as a member of the crew of exterminators who subsidized their legit business with burglary. He was smart, followed orders, and eager to please Walt once he recognized he was dealing with some heavy hitters. And, as luck would have it, he was also a sociopath.
What sort of person instantly and calmly comes to the decision to shoot a child? A child who may have witnessed a crime, but who may not be aware of it, or fully understood what he saw? Of all the dangerous men who populate Breaking Bad, would any of them done the same? Perhaps Tuco or the Salamanca cousins. Cold-blooded as he could be, it’s hard to imagine Gus Fring taking the same step, at least right away. Even if Walt might have agreed the kid had to die, he wouldn’t have done it then and there.
Todd is a Deus ex machina of death, a device to draw a moral line in the sand: This side if you’re okay with killing children to protect your drug business.
If Todd doesn’t exactly get more depth or humanity, he at least gets some explanation by way of his family tree: His Uncle Jack. Jack is a Nazi.
We can probably all agree that Nazis are unambiguous bad guys. Though we don’t see Jack and his gang committing any Nazi-specific crimes, we can all generally agree that when a character shows up with prominent swastika tattoos, he is up to no good.
Perhaps Todd and the Nazis stand out because they haven’t been integrated as well as past antagonists. Gus Fring was a marvellous creation, gradually peeling back his calm and respectable businessman exterior to reveal a cold-blooded murderer. Todd, on the other hand, just showed up; and having shown up, calls in his family to show up, too.
They’re threatening in much the same way the Salamanca cousins were, though not as effectively: They’re clearly up to no good, even if they’re lacking much in the way of characterization. But the cousins, at least, turned into more of a sideshow to the main plot, a way to show some of Gus’ brilliance and manipulation of others.
In a series with so many great supporting characters – from Mike and Saul down to Badger and Skinny Pete – Todd and the Nazis are strangely lacking in distinctive motivation or character. They’re utterly awful human beings.
If Todd inadvertently unlocked the door to a pro-murder business model, Walt threw the door wide-open when he enlisted Uncle Jack the Nazi to do his dirty work. But at least in Gliding Over All, the finale of the first half of season five (I feel so stupid writing things like that), Uncle Jack is secondary to Walt’s demands: It’s not enough merely murder the potential snitches – they all need to be murdered at the same time in a display of the power Walt wields and the ferocity with which he dispenses vengeance.
And yet, when the curtain opens on the second half season five, Walt is back to being a family man, with the meth business behind him and cancer threatening him once again. In Breaking Bad’s final act, Walter White seems like a nice guy, a caring husband and father.
It’s easy to forget that the tragedies visited upon Walt in the second half are of his own creation: Jesse realizing the truth about Brock’s illness, Hank discovering evidence in Walt’s bathroom, murderers and Nazis running the meth business. Walt has always tried to keep himself at arms length from his crimes, maintaining an intellectual moral purity because he never pulled the trigger; the final episodes demonstrate his arrogant folly.
Walt has lost control of his life, and the consequences of his crimes have finally caught up with him, destroying his life, shattering his family, and costing him most of his fortune.
But those consequences have been carried out by a bunch of stock villains, last-minute additions to the Breaking Bad mythology with little to do but prove that they are the baddest dudes in town: They’ll kill, they’ll torture, they’ll threaten to murder toddlers. As the series comes to a close, Walter White has at least one purely noble goal to fulfill: He gets to avenge his family, take his money back, and maybe even rescue his old friend.
(Perhaps he will not do any of these things; that would be okay.)
This is not unique: Walter White is not a purely evil man, and he has done good things before. But it’s seldom felt like such an simple decision to do the right thing; it hasn’t been this easy to root for Walt since before he watched a woman choke to death on her own vomit.
Breaking Bad is not a simple show, and I don’t expect it to fully cop out with an out-of-nowhere redemption finale. But it’s hard to escape the feeling it has diluted Walt’s moral descent by offering the audience an emergency escape hatch: No matter what awful things Walter White has done, no matter what he may do in the finale, at least he wasn’t a Nazi.