Breaking Bad returns tonight for it’s fifth and final season. Sixteen episodes to wrap up and put a bow on what could be the greatest television dramas ever.
But what makes Breaking Bad so great? Is it the ever twisting and turning plot? Is it the carefully balanced tone of the writing? Or is it the rich and interesting group of characters? To be honest I think it is all three, but for the purposes of this article I have chosen to discuss the characters and maybe take a look at why they are so engaging.
Character Alignment is a concept used by tabletop game* players. How it works is every character falls onto a place on a two axis grid. The horizontal continuum places a character from law abiding to chaotic and the vertical continuum runs from good to evil. Characters can also sit in the middle of the continuum as a neutral. Lawful characters generally follow rules and structure. Chaotic characters will go out of their way to step outside of rules and structure. And Neutral characters vacillate between being lawful and chaotic whenever it suits the character best. Good characters are pretty self explanatory, as are Evil characters. Neutral characters on the good/evil continuum are much more hard to define since their true colours are very situational.**
Using this concept we can categorize each character as one of nine alignments.
Walter White***: Neutral Evil
In the four seasons of Breaking Bad, Walter White has gone from being a Lawful Good character to a Neutral Evil character. From high school science teacher, and family man to murderer, drug manufacturer and organized crime figure. I find that when I talk to people who love the show, everyone has a different conception of Walter White. Either they see him as a good man who has gotten caught up in circumstance and that circumstance has bent him into a different person. And I partially agree, but I see it more as Walter White as a tragic figure who has been bent by greed and the thrill of his new lifestyle. Crime has brought him everything he didn’t have in his life, money, self confidence, and respect. But to get those things he trades his family and his morality.
You may ask, why is Walter not a Chaotic Evil character? He breaks the law numerous times. It’s a fair question. Walter at this point still is a man of science and he above most other things values those that set of laws. You can also make an argument that his crimes are for the most part a necessary reaction to circumstance. He begins to cook meth to provide for his family after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. He murders Crazy 8 because he had little other choice(and he lost the coin toss). He allows Jane to die because he fears that she would cause him to lose control of Jesse and thus lose his connection to Gus. He kills the drug dealers not because it was the right thing to do, but because he knew that if he did Jesse would kill Gale, which is self serving as well. And he kills Gus because it had become a him or me proposition.
Walter’s biggest obsession is control, he lives a life of powerlessness before he broke bad and his deceit and crimes have become more and more to maintain his sense of control.
Jesse Pinkman: Chaotic Neutral
Jesse Pinkman has not really changed much in the four seasons beyond becoming a more and more capable criminal. We meet Jesse as a goofy meth cook, who is more interested in getting high than cooking meth. He has no real use for laws or rules. He kind of just impulsively floats with the wind. He is selfish, but at the same time he wants to be liked and he wants affirmation from his peers.
Jesse killed Gale in cold blood, doesn’t that make him evil? Sure in that instance Jesse did an evil thing. But he also is selfless in a way that Walter never is. He is driven by guilt and what seems like a need for redemption(his attempted murder of the drug dealers, his relationship and restitution to Andrea also shows this). For Walter guilt really don’t come into the picture.
In season four Jesse is manipulated by Gus and Mike to drive a wedge between he and Walter. He again kills to protect those who he feels has taken him in. It’s out of a sense of duty and friendship that he saves Mike and Gus and doesn’t just leave them behind. I can’t say that Jesse is evil because he never seems to really project any malice in his crimes and his remorse is deep.
Hank Schrader: Lawful Good
At this point in the story Hank is the defacto good guy. He is as law abiding as it gets when it comes to characters in Breaking Bad. He has also had one of the roughest roads. His casual racism and chauvinism, not withstanding, Hank is a pretty good guy. His wife is trouble, his brother in law is dying which is ripping his family apart, and he is investigating dangerous drug crime that leaves him in a wheelchair. He has just as much reason to break bad like Walt, yet he is stead fast in his devotion to what is right.
I think Hank will play a huge role in the coming season.
Skyler White: Chaotic Neutral
Skyler is another character that has changed as the story moved on. She started as a Lawful Good and has moved to a Chaotic Neutral. She has gone from devoted wife and mother to money launderer and corporate criminal. She cheated on Walt after she felt betrayed by his mistruths. She seems to also not really feel bound by laws or social norms at this point in the story. She again is kind of caught up in Walter’s wake but she makes unethical decisions just as much as ethical ones.
Saul Goodman: Neutral
Saul is a true neutral, he is a lawyer who makes no attempt to use the law unless it suits him in that moment and he vacillates between doing somewhat nobel things and somewhat evil things. Saul is the most underused character in Breaking Bad, he is a great comic foil but he also represents one of the more interesting character types. He is a coward but he is bold. He is intelligent but foolish. He is so fun because you never know what you are going to get with Saul.
Mike Ehrmantraut: Neutral
Mike is another character who has really grown on me, another true neutral. He is a trusted associate of Gus Fring, hit man, crime scene cleaner, intelligence officer, and enforcer. Mike has potential to end up being Neutral Good by the end of this story. He is MIA in Mexico at the point and we have no idea how he will react to the assassination of Fring.
Though Mike does evil things, he seems to have a redeeming loyalty to Fring and a fatherly relationship with Jesse. He sees that Walt is manipulating Jesse and it seems like he really sees all the angles of the story.
Now that I got to nerd out a bit, I am going to watch the season premiere of Breaking Bad. Enjoy.
*Dungeons and Dragons…yes I fucking know this is nerdy but the concept really works for character analysis.
**If this is confusing read this.
*** While writing this I forgot Gus Fring and I truly think that Walter’s arc is going to end up where Fring’s began. A cold, calculating, vortex of evil who sucks in everyone around him.