Breaking Bad’s American empire business

The writers of the most acclaimed TV show in America tell America that it sucks

Spoilers for Breaking Bad are revealed in this Essay. You know the drill.

Breaking Bad’s Walter White, Jesse Pinkman and their blue meth have a lot to say about the end of our red, white and blue American dream.

Heading into the AMC drama’s final episode this Sunday night, former schoolteacher-turned-drug lord Walt has lost everything. His fortune is nearly gone. His family hates him. Lung cancer forebodes an imminent last breath. It’s a dark denouement, filled with enough bleak character resolutions and sinister humor to make Sophocles look like Nora Ephron.

Things weren’t always so grim. For Walt, prosperity was contagious. He even famously told Jesse that he wasn’t cooking meth just to make more millions. “I’m in the empire business,” he growled.

Now, his empire is in death-rattle mode.

Cue the message: The writers of Breaking Bad—a postmodern Western set in the final frontier flats of Albuquerque, New Mexico—are using the most acclaimed TV show in America to tell America that it sucks.

Consider the show’s prevailing complication, and how it mirrors the moral dilemmas an underemployed victim of this recession already faces. In the show’s premiere episode, Walt decides to cook meth to make enough money for his family before cancer kills him. He’ll do anything to give his children a chance at the American dream.

Fifty-some-odd episodes later, and he’s gone numb to the societal impacts of flooding the streets with his poison.

It’s an insensitivity America can relate to. We love our safe neighborhoods and cheap gasoline. And not only do we have zero problem brushing off inequality, brazen imperialism and climate change to sustain this lifestyle—we feel entitled to do so.

This is the worst kind of egotism, according to Bad: Having the arrogance that you’re doing something for the greater good when, really, you’re rotten.

This is why Walt will end up dead on Sunday.

Which, surprisingly, might distress a lot of viewers, as so many people—at least according to the hundreds of thousands of comments on Reddit’s Bad forums—remain in Walter White’s corner. And I guess that makes sense, the whole cheering for bad-guy Walt thing—despite his social amorality and stoic cruelty.

If Walt loses, then it’s an American dream denied.