By now zillions of atoms have be scattered on the internet to the end of explicating Breaking Bad. I’ve read some of that, but not much. Breaking Bad‘s Moral Lesson to Civilians, by Alex Horton, is the best that I’ve read.
While I’ve found the show compelling, sometimes more, sometimes less, I couldn’t make sense of it. Yeah, it’s one of those new-fangled high-quality TV series, like The Sopranos, that’s, you know, dark. The other “dark” shows that I’ve seen (say, Deadwood or The Wire) nonetheless managed to make sense to me. Breaking Bad, compelling, but why?
Horton offers a compelling reason:
Walter, along with several of the Breaking Bad characters, exhibits a term many of us in the military and veterans community have come to understand as a moral injury, and the show profoundly explores the concept in a way previously unseen in film and television. Of course, virtually no troops or veterans have much in common with the criminals in the show, but the reaction to traumatic events is universal, be it in war or a fictional universe.
To be clear, a moral injury is not a psychiatric diagnosis. Rather, it’s an existential disintegration of how the world should or is expected to work—a compromise of the conscience when one is butted against an action (or inaction) that violates an internalized moral code. It’s different from post-traumatic stress disorder, the symptoms of which occur as a result of traumatic events. When a soldier at a checkpoint shoots at a car that doesn’t stop and kills innocents, or when Walter White allows Jesse’s troublesome addict girlfriend to die of an overdose to win him back as a partner, longstanding moral beliefs are disrupted, and an injury on the conscience occurs.
As he chokes the life from Krazy-8 with a bike lock [early in the first season], Walter enters a distorted moral universe where killing and death become the currency of his trade.
That I can understand. It makes sense.
America has been inflicting such moral injury on our soldiers at least since the War in Vietnam, when many had to kill or be killed in a war that was given no compelling political rationale. The two Iraq wars and the war in Afghanistan have been the same. Men and women have been forced to kill others, without having a compelling rationale, a compelling mythology, in which to envelope their acts.
As long as we insist on inflicting such moral injury on our citizens, the country cannot afford to reveal that injury in its characteristic context. We cannot say: this is what war will do to you, this is what We-the-People are doing to you in the name of national security.
And so the terrible truth of moral injury is, instead, transposed into the story of a middle-aged nerd who becomes a drug lord to cover the costs of his cancer therapy and then to support his family. We all know that what’s happening to Walter is evil, but we can distance ourselves from that evil because that’s not us. And the series doesn’t force us to see it in our soldiers.
Note carefully that I’m not asserting or implying that Breaking Bad is somehow dishonest for clothing a national sin in such improbably dress. But we are dishonest for not facing up to that sin.