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The Play’s the Thing: 'Breaking Bad’s' Act V

By Ruth Engel | Think Pieces | September 20, 2013 |

By Ruth Engel | Think Pieces | September 20, 2013 |

In Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan has built a world of rich symbolism and careening, unpredictable plot twists. And the Internet has responded, naturally, by carefully picking it all apart. Amid this fervor, I discovered D.B. Grady’s piece on How Shakespeare would End Breaking Bad. It’s an intriguing concept: the Tragedies follow a known formula, and Gilligan has stuck pretty close to Shakespeare’s path so far. But somewhere between King Duncan and Gus Fring, Grady lost sight of the foundational elements that actually comprise a tragedy. I’d like to use a slightly more traditional lens to take a look at our final view of the New Mexico desert, though prediction may be futile (as Hamlet would say, “If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be now, yet it will come”).

As Grady points out, the Shakespearean elements of Breaking Bad are not newly discovered. Across Gilligan’s five acts, Walt finds himself powerless against a larger natural and social order and reacts like any hubristic tragic hero - by grasping wildly to ensure his legacy (in this case, his family’s future). But as cancer seeps into his lungs and blue meth filters across Albuquerque, it becomes clear that empire-building is a futile endeavor and that Walt will fall in a spectacularly Elizabethan fashion.

The comparisons to Macbeth and to Hamlet have been made, and I will only add that Shakespeare’s tragic heroes are men of honor who struggle within a complex, uncaring world. Grady’s belief that the cities are truly the heroes of the plays neglects both the Aristotelian definition of a tragic hero and the Shakespearean concept that, at the play’s end, the world might be somewhat changed, but it continues. Albuquerque isn’t a character - it’s the established order of Gray Matter executives and chemistry teachers; cops and petty drug dealers.

So with Walt as our tragic hero, we can look ahead. The destruction of the Blue Meth Empire seems guaranteed, and certainly Walt’s classical fall from grace wouldn’t be complete without messy deaths for him and his family. But Shakespeare doesn’t end his plays in death. To really play out the tragedy, we have to look beyond the Whites (and Pinkman) and discover what comes afterward. Who will be the Horatio helping Fortinbras reestablish Denmark; the Montagues and Capulets enshrining Romeo and Juliet in their institutional memories; the line of Banquo continuing down to James I? One of Shakespeare’s big, overarching themes is that institutions continue - the tragedies of individuals can upset the balance of power for a time, but we carry on.

Grady has interpreted institutional endurance as the desert sands blowing across Heisenberg’s empire over it and Albuquerque forgetting him entirely. But Shakespeare never lets his characters off the hook that easily. They don’t end the world, but they do have impact. They cause wars and topple monarchs. Nobody is just forgotten; nobody gets to have a personal tragedy be consequence-free. To end a series about a massively powerful hero without imposing some larger significance than just “bad guys die” would be to deny that the nuances of conscience that Gilligan has so carefully explored actually matter. While it might be nihilistically satisfying to say that even Heisenberg is so petty in the grand scheme of things that the sands of time will clear away all that ugly yellow graffiti, it’s not Shakespearean.

A completely destructive finale couldn’t feel like a real resolution for the audience, either. Potentially we could find some solace watching Marie and Flynn struggle onward, but it wouldn’t close all our wounds. Shakespeare’s big-picture approach to tragic endings isn’t just to establish a return to order, and it’s not because all the main characters are dead and there’s nowhere else to go. It’s catharsis. After all the blood insanity, catharsis brings resolution and stability. It closes internal plot holes. In Breaking Bad, the curtain didn’t open on a crime-free world, and meth won’t stop being a commodity post-Heisenberg. Erasing Walt’s legacy without establishing a new order would be unrealistic and unsatisfying. In short, the fans want a real ending!

Shakespeare was the master of satisfying conclusions; he knew just how much denouement would settle the groundlings and give weight to the tragedy. If Gilligan is aiming for a Shakespearean finale, the main characters are doomed but Albuquerque’s meth business will live on in some form. Hopefully that form will be Badger and Skinny Pete’s Star Trek & Meth Emporium rather than whatever Uncle Jack is planning to do with those barrels of cash.