“Breaking Bad,” AMC’s hit show about a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher committing immoral acts for the right reasons, is emblematic of America’s shifting views on the morality of a protagonist.
The series, currently in its fifth and last season, premiered to a record 5.92 million viewers and has been noted as an outstanding TV drama by publications such as The Hollywood Reporter and Huffington Post. The series has also won seven Emmy awards, including three consecutive wins for Bryan Cranston as Best Actor for his career-defining role as “Breaking Bad’s” protagonist Walter White.
The public’s positive reaction to the show, however, does not seem rooted in the show’s respected quality, but rather the notion that it centers itself around a mild-mannered chemistry teacher who slowly decays into a callous, manipulative “meth cook” to support his family.
One reason for an interest in the antihero could be current economic strain. Viewers empathize more with White because of his courage in facing dire straits to provide for his family and overlook his proliferation of life-ravaging meth.
In a paper titled “Economic Influences on Moral Values,” economist Robert Ostling states, “If a change in the price of the moral good leads to higher consumption of the immoral good, the immoral good is considered as less immoral;” that is to say, the harder it is to do good, the easier it becomes to do bad.
Fascination with the show could also be a collective relaxation of a hero’s role as a moral arbiter to a man of means. America now cultivates a narrative that allows Superman to solemnly brood as cities are laid to waste, and Batman to choose anonymity over the well-being of others.
Perhaps, following continued disappointment in government officials due to their inefficiency or repeated scandals, and even the rise of purpose-free reality television like “Jersey Shore” and “Pregnant and Dating,” White’s “realpolitik,” or his focus on action over atonement, entices a nation frustrated by inertia.
However, it could be that America still loves a great drama. No matter the reason, audiences have become infatuated with Walter White and his righteous descent into darkness. The modern hero’s dark dimension has taken a surprising hold on popular culture.