Medical Tuesday Blog
Movie Review: By James J. Murtagh, M.D.
“Breaking Bad”: Character is Fate
Meth-cooking Walt reaches new height of art: No Excuses
Warning: spoiler alert. If you have not seen the final episode of Breaking Bad, do not read further. The episode contains a major plot twist which is discussed in this Op- Ed.
It is fiendishly appropriate that the modern Greek tragedy, Breaking Bad, ends almost exactly 2400 years since Sophocles wrote Oedipus Rex. Breaking Bad, demonstrates the most intense hell on earth, forcing its worst characters to kill the people and things they love best. But unlike any other modern drama, the main character finds at least partial redemption in admitting, “I did it because I wanted to”- a completely novel idea in modern times!
For five years Breaking Bad, like The Shield, like the Sopranos, and “The Wire”, shows evil in all its seductive guises. Of these, Breaking Bad was most shocking, even moving its audience to cheer for the central character, Walter White, the average man in this morality play, the chemistry teacher dying of lung cancer who decided that he had no way out and had no choice but to turn to crime and cook meth. His almost-innocent beginning led to worse crimes and eventually he ends up a drug king pin. Even White’s murder of innocents- including an innocent child- evoked a morbid fascination. How much could one man get away with?
But then the twist. Tonight in the finale, Walt made no excuses. This may be a first since the Greeks and Shakespeare- Walt actually took responsibility and admits he has no one to blame but himself. He had been telling himself that he turned to crime to save his family. Tonight he admits, “I did it for myself. I liked cooking meth. I was good at it.”
Whoa! No one in the Inferno, or the Sopranos, or the Wire or the Shield, admitted that they had free will. Most, like Michael Corleone justified themselves, “I had to do it for my family.”
The average Shakespearean villains, from Richard III to Macbeth blamed the stars or the weather or the witches. Rarely did a villain admit “I am the author of my own suffering”. It was the highest form of Shakespearean art when characters transcended and admitted what they did- Hamlet, King Lear and Othello.
Oedipus was perhaps the first to realize his own free will brought him to his fate: “Apollo – he ordained my agonies – these, my pains on pains! But my hand that stuck my eyes was mine, mine alone – no one else – I did it all myself!”
In modern times, criminals blame a series of dominos in their life. Variations on the twinky defense. Lesser Greek characters also tried to blame crime on micro events- “we started the Trojan war because of an argument, a woman, an apple.”
Fate reserves circles in hell for treacherous murderers even below simple murderers. Not being caught appears infinitely crueler than being fried by 2,400 volts in an electric chair. There is a deep freeze as cold as great lake Cocytus Dante described at the bottom of the ninth circle of hell, reserved for the great traitors of all time.
Dostoevsky also believed that punishment was essential to redemption of the human soul. Hell’s best-kept secret is that we create it for ourselves. Walt connived, threatened, hoodwinked and betrayed to make a bad end. But Walt, at the last minute, realizes, makes sincere contrition and achieves a redemption.
Robert Frost wrote that torment by ice can be much more painful than by fire, metaphorically contrasting passionate torments with death by hatred. Walt’s enemy’s fate is death by ice, frozen into a bland cubicle, with no hope of redemption.
In a larger sense, society also had a hand in Walt’s demise. Had Obamacare been in place, and Walt had affordable health care, Walt would have had no reason to turn to crime. Is it worse for a hungry man to steal a loaf of bread, or a dying man to ask for medicine? Perhaps worst of all is the society that creates the criminal by making him steal the bread or the drug.
Congress should take note. Can Congress claim that it has no free will? I hope our lawmakers watched the program and decided to end the abomination of gridlock and the lack of medical care.
Shakespeare granted the release of death as the greatest boon to both homicidal heroes and villains. Hamlet, Oedipus and Walt all lived in worlds “rotten.” The deserts of New Mexico have much in common with Hamlet’s Denmark.
“To never have been born may be the greatest boon of all.” Walt had few options at the end. He asks his adversaries to end his life.
Not all villains could be punished by no punishment. The Iagos and Richard IIIs delight in escape. Could fitting punishment depend more on the nature of the criminal, than on the crime? For some criminals, capital punishment is devoutly to be wished. For Dante, divine punishment was necessary for the operation of a divine Universe.
Do we, in the modern world, including our leaders, suffer even more because the possibility of punishment often seems remote?
Sophocles heard it long ago upon the Agean, the turbid eb and flow of human misery.
Walt- your end puts you in the company of the greats. We will miss you.
James J. Murtagh Jr. firstname.lastname@example.org
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