Breaking Bad and the Psychology of Evil: Part 1
Over the course of its five seasons, AMC’s Breaking Bad has gained millions of viewers, who are currently watching in suspenseful anticipation of how it will conclude. For those not included in that group, Breaking Bad is a series about Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston), a high school chemistry teacher who begins ‘cooking’ crystal meth to earn money for his family upon being diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.
While the premise alone is often enough to pique most people’s interest in the show, creator Vince Gilligan was also very purposeful in outlining a character that people – at least initially – felt sorry for. He explained in a recent interview,
…I didn’t ever think I would lose sympathy for [Walter White] completely, but I worried that the audience would. And so I kind of neurotically front-loaded the character …with a lot of reasons to give a damn about him and to sympathize with him.
For instance, within the first episode we see that in addition to teaching, Walter works at a car wash. However, he isn’t treated with respect at either of his jobs. We also see that his son has cerebral palsy, and his wife is pregnant with their second child. These details were imperative to Gilligan’s goal of creating a show that wasn’t about a good guy or a bad guy, but rather, a show that features a relatable protagonist who becomes the antagonist. In the second half of its final season, the series has certainly reached that point.
Thinking back to the first few episodes of Breaking Bad, whether Walter was making drugs or even committing murder, it was generally still seen within the context of necessity (i.e., to earn money for his family, or so as not to be killed himself). For the most part in those early episodes, viewers were still rooting for him, and despite his actions, he was not yet perceived as a villain. However, as the final season draws to a close, the majority of fans almost unanimously identify Walter as the villain, which has even led to numerous recent comparisons to other good guys gone bad.
On Walter White’s villainous evolution, in the same interview, Gilligan stated:
When I came to understand, about midway through season 1, that he was just basically a big liar, and was giving lip service to the idea of doing what he did for his family but in fact what he was really doing was doing it for his own self-aggrandizement, making him feel good about himself – I figured this guy’s really interesting and we can make him very bad indeed. And I continued to lose sympathy for him based on the decisions he was making, but he grew kind of inversely more fascinating the more sympathy I lost for him.
As lead actor, Bryan Cranston, noted in an episode of the WTF podcast,
What Vince Gilligan has done with Breaking Bad is put the moral dilemma in the audience… and then you start rooting for him to cook crystal meth and get away with it, and then you stop yourself and go, ‘Wait a minute, what am I saying?’… and as the seasons go on, that sympathy starts to erode and now you’re far down the road with me and you’re wondering am I morally bankrupt?
Looking back from the end of this morally ambiguous, uncomfortable road I’ve followed Walter on, I find myself curious about how he insidiously shifted from the protagonist I was rooting for to the antagonist I expect – and kind of hope – to get his comeuppance.
According to the unwritten rules of television, there is supposed to be a clear line between the good guys and bad guys that lets us know who to root for. But what is unique, unsettling, and intriguing about Breaking Bad is that it challenges the security of that line. In a TED Talk on the psychology of evil, psychologist, emeritus professor, and author of The Lucifer Effect, Philip Zimbardo, Ph.D., stated:
[there is]…that line between good and evil, which privileged people like to think is fixed and impermeable, with them on the good side and the others on the bad side; I knew that line was moveable and it was permeable. Good people could be seduced across that line…
Read Part 2 here.
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Kong Psy.D., B. (2013). Breaking Bad and the Psychology of Evil: Part 1. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 27, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/psychology-culture/2013/09/breaking-bad-and-the-psychology-of-evil-part-1/