Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013 | 2:03 a.m.
Across five seasons of riveting television, the antihero of AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” Walter Hartwell White, has committed enough crimes to earn several life sentences from any reasonable jury. He has cooked crystal meth in bulk, hooking addicts from his native Albuquerque all the way to Prague. He has personally killed at least seven people and is implicated in the deaths of hundreds more. He has poisoned an innocent child, taken out a contract on his longtime partner, and stood by and watched a young woman choke to death.
But one thing he didn’t do was entirely forfeit the sympathies of his audience. As a cultural phenomenon, this is the most striking aspect of “Breaking Bad” — the persistence, after everything he’s done, of a Team Walt that still wants him to prevail.
In the online realms where hit shows are dissected, critics who pass judgment on Walt’s sins find themselves tangling with a multitude of commenters who don’t think he needs forgiveness. And it isn’t just the anonymous hordes who take his side.
“You’d think I’d bear Walt some serious ill will considering he sat there and watched Jane die,” the actress who played his vomit-choked victim wrote for New York magazine last week, “but I’m still rooting for everything to work out for the guy.”
On the surface, this sympathy is not surprising, given the long pop culture tradition of rooting for the bad guy. But you don’t usually hear audiences argue insistently that their favorite villains are actually heroic — that a J.R. Ewing or a Francis Underwood is a misunderstood paragon of virtue. And when viewers do make excuses for fictional criminals, it’s usually because those characters inhabit distinctive, hermetic worlds — the Jersey mafia on “The Sopranos,” West Baltimore on “The Wire” — in which becoming a killer is less a decision than an inheritance, which we can root for them to escape from or rise above.
Walter White, though, begins as a perfectly law-abiding citizen — a high school chemistry teacher and family man, who turns to cooking meth after a terminal cancer diagnosis because it promises to make money for his family. He isn’t the product of a lawless environment who never knew another way. He’s a protagonist who made a conscious decision to embrace what society regards as evil, to step permanently outside our civilization’s moral norms.
This means “Breaking Bad” implicitly challenges audiences to get down to bedrock and actually justify those norms. Why is it so wrong to kill strangers — often dangerous strangers! — so that your own family can survive and prosper? Why is it wrong to exploit people you don’t see or care about for the sake of those inside your circle? Why is Walter White’s empire-building — carried out with boldness, brilliance and guile — not an achievement to be admired?
And the fact that so many viewers do seem to end up admiring him — even to the point of despising Walt’s conflicted wife, Skyler, because she doesn’t appreciate him — is a reminder that the answers to these questions aren’t actually as self-evident as our civilization would like to assume.
The allure for Team Walt is not ultimately the pull of nihilism, or the harmless thrill of rooting for a supervillain. It’s the pull of an alternative moral code, neither liberal nor Judeo-Christian, with an internal logic all its own. As James Bowman wrote in The New Atlantis, embracing Walt doesn’t require embracing “individual savagery” and a world without moral rules. It just requires a return to “old rules” — to “the tribal, family-oriented society and the honor culture that actually did precede the Enlightenment’s commitment to universal values.”
Those rules seem cruel by the lights of both cosmopolitanism and Christianity, but they are not irrational or necessarily false. Their Darwinian logic is clear enough, and where the show takes place — in the shadow of cancer, the shadow of death — the kindlier alternatives can seem softheaded, pointless, naive.
Nor can this tribal morality be refuted in a laboratory. Indeed, by making Walt a chemistry genius, the show offers an implicit rebuke to the persistent modern conceit that a scientific worldview logically implies liberalism, humanism and a widening circle of concern. On “Breaking Bad,” that worldview just makes Walt a better kingpin, and the beautiful equations of chemistry are deployed to addict, poison, decompose.
To be clear, I don’t think the show itself is actually on Walt’s side. I think Team Walt badly misreads the story’s moral arc and vision.
But the pervasiveness of that misreading tells us something significant. It’s comforting to dismiss Walt’s admirers as sickos, idiots, “bad fans.” But they, too, can be moralists — drawn by their sympathy for Walter White into a worldview that still lies percolating, like one of his reactions, just below the surface of every human heart.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.