The moral relativism of serial television

By far the more troubling treatment of the hero concept is found in AMC’s recently-concluded blockbuster Breaking Bad and FX’s biker-gang reimagining of Hamlet, Sons of Anarchy. Breaking Bad somehow managed to be perhaps the greatest drama on television despite offering literally no heroes of any kind. Although the first season allowed viewers to believe that Walter White might perhaps at least be a sympathetic antihero, it became glaringly clear at least by the introduction of Gustavo Fring that White was rotten to the core, narcissistic, and deserved to die some sort of painful or humiliating death alone. White’s foil, Jesse, although more likeable than White, never rose above the level of pitiable in the series and Walt’s wife and son made Walt seem almost likeable by contrast.

Towards the end of the show, Vince Gilligan attempted to prop up White’s DEA agent brother in law Hank as a hero who might bring Walt down, but this attempt felt pasted on in light of Hank’s treatment as a borderline racist buffoon throughout much of the show’s first three seasons. Ultimately, Hank was unable to accomplish this goal as the show careened towards its helter-skelter conclusion and he died at the hands of the same contemptible white supremacists who ultimately forced Walt’s end. The most poignant and emblematic scene of the show’s remarkable run came in the show’s penultimate episode, as Walt was holed up in a frozen new England cabin, hidden and completely isolated from a world who wanted him dead. His sole point of contact was the man who brought him a monthly run of supplies. On one such run Walter offered him $10,000 to play cards with him for two hours, so desperate he was for human contact; but the contact would only stay for one hour, and grudgingly at that. It was a scene expertly calibrated to convey pitiableness, while reminding the viewer that the subject was beyond pity. The show did not even allow the viewer to achieve catharsis in Walt’s death, as it would have inevitably occurred at the hands of cancer within days or weeks even without the machinations of the white supremacists.

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