Breaking Bad is coming to an end, and I know, whatever happens, I’m going to miss Mike, Jesse, Gus, and Walter White. I dread the last episode and hope it’s more satisfying than that last one from The Sopranos, the one that allowed us to write our own ending according to our desires. Did the family survive that dinner together, or was that restaurant their last moment together?
The Wire ended with less ambiguity. The good, the bad, the broken, and the saved simply continued to carve a life from the vendettas, necessities, and petty self-interests that are the human race in a place called Baltimore, its saga a very American story. In Baltimore and places beyond, the media continues to downsize and ignore complexity even if dishonesty becomes its chief, recognizable trait. Education continues to test and unravel. Cops continue to tease their own hearts of darkness into the light as they confront the dark hearts of those whom they pursue, and politicians still trade favors and funds even if human beings suffer as a result.
These are the threads that make every character in The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad compelling. They are the threads that tie us to episode after episode. Furthermore, Tony and Christopher from The Sopranos; Jimmy McNulty, Bubbles, Omar, Bodie, and Proposition Joe in The Wire; and Walter and Jesse, stars of Breaking Bad, are all afflicted with the same temptations. Each descends into his heart of darkness without losing every trace of the good that once inspired them to strive, labor, and dream. Each has a cause that propels, and a code that confines.
Their descent into the uglier side of human nature leads viewers to ask: Could I kill in order to avoid being killed? Poor Bobby chose to kill in order to prove himself and protect his family, but viewers see how senseless and cruel the act was.
How might I fare if I was born into a Baltimore of want? Would I retain high moral convictions that would prevent me from breaking the rules, defying the law, and seducing others into moral corruption, or would I find a corner and stand there? Am I strong enough to shake off doubts and addictions in order to accept love and friendship when offered, or would I self-destruct as Jimmy did?
Walter White wants to leave his wife and children financially secure, and this sets him on a path of illegal, ignoble deeds. He loses all traces of the former meek servant toiling in a classroom while he tests and proves his talents as a quick thinker, risk-taker, a man both intelligent and resolute, conniving and cruel. Walter breaks badly in his circumstances.
We witness the transformation and cheer when Walter beats an enemy more remorseless than himself. But surely we also wonder if Walter chose to make money at all costs for purely altruistic reasons, or does he also wish to make up for a foolish decision to sell his share of what became a billion-dollar business? Does providing for one’s family justify the ruthless face he carves? The coming episodes promise to answer that question.
Walter’s ruthless, cruel deeds persuade us to believe that Walter is indeed a monster, but we continue to watch, asking if he will awaken to his own depravity and end it? Will he, like Kurtz, say “the horror, the horror” when he feels the weight of his deeds upon his conscience? Or will Walter never relent and repent?
This Jekyll and Hyde that resides within us all, the one that Bryan Cranston has brought to life through the magic of his talent, is what calls to us because Dr. Jekyll has troubled our thoughts more than once. We pushed him away and will again. We choose the light and refuse to descend into our own heart of darkness. For that, we have no regrets. We let the ties of family and civilization bind us, and we’re all safer as a result. Still, that other path, dim and murky, fascinates.
Read one or more of the following series:
• The Sopranos
• The Wire
• Breaking Bad
Pay attention to the yin and yang within the protagonists, their Jekylls and Hydes, the angels and demons that push and pull them.
You may prefer to read one of the classic novels about characters descending into their hearts of darkness:
• Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
• Lord of the Flies by William Golding
After you, the writer, have researched characters who yield to the worst in us and deny the best in others by reading prime examples, create such a character.