Walter White stood in his ransacked living room on a lane in New Mexico’s largest city. One of America’s most wanted men, dying of lung cancer, he surveyed the wreckage and remembered. His thoughts carried him to his 50th birthday party, to a conversation that started him down the dark road of greed, death, and wickedness.
It was only twenty-four months later, but the lines and creases in that haggard face seemed as if at least a decade had passed by. It wasn’t the years but the mileage. His expression clearly told the tale better than words ever could – If I could only do things over.
These are images from AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” which went off the air over a decade ago. It was on over the weekend, and I stopped by for the final frames. The program aired for six seasons and told the story of a gifted high school chemistry teacher who begins manufacturing methamphetamine to secure a future for his family following his diagnosis of terminal cancer.
What follows are 62 episodes of misfortune and like Walter says of chemistry, “a study of transformation.”
Throughout its run, what I found most fascinating about the series was its family dynamic. At its core, it wasn’t a program about drugs, guns, and violence but rather about one family’s struggle to hold together under the heavy weight of lies, mistrust and poor decisions by its heads of household.
Walter justified all his actions by saying they were made for the benefit of his family. It was only in the end, after he had lost everything, including that family, he finally admitted all his actions were done only for one person. “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it,” he told his estranged wife midway through the episode. “I was alive.”
Before he made his exit to avoid the police hunting him, he asked with a breaking voice, “May I see her?”
The “her” was his two-year-old daughter, who was slumbering quietly in the next room. Walter gently stroked the child’s hair, exhaled, knowing he would never see her grow, smile, and giggle while opening Christmas presents, talk of boys or have long walks with an aging father.
With only a look of apology to his wife, he made his departure. Then at a corner of the shabby apartment complex where his family now resided, he watched silently as his 16- year-old son disembarked the school bus. In the previous episode, the son had harsh words of finality, not understanding his father’s actions, but hating him for them all the same. Walter watched the young man a final time, so many things to say, so many regrets and so many wrong turns made because of ego.
I won’t go on from there, won’t discuss the final acts of television’s Meth king, because none of those things matter. What mattered about the show, as it does in real life, is the effect we all can have, for good and for ill, on those we hold most dear.
So many times we act in our own best interests. I am no exception. And so many times, our acts harm those we love. Walter White connected with many of us in the beginning because he was an American tragic hero. Motivated by fear and what he deemed a meaningless life, he launched himself on an incalculable flight of recklessness and destruction. Then he lost us in the bloodbath. But in the end, he made a connection once more through his regret and remorse for wronging those he loved, those he took an oath before God to protect and defend.
While the decisions we make every day rarely compare to the dramatic ones of Walter, we are all faced with forks in the road. How many important decisions are based solely on what’s best for “me” rather than what’s best for “us”?
I have two daughters and a wife. I’ve tried to weigh every difficult decision on a scale where I put myself on one side and my three girls on the other. That’s the only way to live life, but it’s a hard way to live life in a world that tells us the individual is all that matters. But nothing is more important than the ones under your roof, the ones you pray for at night and the ones you tuck in before those prayers are said. Who we are is largely attributed to the fair and foul decisions of our parents.
In the final moments of that final episode, Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” began to roll and the lyrics “Guess I got what I deserve” blared.
Walter got what he deserved. But his family did not. And I think that’s the lesson the audience can learn from a television show about methamphetamine use. We may not be considering a dip into the criminal life but remember that even the smallest decisions must be made with equal discernment and consideration. Consideration given to those who have the most to lose.
How do you pick up the pieces of a shattered life? It’s easier to just never let the glass break.
(Josh Beavers is a teacher and a writer. He has been recognized five times for excellence in opinion writing by the Louisiana Press Association.)
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