A Shakespearean reading of ‘Breaking Bad’. WARNING – SPOILERS


Now Breaking Bad has drawn to a heart-stopping close, interpretations and theories are flying around everywhere as how to read the final episode, and it’s place as the conclusion of the series. I personally, as a total Shakespeare buff, couldn’t help but seeing the influence of ‘the Bard’ in the finale of Breaking Bad. While that doesn’t necessarily mean that it was a direct interpretation (eg. Hamlet-Lion King), the entire series did contain strong elements of Shakespeare’s style and structure, and as a result there is a mirroring of characters, particularly Walter. I’m going to use examples from Macbeth and King Lear, because I know those plays the best but please feel free to comment if you can draw links with other plays!

The basic structure of a Shakespearean Tragedy is drawn from Aristotle’s ‘Tragic Terms’, several words that describe the key elements in a tragic story. These are ‘Hamartia’, or a tragic and inherent flaw in a character. This flaw naturally leads to ‘Peripeteia’, or a dramatic reversal of fortunes. Next comes ‘Anagnorisis’, which is a sudden enlightenment or point of realisation that leads a character to accept their hamartia. This leads to ‘Catharsis’, which is an extreme purification of the character through emotional release. Look at any Shakespearean tragedy and you’ll find these elements. One of the most commonly found themes in Shakespeare is also the correct order of society, and the results of undermining or changing this. For instance, Macbeth undermines the natural order by murdering King Duncan and usurping his sons, and King Lear divides his lands amongst three daughters, when traditionally it should only go to one. Each of these elements, and this key theme were undeniably noticeable to me throughout Breaking Bad, and especially in the final.

Walt’s hamartia is fairly obvious – he’s greedy. This is manifested primarily through his desire to keep making more and more money, even when he has enough to provide for his family after he’s dead. However, there’s also the greed or desire for excitement in his otherwise boring life. This inherent flaw is the catalyst for Walt’s descent into corruption throughout the series, At various points bad things happen to him, such as Gus effectively blackmailing him into cooking more meth, and turning Jesse against him, but this isn’t Walt’s peripeteia. This only comes after Walt’s hamartia, his greed is explicitly exploited – in the last season when Jesse and Hank trick him into driving to his hidden stash of money after leading him to believe that they have discovered it. Here Walt’s greed is fully revealed and exploited and it is also here that Hank is murdered and Walt’s fortunes turn. For once something has happened that he can’t control. In Shakespeare similar situations occur. Macbeth’s ambition is manipulated by his wife to the point where he is driven to murder to become King. Things rapidly spin out of his control and he ends up hated, and a tyrant. King Lear’s ignorance of the truth of his daughters is exploited by them into gaining his land, after which they throw him out into the storm.

The rise of Todd’s Nazi uncle is totally about Walt’s undermining of the natural order of things, the aforementioned key Shakespearean theme. When Walt and Jesse stumble into the crime world it is a dark but ultimately principled place. It’s controlled by people like Gus and Mike, who may still be hardened and ruthless criminals, but still have a sort of Omerta or code to govern how things are done. Walt and Jesse, despite being complete amateurs are able to completely unnaturally overthrow this order, destroying Gus’ empire, and eventually him and Mike themselves. Now that this natural order has been disrupted, it paves the way for the rise of far more unprincipled, chaotic criminals. Enter Nazi uncle, who ultimately is the cause of Walt’s peripeteia, brought upon himself by his own actions.

After Hank’s death Walt’s reversal of fortune continues. He is literally cast into the wilderness, King Lear style, by Skyler. However, Walt’s anagnorisis doesn’t come until he arrives back in New Mexico, and confronts Skyler for the last time. Here, Walt finally admits what we all knew already. His entire story had not been for the good of his family, as he originally had said, but for himself – “It was for me. I liked it, I was good at it, and it made me feel alive”. Here Walt realises that everything that has happened was a result of his inherent greed for money and for excitement – his hamartia. In Shakespeare this comes when Macbeth is putting on his armour for the final battle and laments how his own ambition has caused things to go wrong, and when Lear finally realises that his daughters Goneril and Regan are actually really horrible people and he probably shouldn’t have given them all his land. Notably, Walt is almost able to find peace in this revelation, and when Skyler and him part for the last time there is not forgiveness from Skyler, but understanding.

The final showdown, and the site of Walt’s catharsis, takes place at the hideout of the Nazi uncle. Before this, Walt has built a really, really cool mounted machine gun in the boot of his car, which doesn’t leave much to the imagination as to what his intentions are. Walt comes face to face with Jesse, imprisoned and forced to cook meth as another result of peripeteia. The two main characters  have come to hate each other over the series, yet just before Walt activates the machine gun he hurls onto Jesse and out of the range of the gun, which kills all of the Nazis, and hits Walt as he protects Jesse. Jesse then experiences his own catharsis through the violent and emotional strangling of Todd, who has been the main cause of Jesse’s misfortune ever since he shot the child back a few episodes. Jesse then pulls a gun on Walt, who asks him to shoot him. However, Jesse refuses, marking the first time Walt has not been able to manipulate him into anything, and the beginnings of the redemption that his catharsis has brought him. Before driving away, Jesse and Walt share a brief, understanding smile, and then Jesse is gone. This whole scene serves as Walt’s catharsis. The massacre of the Nazis is an immense emotional release, and Jesse’s forgiveness at the end is Walt’s redemption. This is similar to King Lear, who having been blinded and cast into a storm where he finds his own catharsis finally has forgiveness from Cordelia, the daughter who he banished originally. Macbeth doesn’t quite have redemption as he has spiralled too far into corruption (like Gus, and like Walt would have been had he gone any further) but he has a brief moment of clarity before his death at the hands of MacDuff.

However, Lear has upset the natural order of society, and despite his redemption he ultimately must be punished. So too, must Walt. Lear dies in the arms of his daughter having been forgiven for his faults. Similarly, Walter White finally meets his death in a meth lab, his own child and the symbol of his own hamartia, which he has finally accepted.

  That’s the end of my Shakespearean reading of Breaking Bad. It’s quite refreshing not writing 100% politics on here! I hope that this makes sense and that there are no glaring contradictions in my reading of Shakespeare. If there are let me know, I’d love to engage in any kind of discussion on the topic.



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