Good and evil are the oldest team in Hollywood. They've been around since the days of the silent picture, and have co-starred pretty much ever since. They were and remain in many films and scripted TV shows -- save comedy -- and have usually been easy to tell apart. In cowboy movies, "good" was the guy wearing the white hat. (You know the color of the hat "evil" was wearing.) In the classic comic-book genre, the hero was the meek, mild mannered one -- until transformed by superpowers.
And then along came "Breaking Bad," returning Sunday (9 p.m., AMC) and ending a run in eight weeks as one of the great dramas in TV history. How to tell good from evil here? That hasn't always been so easy, even though it's the key to "Bad's" appeal, meaning and perhaps endgame. Both are bound up tightly in Bryan Cranston's Walter White, who began this series five seasons ago as a high school chemistry teacher with late-stage lung cancer, no insurance and an empty bank account. By any measure, Walter White was a good man confronting a bad end.
And then, Walter made his fateful decision to manufacture and sell methamphetamine . . . As the second half of the final season begins tonight, you are about to navigate many appreciations of this remarkable show and character -- including right here -- and maybe already have. But it may be worth noting that it's tempting to overthink "Bad." Sometimes, a show is just a show, made special by the alchemy of superior craftsmanship -- in this instance superb writing, acting, directing and countless other details. Vince Gilligan, the series creator, hinted as much when he said recently, "I can't remember exactly what my original intention was. Honest to God, I've forgotten so much. It seems like a lifetime ago."
But with your indulgence, let's think this through anyway, beginning with the help of Cranston, who said recently, "The notion of trying to take a serialized television series and change this character had never been done before." White was "certainly in a depressed state when we first started the show, [and] that was the point where it started for me. His emotions were callused over by the depression, and receiving this news of his eminent demise allowed that volcano of emotions to erupt. And when it did, he wasn't prepared."
In fact, there's a classic "Star Trek" episode that could almost serve as a starting point for Walter and "Breaking Bad," too. "The Enemy Within" -- written by science fiction author Richard Matheson -- was about a malfunction in the Enterprise's transporter that split James Kirk into two separate copies, a good Jim and an evil one. The good Kirk was immobilized by indecision and depression, incapable of doing anything until he was merged back with his evil doppelgänger.
In "Bad's" first season, Walter is in pretty much the same dismal place: broke, sick, depressed, immobilized.
And then his transformation gets underway. As his criminal "tag," Walter adopts the name "Heisenberg," which was never fully explained to co-"cook" Jesse (Aaron Paul) or even to "Bad" fans.
Here, though, is one possible interpretation. German physicist Werner Heisenberg, who died in 1976, was one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, which established that subatomic particles were both particles and waves -- one and the same, indistinguishable and impossible to measure in space and time.
Likewise, "Bad's" "Heisenberg" is good and evil, one and the same, indistinguishable, impossible to measure in space or time -- though not for trying on the part of fans. Gilligan has long described the show as a transformation of "Mr. Chips" into "Scarface." But could Mr. Chips have been Scarface all along?
"Bad" has always played with the idea of the codependence of good and evil -- with both not as antagonists warily circling each other like caged wrestlers looking for an advantage, but as fundamentally identical character traits that gain strength, even existence, from each other. It's a strange counterintuitive notion, but then so was that "Star Trek" episode all those years ago, and so is quantum mechanics, and so -- for that matter -- is "Breaking Bad."
Chemistry and physics have always assumed starring roles in "Bad" -- probably the only show in TV history that carefully explained to viewers chemical structures, and used symbols from the periodic table in the show's title sequence. Even the setting in that primal New Mexico landscape established "Bad's" link to the most far-reaching, and controversial transformative, technology in the 20th century, the creation of the atomic bomb (at Los Alamos, later tested at Alamogordo).
"Bad" has always been about transformation -- the changing of one chemical substance, or one isotope, into another, or the changing of a healthy human body into one riddled with cancer (Walter's). But it's also about identity and stasis: Where does good end and evil begin, or vice versa, in the human soul? Can "good" be changed into "evil?" If so, any way to "measure" that weird process? Or are these the wrong questions altogether? Could good and evil in fact be the same thing, always there, unchanging, and present from birth?
"Bad" doesn't necessarily offer answers (or choices)
because that would strip away the mystery and dramatic power of Walter White -- one of the more mysterious and powerful characters in TV history.
There were, however, a couple of intriguing scenes early in the series' run that used -- what else? -- chemistry to help unlock White's inscrutable soul. In one, he is lecturing to his students about a fundamental principle of chemistry (and as it would turn out, the production of a methamphetamine) called "chirality."
Although two chemical bonds may look exactly the same, he explained to his students, "they don't always behave the same way. They are like the left hand and the right hand -- mirrored images, right and left, good and bad." Walter is, or certainly could be, talking about his own conflicted self.
In another scene, a flashback, Walter is standing in an empty college classroom, with his assistant and girlfriend, Gretchen (Jessica Hecht). He is adding up element after element on a blackboard, and finally gives up in frustration.
"There's got to be more to a human being than that," he says to her. "Something's missing."
"What about the soul?" she asks.
Walt smiles: "There's nothing but chemistry here," meaning the human being.
Spoken like the true scientist. Nevertheless, there's much more than chemistry "here," and as "Bad" and Walter wrap this journey eight weeks from now, we'll all find out together exactly what that is. Gilligan has said White ends up almost in a victorious place.
That's hardly a spoiler: Maybe all he means is that Walter dies knowing, finally, completely -- precisely -- what his soul is really made of.
Catching up With 'Breaking Bad'
To recap the fifth season, so far, Walter had returned to "cooking" with Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), his partner, and Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), former muscle for drug kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), who was dispatched at the end of last season by Walter. Then things got complicated: The DEA began to track Mike, who decided to cash out, along with Jesse, but Walter later kills Mike when he declines to give him names of former Fring associates in jail who might talk. (Walter later hatches a scheme to dispatch them all.)
Afterward, life for Walter seems to be superficially normal again. He's retired from the meth trade after collecting a huge pile of money -- quite literally -- and has paid Jesse the $5 million he owes him. But one fine day, his brother-in-law and top DEA agent in Albuquerque, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), visited the Whites with his family for a leisurely Sunday lunch. Later, while in the bathroom, Hank discovers some of Walter's reading material -- a copy of "Leaves of Grass."
The book was a gift from one Gale Boetticher (David Costabile), a German-born chemist who had been enlisted by Gus to learn and master Walter's peerless technique for producing meth, with the expectation that Gale would be either an insurance policy or a replacement if Gus wanted to dispatch Walter. In fact, Gus chose the latter course. To save himself, Walter had Jesse kill Gale first. In the investigation of the murder, the DEA and Hank learned of Gale's ties to infamous Albuquerque cook "Heisenberg" -- the name that Walter had adopted for himself.
Back to that book, which was dedicated to one "WW" from one "GB" -- Gale Boetticher. A glance at the calligraphy told Hank instantly that the inscription had been written by Gale, and that "WW" -- aka Heisenberg -- was none other than his own brother-in-law.