The Spectacle Blog

The Conservatism of Breaking Bad

By on 8.2.13 | 4:38PM

Just yesterday, I wrote about the worth of watching shows like Breaking Bad with antiheroes like Walter White.

I feel vindicated because today Jonah Goldberg has a superb cover story (for National Review's latest issue) on the show's conservatism. Goldberg calls Breaking Bad "the best show currently on television, and perhaps even the best ever." And he adds that "it deserves special respect from conservatives":

In a sense, it already gets that respect: It’s relatively popular in red-state America. As David Segal noted in the New York Times in 2011, Breaking Bad gets nearly the same ratings as Mad Men, but New York and Los Angeles aren’t even in its top ten cities. This prompted Segal to dub the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, TV’s “first true red-state auteur.”

Goldberg disagrees with the assessment that Walt is an antihero, and deems him instead to be an unadulterated villain who "chooses to become evil":

When we meet him, he’s a decent man living deep within those borders. He’s even a hero in the small ways good fathers, dedicated teachers, and faithful husbands are. And what he becomes is not an antihero but simply, straightforwardly, a villain. What begins as a kind of play on the Thomistic principle that it is moral for a man to steal bread to feed his starving child grows into a painfully realistic tale of how a good man becomes evil.

But the main reason conservatives should watch Breaking Bad is that it focuses in on the "fragility" of civil society, whose preservation "requires a constant struggle." Relying on one's own self-interest or pure reason alone, on the other hand, fundamentally undermines the institutions that keep that civil society intact:

[F]amilies, communities, and individuals ... can be healthy only when individuals are willing to take on faith that some moral laws — whether grounded in nature, theology, or simple trial and error — are there for a good reason. As Chesterton tells us, pure reason doesn’t get humanity very far. The merely rational man will not make commitments to causes greater than his own self-interest. We need binding dogmas to constrain us even when our intellects or appetites try to seduce us to a different path. When, through the arrogance of our intellect and the promptings of our egos, we decide that we can make the rules up as we go, we invariably relearn why we need those rules. In Breaking Bad, there are countless, sometimes hilarious, sometimes horrifying moments where Walter is given concrete evidence that he is not smarter than the accumulated moral wisdom of civilization. He rejects these lessons as merely illustrations of the failures of others, and lies himself down a path of ever greater evil. (Emphasis added.)

Ultimately -- and in a captivating way -- the show encapsulates the pure imperfection and imperfectability of man: Breaking Bad  "grapples with the crooked timber of humanity as it is, and painfully demonstrates that, once you choose to break out of the cage of civilization, you are not so much free as lost."

The show might not be explicitly conservative, but the underlying moralistic and conservative themes are undeniable.

Send to Kindle

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article

More Articles From Rich Lizardo