The Lessons of ‘Breaking Bad’

Walter White from AMC's Breaking Bad. Bon voyage, awesome show. Thanks for the lessons.

Walter White from AMC’s Breaking Bad. Bon voyage, awesome show. Thanks for the lessons.

Author’s Note:

  1. There are no spoilers in this post.
  2. I know everyone’s talking about this show and annoying all of you who don’t care. I’m sorry. But it’s just that good.

Breaking Bad is the best television show with commercials that has ever been.

I say “with commercials” because HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax do amazing things with their original programming.

I’m new to the show. I didn’t start watching it until after my ex-wife moved out this past April.

So, I consumed all five seasons within the past five months via Netflix and watched the final eight episodes on my DVR culminating with last night’s outstanding series finale.

Perhaps it’s the timing of everything going on in my life combined with when I watched Breaking Bad. But to my memory, no show has ever made me as contemplative and introspective as this one has.

What Is Breaking Bad?

The main character in Breaking Bad is a man named Walter White.

When we are first introduced to him, he is a high school chemistry teacher.

He’s a husband. A father to a teenager with cerebral palsy. There’s a baby on the way.

Walt is a bit nerdy. A bit socially awkward. But smart. Liked by his peers and family, but maybe not respected by them.

A company he helped create but is no longer part of has grown into a multi-billion-dollar enterprise.

It eats at him because Walt makes a subpar high school teacher’s salary. And he works a second job at a local car wash.

We learn right away that Walt has been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, and that he may not live long.

He worries about how his family will survive financially once he’s dead.

Walt’s brother-in-law works for the DEA—the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Because of that relationship, Walt learns how much money there is to be made in the drug business. Walt decides to partner with a former high school student of his—a known small-time drug-dealer—to cook crystal methamphetamine to save up a decent nest egg to leave to his family after his death.

Because Walter is a brilliant chemist, what he creates is the crème de la crème of crystal meth.

It’s in high demand. From users. And from dealers, big and small.

And that’s when the money starts to roll in.

Walt gets a taste of unlimited money. Almost easy money. But now he has a new thing to protect. Riches.

Walt gets a taste of greatness. What it feels like to master something. But there’s always a bigger fish. A threat.

Walt gets a taste of power. But when you’re powerful, you become a target. And so does your family.

The meek, nerdy, dying, down-on-his luck underdog is easy to root for.

Then, slowly, one little incident at a time, Walt loses a little bit of his soul. He must protect his secrets, his money, his family and himself.

In order to do so, he must do bad things. Very bad things.

And it’s up to us to decide how we feel about those choices.

And it’s up to us to decide what lessons can be gleaned from the powerful story.

The Lessons

1. There are no shortcuts to success

Cheating has consequences. Dire ones.

But I’m not sure that’s more important than the notion that success requires sacrifice. It requires going the long way. It requires a daily commitment to excellence. It requires making choices that are both positive and wise.

You’re not going to get rich quick.

You’re not going to ace your college final without knowing the material.

You’re not going to win a gold medal without enormous work and sacrifice.

You’re not going to get promoted without displaying a long-term commitment to excellence.

You’re not going to get physically fit—or more importantly, stay physically fit—without that same effort.

You’re not going to have an unbreakable relationship with your partner without investing emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually in them.

You’re not going to have an amazing relationship with your children without demonstrating unconditional love and earning trust and respect through daily sacrifice.

I didn’t need to watch Breaking Bad to recognize this truth. But the show did an excellent job of reinforcing it.

Take the long way. The slow way. The hard way. The challenging way. The sustainable way.

Please.

Make a commitment to positively changing your life in some way, big or small. Don’t look for the shortcut. Just do a little research on the best way to accomplish your goal.

Maybe it’s losing weight.

Maybe it’s building stamina to run a marathon.

Maybe it’s learning a new language.

Maybe it’s fixing a broken relationship.

Nobody said it was easy. They just said it was worth it.

2. Everything in life is a tradeoff

In the end, what do we care about most?

Money?

Sex?

Love?

Houses?

Cars?

Power?

Fame?

Freedom?

I don’t like to talk about “feelings” too much. They betray us. Often. But I submit that HAPPINESS is really what we’re all after. That amazing feeling when things are just going right. When you feel on top of the world with hardly a care at all.

Will money make you happy?

Will sex? A better job? Fame and recognition?

What if you have your dream job (which might not actually be a “job”), your dream house, $100 million in the bank, and the daily freedom to do as you please with whomever you please? Are you happy then?

What if you have all that, but you find out you’re going to die in two weeks? Or two months? Or even two years?

Are you still happy then?

Walt had a nice family. Everyone loved each other and really came together to rally on his behalf once he was diagnosed with cancer.

As he morphed into a new kind of man throughout the course of Breaking Bad, he gained the money and power he craved. But he lost many other things.

It’s the eternal tradeoff.

And it always exists.

Your bigger house is going to be great. But your house payment and property taxes increased, you have more lawn to mow, you have more rooms to clean and you’re at a heightened risk for burglary.

Your new job is going to be great. But you have way more responsibilities, your bosses will hold you accountable now for the results of your individual endeavors and the team projects you manage. Your hours will be longer and harder. Your free time, less. You’ll think about work more when you’re home. You’ll have to answer phone calls and emails on family vacations. You’ll have to tell your children you’re too busy to play right now.

There’s really no end to the examples.

Anytime you add some benefit to your life or make some major change, you also forfeit something else.

Every. Single. Time.

It’s worth thinking about those things.

And it’s worth asking the question: Will this thing I really want actually make me happier?

Sometimes it will! It’s a question worth asking. But it will never be without a cost of some kind.

3. Lies are poison

If you’re doing something you can’t tell people about, you’re poisoning yourself and all of your relationships.

I don’t believe there are many exceptions here.

If something you’re doing must live in the shadows, it’s probably not making your life better.

It might be making an aspect of your life seem better. This is what happens when we start using “feelings” to justify bad behavior.

How many times must we see examples on TV, in the news, in the lives of others and our own before we make a commitment to honesty?

This isn’t something we need to do for others. It’s something we must do for ourselves.

4. No one knows the future

Walt’s transformation takes place over a two-year period. No one could have predicted he’d become what he became.

I like who I am.

But there are things about my life I don’t like.

I want more money.

I want female companionship.

I want fewer time constraints to travel and pursue personal passions and interests.

What could the pursuit of those things do to me if I allow myself to be compromised? If I turn my back on my personal code of conduct?

Could I turn into someone I no longer recognize?

Could I lose myself?

Could I become a monster?

Yeah, maybe.

Unless I remain committed to honesty. And living in the light. And serving something greater than myself. My son. My friends. My future partner. My God.

Putting those things ahead of my personal wants and desires. Always putting their needs first.

I feel confident that if I can maintain that commitment, that I’ll never lose myself.

That I’ll always be someone I can be proud of. Someone my son can be proud of.

And that I’ll always recognize the guy I see in the mirror.

That’s important to me.

5. It is never too late to break good

Redemption is one of my favorite words.

I like how it sounds. But mostly I like what it stands for.

After not being the kind of husband I wish I would have been during the early part of my failed marriage, I feel really good about the effort I gave in the final two years.

Those two years changed my life. They made me a better person.

It was redemption for myself. So that I can sleep at night, knowing I gave all I could to making it work.

I showed a lot of grit.

And now I know what I’m capable of. On the inside.

And now I know what kind of man I want to be.

I want to be a good one.

I don’t know what Walter White was at the end of Breaking Bad.

I don’t know whether he was a good man or a bad man. I guess that’s for each of us to decide.

Just as we get to decide who we want to be.

Every day we wake up is another opportunity to make the choice to be better than the day before.

To not look for the easy way out. The shortcut.

To recognize there are always tradeoffs when we make certain choices.

To remember to be honest. To avoid doing things we can’t disclose to the people we love.

To realize that the future is uncertain. Tomorrow is not promised us. We might not wake up. To take nothing for granted.

And that today, if maybe you’re not feeling so good about yourself and your life choices, you can choose right now to break good.

To try something new. To let go of fear and anger and sadness and regret.

And replace those horrible things.

With fortitude.

With love.

With honesty.

With peace.

With hope.

Being good makes you happy. But don’t try to be happy. That’s impossible.

Just try to be good.

Thanks, Breaking Bad.

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6 thoughts on “The Lessons of ‘Breaking Bad’

  1. tripb says:

    I’ve never watched Breaking Bad, I don’t watch series TV (or read books in series, I know, I have issues)…
    But I’m having a spectacularly bad day… and your post touched me, made me cry a little and has me thinking.
    Thanks Matt…

    Like

    • Matt says:

      Good. Not the crying part. The thinking part.

      I’m totally wasting your time if you don’t ponder questions after the fact.

      Don’t cry, please!

      Appreciate you. Thank you for reading and writing.

      Like

  2. traveshamockery says:

    I am really glad I didn’t publish my “Fixing Good” now. Great post. Great Felina.

    Like

  3. knace says:

    When your latest post popped into my mailbox last night I was at work and I saw the title and thought. “Crap, I won’t be reading this one anytime soon.” My son Erik and I are watching it together and now that school has started and I work weekends, it is hard to find the time to share a meal, much less watch Breaking Bad. We are just starting season 5 and I am desperately trying to avoid hearing what happens. So I was happy this morning when I saw the no spoilers sentence. =)
    I’ve a had a few people express surprise that I am watching this with my son. Seriously? He is 17 – a senior in high school! I like to think Erik is a smart and thoughtful kid and this series offers so much food for thought. We’ve have some great discussions about it. Not knowing how it ends, just watching Walter’s metamorphosis has been fascinating. The last shot in season 4 when the camera pans in – to watch my son’s face as he realized….Good stuff!
    And another great post!

    Like

    • Matt says:

      Thank you very much. I think it’s great that you’re watching it with him and discussing it.

      So much there to chew on.

      Thank you for reading and writing!

      Like

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