“The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another; and his humblest hour is when he compares the volume as it is with what he vowed to make it.”
―J.M. Barrie,The Little Minister
Spoiler Notification: This post assumes you’ve watched the entire Breaking Bad saga and are caught up through six seasons of Mad Men.
In our secular age where there is purportedly little regard or need for the sacred, there is the increasing idea that religion might be dying in America. It is certainly dead in our era’s greatest TV shows. Walter White and Don Draper, our alliterated TV icons, operate as there is no moral authority, no gods in which to fear. This is not to say that good and evil don’t exist in the worlds of Mad Men and Breaking Bad. In the end, there are consequences for unrighteous acts. But the crux of each show hinges on leading men who, in the absence of any real authority, become their own authority… and become god-like.
Walt and Dick (Whitman) begin like the rest of us, playing the parts society sets out with the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Walt is a mild mannered father and school teacher. Dick is an orphan finding his way as a soldier. But societal plans don’t have an answer for everything. Walt gets cancer, Dick Whitman is a coward on the battlefield. Their American dreams end. They are tempted with another way of living, outside of what they’ve known, in exchange for their innocence. Unable or unwilling to seek help from anything outside of themselves… they bite the apple. Walt begins cooking meth to provide for his family, Dick assumes a new identity, leaving his old self on the battlefield. They bend their rules of their world in the hope they can rewrite their histories and elevate beyond their fallible selves.
And the result of eating from the tree? They do not die. Quite the contrary, they are exalted. Walt and Dick become Heisenberg and Don Draper. They know what it is to be like God, and enjoy the spoils, the power, the ability to define what is right and wrong… not only for themselves, but for everyone around them.
Along the way they make feeble attempts to abide by the laws of man. But the governing authorities are flawed and provide no real constraints. The New Mexico branch of the DEA is to be toyed with and Don is untouchable as a handsome, white, and wealthy male in an era that awards all of the above.
Walt quickly moves past the ability to be a husband and father as he becomes a vortex of power, in which all must become subservient to him. Externalities cannot be considered. What’s the death of a drug lord, a friend, or even an innocent child when they stand in the way of the greater good of an empire?
Draper’s goals are more elusive. He never seeks to be the biggest fish — he does just enough to keep swimming. He can create an ad with the best of them, but filler is never enough to satisfy. Don is numb to an existence where nothing really matters. There’s nothing really worth sacrificing for, certainly not institutions like the American family structure — an idea he helped create. Why not have one more satisfying screw? One more Old Fashioned? One more release from an inane human existence?
Just as we were witness to their ascension, we are witness to their downfall. Don and Heisenberg are not exceptions to the laws and judgements of this life. Don’s apathy authors two failed marriages, the ruination of poor daughter Sally, and abandonment by the company he helped create. The final seasons of Breaking Bad feature Walt as a delusional captain who abandons his sinking ship to save himself. Sacrificing all his treasure and everyone he once loved in the process.
“You’re a monster”
– Peggy Olson to Don in the final scenes of “The Quality of Mercy”
In the end there’s only isolation. Sitting alone in a frigid cabin in the wilderness or a cold Manhattan apartment. They have been humbled, but cannot recognize it. 2 They simply maintain the belief that Don Draper and Heisenberg exist, even if they are the only ones who believe it. They’ve experienced what is to live above the mortals, and the only goal beyond that is to simply keep the illusion alive as long possible. There is no hope of being renewed– there is only cancelled.