What does it mean to “break bad”? The phrase has been around for a while - see the link for details.
Breaking Bad’s Walter White begins the series as a nearly comic Sad Sack character. He’s doing the best he can to support his family, which consists of a wife who is unexpectedly pregnant and a teenage son who uses crutches due to cerebral palsy. Walter had dreams of glory which have been dashed on the shoals of life and, while he has a plaque thanking him for his contributions on work that led to the Nobel Prize in chemistry (which was actually given to someone else), he’s making ends meet by teaching high school chemistry to bored teens in Albuquerque. Well, he’s making ends almost meet – he works a second job at a car wash. We know this guy. Often, we are this guy.
Then Walt gets some devastating news, which turns him into a man with little to lose and a fierce determination to make sure his family is taken care of. Here’s where some people open up to their circle of family and friends. Pickle jars are placed on counters and fish fry dinners spring into being to help out. But Walt’s a rugged individualist – a type that we Americans like to think “tamed the West” by self-reliance; the whole “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” trope. So Walt comes up with his own nifty plan to make a lot of money quickly.
By the way, this myth about the bootstraps is just that – a myth. You know who tried to travel through the hostile West without help? No, and neither do I because snakebite, heatstroke, blizzards, and/or dysentery turned them into bleached bones before they got to Utah. And so it is with Walt – his plan is one that will propel him into darkness, lies, and crushing violence.
It has been argued (by my co-author, Ensley F. Guffey, as a matter of fact) that Breaking Bad can be viewed as a televisual illustration of criminologist Lonnie Athens’ theory of violentization, a theory which holds in part that violent criminals become that way not due to poverty or some sort of genetic “bad seed,” but rather due to a process over time, what Joyce Carol Oates refers to in this link as “a kind of apprenticeship into brutality in which the budding criminal is complicit.”
The complicity is key – Walt may feel that his actions are driven by a desperate desire to do good, to provide for his family (which is something Walt keenly feels he is supposed to do), but very quickly it becomes evident that he has other desires driving his actions. Chief among these are the twin desires to achieve respect and to be in control. Breaking Bad shows us a man who thinks he’s doing the wrong thing for the right reason; that desperate times call for desperate measures. In reality, Walt’s not being driven; he’s firmly sitting behind the wheel.
Choices. Consequences. Ownership of both. Walt is as blind to this as if he’d had his eyes punched out and his failure to see will both corrode his soul and lay waste to the very life he thinks he’s trying to save.