Breaking Bad and the Principles of Power

Walt and Jesse amidst a power struggle

In the viscerally charged finale to Breaking Bad‘s third season, a gunshot is fired that signals not only the unfortunate end for a likable character, but series creator Vince Gilligan’s steadfast adherence to the principles of power.

We meet the victim early in the season as Walt (Bryan Cranston) learns he has a new partner to work with, this time in a clean, professional lab run by the ever-composed Gus (Giancarlo Esposito). It is clear right then that despite what appears to be the most amenable working conditions, things will get messy.

Gale (David Costabile) is a gentle soul, yielding to Walt’s persistent demands for perfection while cooking. Certainly something has to happen to him. Will he be killed? Well yes, and even if you were told that Jesse (Aaron Paul) was the perp, you’d never figure out that he does it to save Walt.

That’s right, “save Walt.” How could a character like Gale pose any threat to Walt? He’s been slowly acquiring the skills of the trade from Walt himself, learning how the slightest difference in temperature can drastically affect the end product. In other words, he’s making Walt dispensable. The preceding episodes were carefully crafted for this to be virtually undetected.

Coincidentally, this is Law 11 of Robert Greene’s tome The 48 Laws of Power, a well-crafted compilation of historical anecdotes detailing observances and transgressions of listed laws.

“Learn to keep people dependent on you.”

Greene elaborates:

“To maintain your independence you must always be needed and wanted. The more you are relied on, the more freedom you have. Make people depend on you for their happiness and prosperity and you have nothing to fear.”

And then the kicker:

Never teach them enough so that they can do without you.”

Fearing for his life, Walt brilliantly takes hold of this principle and beckons Jesse to do something he’s never done before – kill an innocent person. But Walt isn’t able to get Jesse on the phone by begging Gus’s henchmen; he has to appeal to their self-interest. “I’ll take you right to him,” he says.

Law 13: “When asking for help, appeal to people’s self-interest, never to their mercy or gratitude”

What makes Breaking Bad so fascinating a series is its adherence to the raw, gritty amorality necessary for power. Though coming from respectable origins and having a noble end-goal, Walt essentially gives up his moral code in order to contend with the realities of the drug underworld. At the end of Season 3, he is a snake shedding his skin, skin that’s been painted on by the world of restriction that is family life, social engagements and an unfulfilling job as a high school teacher. After all, it was his modesty, a product of the unwritten moral code of laymen, that left him without the patent that his former business partner secured.

To Greene, power is essentially amoral; that is, its acquisition is never concerned with right or wrong. Even moral righteousness is a discreet attempt for power, he claims, quoting Machiavelli’s The Prince:

“Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin against the great number who are not good. Hence a prince who wants to keep his authority must learn how not to be good, and use that knowledge, or refrain from using it, as necessity requires.”

But Walt and Jesse agree that ordering a kid to murder Jesse’s partner, and then killing the kid himself when he poses a threat to their liberty, is going too far. Lines must be drawn when the power struggle swallows the life of an innocent child. Perhaps this is most accurately where the conflict lies: between those of a moral nature who draw boundaries they don’t dare to step over, and those who see the world as a field to be played on, who see anyone with a pulse as a player to whom all the games’ rules apply. This seems to be the basic structure by which Gilligan and writers are framing the narrative for future seasons.

Law 17: Keep others in suspended terror: cultivate an air of unpredictability.

Greene writes, “Be deliberately unpredictable. Behaviour that seems to have no consistency or purpose will keep them off-balance.”

Tuco, the meth-crazed druglord in the show’s second season, illustrates this perfectly. When one of his men says the wrong thing to him, he takes it as just cause to beat him to death. He is ruthless and unpredictable, making Walt and Jesse feel like they can’t even trust him when they’re on supposedly good terms.

Law 15: Crush your enemy totally.

Greene offers the image of the viper, who, if crushed underfoot, will “rear up and bite you with a double dose of venom.”

The lesson in Breaking Bad this time comes from Mike, Gus’s enforcer who up to a certain point has been forthcoming and amicable with Walt. One scene that shows him giving balloons to his young daughter is meant to side the viewer with him, which devastates us even more when we see what his plans are for Walt and Jesse. Episode 12, titled “Half Measures,” gives us the darker side of Mike when he warns Walt to play his cards carefully under the auspices of their mutual boss. He relays a story about his policing days when he beat up a wife-abuser and relented when he promised to never do it again. The man later beat his wife to death, and Mike resolves to never take “half measures” again. The next episode, the season finale, is titled “Full Measures” and situates Walt in the now-ruthless hands of Mike. Mike is unwilling to let Walt be a problem. Mercy, he realizes, is for the weak, not the strong, and allows an unnecessary risk to factor into future power plays. After all, “the ending is everything. Plan all the way to it, taking into account all the possible consequences, obstacles, and twists of fortune that might reverse your hard work and give the glory to others,” writes Greene in Law 29. Gus, the mastermind of the operation, sees Walt as a variable he cannot afford to leave uncontrolled. Walt, especially through his reluctant commitment to Jesse, is too unstable, too unpredictable to be of value to Gus’s criminal enterprise. Walt, of course, is no stranger to this line of thought either. He allows Jesse’s love to choke to death on her own vomit because he knows she represents a risk to his well-being.

Gus has a quick word with Walt

Sure, Walt and Jesse were sticking up for values when they killed Gus’s two men. Killing a child for being too much of a liability is a sin that even most hardened criminals would despise. But Gus, ever the power-savvy, is not willing to reduce power to such simplistic, sympathetic terms. He knows those who are ruthless and unmitigating are the ones that succeed. In a high-stakes match between two bare knuckle fighters, it’s the one who kicks in the balls and punches in the throat that prevails.

Walt himself has witnessed the danger in having too much faith in others. Early in his transformation, he has a drug dealer named “Krazy 8” locked in a basement, arms cuffed around a pole. He feeds him routinely, taking a liking for the young man and seeing past his violence and aggression. One of these times, his cancer causes him to pass out close to his captive and he drops the plate of food. After he wakes up, it dawns on him that Krazy 8 has taken a sharp piece of the broken plate and hid it as a weapon. Walt has no choice but to kill him, even though it breaks him apart.  This, perhaps of all Walt’s transgressions, best represents his new perspective. If he were to continue taking half-measures, it would only be a matter of time before he would be on the losing end of a life-or-death confrontation. Wisely and amorally, he chooses to never again go half the distance when going the whole way offers no element of risk.

Breaking Bad Season 3: 5/5


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