Breaking Bad Ethics: A moral implosion

Are people innately ethical or unethical? Or are people’s ethics swayed by the situation they find themselves in?

Lets look at Walter White and Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad and Better Caul Saul to answer the question.

Better Call Saul is a new spin-off to the very popular Breaking Bad series aired on AMC. Vince Gilligan’s new hit is the prequel to the Breaking Bad series that details the life of Saul Goodman before meeting Walter White. For those of you who haven’t watched the original series and are planning to, I will try not to spoil it for you by providing only a brief overview. The main character is Walter White, (known as Heisenberg) a chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with Stage III cancer and given only 2 years to live. In a conversation with his wife’s brother-in-law who is a DEA agent, Walter White learns about the money involved in the drug world during a bust. Deciding he has nothing to lose and wanting to leave money behind for his handicapped son, wife, and newborn baby – he embarks on a career of drugs and crime. He uses his chemistry background to create and sell the finest crystal meth. The series tracks Walter White as he transforms from a regular chemistry schoolteacher into a ruthless kingpin in the drug trade. Walter White ends up hiring “Saul Goodman” as his lawyer who advises him and helps him launder money. Saul Goodman is a crooked criminal lawyer who is in on the drug ring, putting his own life at risk for the money. The prequel highlights Saul Goodman’s career as a lawyer before meeting Walter.

Walter White

Walter White – “I have Lived under the threat of death.. because of that I’ve made choices, I alone should suffer the consequences of those choices”.

I think the reason many of us were so intrigued by Breaking Bad was because of the transformation of Walter White into Heisenberg. The series unraveled a family man with values into a notorious drug dealer. As a professor and scholar, he followed consequentialism, weighing the consequences of his actions. However, he considered himself a dead man and had nothing to lose. The negative consequences did not overrule his family’s future welfare. But what prompted this moral breakdown? Was Walter White always unethical? Or did the situation he found himself force him to make unethical choices out of desperation to support his family? I think we can agree that Walter White was a man of values at the start of the film; no one could have expected this from him. In life and death situations, like the one Walter found himself in, do ethical principles change? What would you have done? Even good people like Walter become desperate, feel like they have nothing to lose, and do unthinkable things. But is the fear of death a good enough excuse? Once Walter decided to do this, was there no return? He had countless opportunities to put the drug dealer lifestyle in his past but decided not to, spiraling down a path of pure immorality. Does the first unethical choice justify the next unethical choice?

Saul Goodman

On the other hand there is Saul Goodman. Equally as unethical as Walter White himself, however, the new series gives us a look at his life before teaming up with him. Better Call Saul gives us a better look at this crooked lawyer and how he came about. Even though it seems that he too, like Walter, went down the path of immorality out of the situation he found himself in. During the first episodes, it shows that he was broke and barely had any money to cover his expenses. He teams up with a couple of skateboarders who are trying to scam people by being hit by cars. Did his financial situation force him to do this out of desperation? Perhaps, but in a later episode we learn that Saul has done this since he was a kid. They called him “Slippin Jimmy” because he would collect insurance claims from purposely slipping on ice. Saul has never been ethical but rather has abused the law for his personal gain. Can someone like Saul ever become ethical? Or has his rap sheet altered his perception of what is good and what is bad? Does it just take one unethical choice to send people like Saul and Walter down a path of immorality? If you break a moral code once, what will stop you from doing it again?


6 thoughts on “Breaking Bad Ethics: A moral implosion”

  1. Interesting comparison of the two characters. I haven’t seen any of Better Call Saul yet, but heard it is good.


    But what do you make of Walter White’s moments of ethical choices after he breaks?? Like, is killing Fring, a man much more ruthless than White, and doing it in a way that allows Tio Salamanca to end his own sad life with pride and revenge?

    Or saving Jesse one, two, or three times? In the series finale? He didn’t need to rescue Jesse did he?


  2. Good question… You can always change your moral trajectory, I think.

    Walter could have stopped if he was willing to give up his money, or to be prosecuted by the law. His pride is what held him back, I think.

    But, we sympathize with him not because he was moral, but because he was so ground down by his environment. Underpaid teacher. Screwed out of a fortune by his former Chemistry PhD fellows. Soaring medical bills for his son, unborn daughter, and his cancer. Forced to take a second job to make ends meet. He reflects the crushing of the great American middle class and how its own resilience, loyalty, gumption, and smarts can force it onto a very dark path.

    But if we, as viewers, didn’t think it was partly justified, we wouldn’t find it fascinating.


  3. I think you both pose some very interesting questions. As viewers, we are made to sympathize with Walter because of his difficult situation. The idea of not wanting to leave his family with little money and a bunch of medical bills causes us to believe that Walter is making an ethical choice when he first starts cooking meth, because, in a consequentialist view, it will have good consequences for his family. However, as he goes down this path, his motives switch and through most of the story, I would consider most of his decisions unethical.

    Jordi pointed out the good decisions that Walter made in saving Jesse and killing those who could be considered worse than him. However does killing a bad/worse person make killing ethical? Do you think Walter killed Fring because he was ruthless or was he trying to move up even farther in the drug ring?


    1. I think Walter tried to rationalize his killings of people trying to claim that they were “worse” and sometimes even necessary. At the beginning of the series he struggles coping with his first couple of kills, however, by the end has no reaction to killing people. It was a gradual change. As the series went on, you could argue that he was “worse” than other people. While he killed a lot to move up farther in the drug ring, he also killed when it wasnt necessary (like Mike) who he killed in cold blood.


  4. I enjoyed Breaking Bad because I never viewed Walter White as a villain. He slowly evolved from a loving caring Dad trying to provide for his family to a power-hungry, ruthless killer. But there was no specific inflection point in the show where he changes, which is why it is so enjoyable. I always thought he would make amends, straighten his life out, and live happily ever after, right up until the second he died.


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