True Moral Dilemmas Must Connect to Reality

The New York Times | Published on September 29, 2013

By James Bowman

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For Aristotle, tragedy meant the fall of a great man through his own failing. In his time, the great man was a big man of tribal society. This petty king or tribal chieftain inhabited a pre-Enlightenment honor culture, enjoying a degree of moral autonomy unavailable to us today, except in fantasy, as in the form of Walter White.

And that’s the problem with considering how “Breaking Bad” can affect viewers. Between its tragic beginning and its tragic ending, Walt inhabited an unreal world of nearly constant tribal warfare, shifting alliances, family strife and the single-minded pursuit of honor, which for him meant providing for his family by manufacturing methamphetamine. He did this entirely out of sight of the law, even though his brother-in-law was a D.E.A. agent. Such things do not happen in nature.

Within most if not all civilized males there lurks a doubt as to how they would cope with the veneer of civilization stripped away in the kind of savage world that Walt inhabits. With Walt as their vicarious representative, their half-formed wish to find out how they would keep up is fulfilled. He maintains our loyalty as a tribal chieftain might, with remarkable cunning and unswerving devotion to his family. Yet we know, as we do in a post-apocalyptic movie or video game to which “Breaking Bad” is nearest of kin, that it’s not real.

Walt moves easily between a world instantly recognizable as our own and this fantasy world like a superhero. He even has a secret identity, Heisenberg, that helps keep them separate. Yet we know, as with the superhero, that without the ability to identify ourselves with him in a realistic way — the Aristotelian mimetic principle — the tragedy loses most if not all of its tragic impact.

What we learn is only what we learn — assuming we are not subject to psychotic delusions — from the comic book or the video game, namely that Walt doesn’t belong in our world any more than we do in Walt’s, though for a while it is intriguing to imagine that they might co-exist.

James Bowman, the author of Honor, A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.