Last summer, the final season of one the most important TV shows in a generation was reaching its conclusion. Throughout the series, there had been an odd beauty to the fall of the series’ anti-hero, Walter White. Viewers watched as he progressed from respected local teacher to brutal drug lord. As his piles of cash amassed and his creative energies grew, the story frequently seemed a kind of paean to the ego untrammeled, to the human potential reaching its transcendent zenith of heroic materialism. Yet by the second half of the final season, Walt’s crimes were catching up with him. His family life was in tatters and his reputation increasingly ruined. And though by the very end his wife and son grew to loathe the man they once loved, Walt seemingly found a way to let his piles of dirty money do good for his family.
The show’s creator Vince Gilligan summed up the series with the phrase “actions have consequences.” Walt took to absurd extremes many of the values most admired by much of modern society (whether secretly or openly), namely wealth accumulation and a kind of self-actualization free of any hints of traditional moral structures. Again, though it was in extreme form, Walt’s main failing was not so much his egoism per se, but that it was measured in body bags rather than, say, job cuts to maximize shareholder value. Adding to the moral blur was the fact that Walt’s money may just have lived on after him, to the benefit of his family.
Walt’s saga from humble but respected community pillar to wealthy kingpin is very relevant for our age of increasing inequality and mindlessly celebrated individualism and self-actualization. Because on the one hand, there is an undeniable intoxicating beauty to the raw power of brilliant, relentless egoism. On the other hand, excessive materialism and egoism are just that – an attractive intoxicant, but one that over time poisons its drinker’s soul and also the health of wider society. Actions do indeed have consequences, and Walter White’s continue to raise some uncomfortable issues for our own world, where excessively self-interested materialism now so often seems to come at the expense of the commonweal.