“Breaking Bad” By Niccolo Machiavelli


In some ways, Breaking Bad was, for me, a hymn to Machiavelli. Walter White – in order to secure his honor as well as his survival – leaves traditional morality and virtues in the desert to seek power and money and respect. And he does so with such brilliance and fortitude and elan that Old Nick himself would have marveled at the spectacle of untrammeled evil and empire building. If a man is truly a man through force and fraud and nerve, then Walter becomes the man he always wanted to be. He trounces every foe; he gains a huge fortune; he dies a natural death. Compared with being a high school chemistry teacher? Niccolo would scoff at the comparison. “I did it for me.”

Like Richard III or Richard Nixon, Walt is consumed all along by justified resentment of the success others stole from him, and by a rage that his superior mind was out-foxed by unscrupulous colleagues. He therefore lived and died his final years for human honor – for what 466px-Portrait_of_Niccolò_Machiavelli_by_Santi_di_TitoMachiavelli calls virtu, a caustic, brutal inversion of Christian virtue. And there is some worldly justice in this – he was cheated, he was diminished, his skills were eventually proven beyond any measure in ways that would never have happened if he had never broken bad. And breaking bad cannot mean putting a limit on what you are capable of doing. What Machiavelli insisted upon was that a successful power-broker know how to be “altogether bad.” You have to leave a woman choking on her own vomit to her death. You have to murder a child on a toy scooter.

But the script cheats. Why? Because Walter is already dying. The calculations you make about your future do depend very much on how far you can see ahead. And the cost-benefit analysis of “breaking bad” when the alternative is imminently “dying alone” is rigged in favor of the very short term, i.e. zero-sum evil. If Walt had had to weigh a long, unpredictable lifetime of unending fear and constant danger for his family and himself, he would have stopped cooking meth. As, indeed, he did, when finally given the chance – only to be yanked back into the life of a mobster by his brother-in-law, bored, sitting on a john. Nice Shakespearean touch that, I thought.

And was he happy? Yes, but in a way that never really reflects any inner peace. He is happy in a way that all millionaires and tyrants are happy. His will is done. But we know that this does not lead to actual, enduring happiness. Which is why, for me, Machiavelli’s great flaw is that the life of such a brutally powerful figure, ruling by force and fraud, is a mug’s game. Isn’t the consequence of his proud immorality a never-ending insecurity? Do not most mob bosses live in fear every day and die by the same methods they employ? Did we not see that happen to Gus? Even to Mike? Did Saddam have a happy ending? Or Richard III? These are lives mesmerizing in action but miserably, existentially insecure. Remember Mike’s face as he took a last look at his grand-daughter. You call that happiness?

So for me, Breaking Bad should be taught alongside Machiavelli – as a riveting companion piece.

It should be taught because it really does convey the egoist appeal of evil, of acting ruthlessly in the world, of becoming a man in a battle of wills and lies, of seeing even a murdered innocent child as a necessary unpleasantness. It should be taught because it reveals the power of nerve, of deception, and of courage. But it should be taught also because it reveals Machiavelli’s fundamental, soul-destroying, life-hollowing emptiness.

The benefits only work if your life is nasty, brutish and short. The costs are seen in the exhausted, broken eyes of Skyler, the betrayal of an only painfully faithful son, the murder of a brother-in-law, the grisly massacre of dozens, the endless nervous need to be on the alert, to run and hide and lie and lie and lie again, until life itself becomes merely a means to achieve temporary security. In the end, this is not living. It is running, running, in the end, from yourself. There is no resting place there, no peace, no day after. There is only always the day before. The day before you are killed by the forces you unleashed to kill others.

Stewart Patrick explains further:

Machiavelli differs from later realists like Hobbes—and more contemporary “neorealists” like the late Kenneth Waltz—in recognizing that human agency matters as much as the structural fact of international anarchy in determining both foreign policy behavior and ultimate outcomes in world politics. Through historical examples of successes and failures, Machiavelli reminds us that individuals matter. Yes, the world is perpetually changing, buffeting the state in all directions. But even if “there’s a Providence that shapes our ends”—as Shakespeare’s Hamlet observes—a leader’s choices can have a pivotal impact on politics, both domestic and international.

Machiavelli explores the interplay between material forces and human agency through the concepts of fortuna and virtu.

All princes (and indeed, all people) are subject to societal and natural factors larger than themselves. Still, “free will cannot be denied,” Machiavelli insists. “Even if fortune is the arbiter of half our actions, she still allows us to control the other half, or thereabouts.” Though fortune be capricious and history contingent, the able leader may shape his fate and that of his state through the exercise of virtu. This is not to be mistaken for “virtue”, as defined by Christian moral teaching (implying integrity, charity, humility, and the like). Rather, it denotes the human qualities prized in classical antiquity, including knowledge, courage, cunning, pride, and strength.

Walter possessed all in abundance. And he used them to destroy countless bodies and souls, including the only ones he truly loved, including, in the end, his own.

Recent Dish on Machiavelli here and here.

UPDATE: Reader feedback on this post here.