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Breaking Bad – Reconciling the Nature vs Nurture debate

Breaking Bad is arguably the greatest TV show of all time. There are many underlying dynamics within the story people often debate.

The most common analysis you’ll find is people bemoaning a system that forces a Chemistry teacher to become a meth cook in order to provide for his family. Memes like the one below present this analysis of the series perfectly.

And there is truth to this analysis. Breaking Bad could have turned out very differently if Walter White was a Chemistry teacher in Oslo or Helsinki instead of Albuquerque.

As sound as this analysis is, I have another opinion.

Breaking Bad is the ultimate tussle between nature and nurture, and a final reconciliation between the two.

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The choices Walter makes

It probaby helps if I lay down the nature-nurture debate in my simple understanding.

The debate is an argument between the factors that shape a person’s life. Some argue that the actions of people are shaped by their nature. Others argue that actions are driven by how society nurtures people.

The chain of events that trigger Walter into becoming a meth cook are undoubtedly influenced by his dire financial circumstances. He realizes his family will not be financially secure with him gone. He thus partners with Pinkman and starts cooking meth.

This is the general prognosis of most people watching the show..

Here is where a little deeper analysis points us in the opposite direction. Walt’s rich friends, Elliot and Gretchen, offer to pay for his medical treatment.

If he really cared for his family alone, he would have accepted the money.

This is where the nature and nurture debate again wades in.

Walt’s circumstances fall into the right place when he is offered money for his treatment. However, his innerself (nature) cannot reconcile with the embarrassment of taking money from his friends (nurture).

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Rejecting the generous offer from Gretchen and Elliot marks a vital turn in Walter’s character. He gives in to his egotistical nature, ignoring his family’s wellbeing. This shows that it’s not just the poor healthcare system that drives Walter into the deep end. It’s his own ego to reject any help and devolve into something darker and more powerful.

The reconciliation

I don’t think there is a need to map out every single time Walt makes a selfish decision during the show. The entire five-season arc is his descent into complete malevolence.

My area of interest lies in the final few episodes. Just as every great villain, Walt is cornered in the end and slowly decaying. His cancer is back and he’s about to die. Like every great villain, he too wants to go out in one last blaze of glory.

Generally, villains who try to do this end up failing.

Walt doesn’t. He manages to complete all his objectives and earn a memorable ending.


He reconciles the nature-nurture paradigm.

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A long break in the snowy hills perhaps makes Walt study himself more closely. He accepts that all his actions were in fact not made to help his family’s safety. Instead, he did everything solely out of greed.

Walt also accepts his love for what he does. The final season shows the thrill he feels dealing with criminals such as him. Defeating Gus Fring makes him much more open about his role as the villain.

In accepting his faults and understanding who he is, Walter manages to put his skills to use. He only has one real goal left – securing his family’s future. He manages to do this and rescue Pinkman in the end.

While talking to Skylar, Walt accepts he did everything for himself. This statement marks Walt reconciling his own nature-nurture conundrum. He accepts his nature unabashedly and stops blaming his circumstances for his actions (nurture).

This is how Breaking Bad manages to end on a much better note than many other popular TV shows.

It allows the protagonist to reconcile with his true self.

An example

Compare this with Game of Thrones. The writers of the TV show spend seven seasons telling us that Danaerys is a liberator and breaker of chains. We are constantly told about her generous and kind nature, something that sets her apart from many others.

Danaerys is shown to lean on her kindness and inherent morality. Even when she orders acts of violence, they come from a deep sense of justice.

And yet, a change of circumstances towards the end of season eight rip up her story arc in the first seven seasons.

Her actions in the penultimate episode of the series rip up the script. She gives into her environment (nurture).

The writers never reconcile Dany’s nature and the circumstances she is facing (nurture). Instead, they choose to ignore her nature altogether for weird plot reasons.

Breaking Bad’s writers do not make this mistake. They allow Walt’s nature to constantly duel with his circumstances and use this tussle to show his slow descent into moral apathy.

This synchronicity does not happen in Game of Thrones.

In conclusion

Breaking Bad is one of my favorite shows, one of the few I feel passionate about.

This piece lays down my opinion on the parallels between Walter White’s arc and the nature-nurture debate. Readers are naturally free to disagree.

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