Macbeth and Walter White: the death of the tragic hero

This post is about the conclusion of Breaking Bad and contains spoilers.

A tragedy such as Shakespeare’s Macbeth has to end with insight for the tragic hero and catharsis for the audience. The last episode of Breaking Bad broadcast on Sunday, September 29th had both. As a result, it left its viewers stunned but satisfied.

Macbeth realized how futile his murderous efforts to seize power had been when his beloved wife and partner went mad and killed herself. He had already concluded that his power had been paid for with loss of friendship and respect:

And that which should accompany old age,
As honour troops of friends,
I must not look to have, but in their stead
Curses, not loud but deep,

After Lady Macbeth’s death, his despair deepened:

Out, out brief candle,Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is seen no more.

Nevertheless, he whales into battle, vowing “At least we’ll die with harness on our back”. He refuses to “play the Roman fool” and fall upon his sword when it is obvious that he will lose the battle. “Lay on, Macduff, and damned be he who first cries ‘Hold, enough’.  Exeunt fighting. The next sight we have of Macbeth is his severed head, flaunted by Macduff.

He became an awful man and we are truly glad he is dead, but we are also sad and shocked by his catastrophe. Pity and fear have washed us clean.

Walter White was of the same sort of heroic stature.

His insight is clear when he confronts his wife Skylar in her downmarket accommodations. When he begins to talk about why he did it all, she says, “I don’t want to hear you say you did it for the family once more.” He continues, “I did it for myself. It made me feel alive.”

He has already arranged for his few remaining millions to be transferred to his son in trust on his 18th birthday, ostensibly from his wealthy ex- business partner and philanthropist. He sets out to rid the world of Lydia, who now owns his meth business – ricin in her stevia, Todd, Uncle Jack and his gang, in the process freeing Jesse from enslavement. He does not take revenge on Jesse when he has the opportunity nor does he force Jesse to shot him. He even acknowledges that he wants to die.

We see him in the meth lab, caressing a piece of apparatus – he loved what he achieved, 97% pure blue crystal meth. He was a brilliant chemist. Only then does he realize he has been shot – in the right lung. He falls to the floor of the lab. From high above, we see the police enter and stream around his body as the Badfinger lovingly sings, “It’s all over now, Baby Blue”.

Insight and catharsis! Like chemistry, tragedy is all about transformation.

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