Breaking Bad to be specific.
Don’t stop reading! This post contains no spoilers and you don’t have to have seen a single episode of the show to get what I’m going to talk about.
I’ve been watching season 5 of Breaking Bad now that it’s the school holidays and I’m LOVING it! Such a brilliantly written and acted show. Just amazing.
What I’ve really noticed this season is a huge change in Walt. He started off as a good guy who did bad things for good reasons. We all know the plot by now I’m sure. A high school chemistry teacher gets terminal cancer and lives in America where healthcare is only for those who can afford it. He starts cooking meth on the side to earn the money to pay for his treatment, and to leave his family when he dies. Turns out the cancer isn’t terminal after all.
Now he’s a meth cook doing bad things and he can’t get out of it.
Walt always saw himself as the good guy just doing what he had to do to protect himself and those he loved.
That is something we can all relate to. Hopefully not the cooking meth part, but doing questionable things that we justify to ourselves is definitely normal. Some justify more extreme behaviour than others, but we all do the wrong thing sometimes. Studies show that most people honestly believe themselves to be good people. We have to live with who we are and the choices that we make, so it’s only natural that we justify our actions to ourselves.
If we don’t, we can’t cope. There’s a name for this; it’s cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is that conflicting feeling when we have two competing ideas in our heads. There might be our picture of how we see ourselves, then there is the fact of what our behaviour is. If these things are in conflict we can’t live with the tension. It causes guilt, anger, anxiety, panic, depression, and all sorts of other things. We can’t live like this, so one thing has to change. Either we change our picture of ourselves (which is not as common) or we try to reconcile our behaviour to who we think we are. We are excellent at justifying our behaviour to ourselves. I know I certainly am.
Watching Skylar try to reconcile her behaviour to her picture of herself this season has been fascinating. She doesn’t cope with it as well as Walt does, which is another interesting study into different personalities. There are certain people who are good at justifying their behaviour to themselves and others who don’t cope well at all when their behaviour doesn’t match who they think they are. Jesse hasn’t always been great at coping with the things he has done either and that’s been another great character study.
This is a big issue in society more broadly as well as for individuals who are trying to change. It’s hard to change behaviour we have told ourselves is reasonable (so that we don’t have to live with the guilt and anxiety it produces). To change unhealthy behaviours we first have to acknowledge how unhealthy they are. This causes cognitive dissonance which is painful and uncomfortable. It’s like a bowl of water where all the muck has settled comfortably to the bottom. To get rid of that muck you’ve got to first shake it up, which is a messy and ugly process.
I’ve been watching Walt over the last few seasons draw lines for himself on how far he is prepared to go. That line just keeps on moving. Circumstances force him to do worse and worse things in order to survive. The problem Walt faces in moving his line in the sand further and further away is that the further we go to justify our behaviour, the easier it is to do it again, and again, and then go a little further and justify that too. Let’s not kid ourselves, it’s a slippery slope that we think we’re in control of, but we’re really not.
The other issue that has been brought up this season is Walt’s eventual corruption by the power he’s accumulated. We all know the saying:
Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
There are rare exceptions to this, and those are the sort of people who ought to have power! For the rest of us, power does tend to corrupt. For some it happens rather quickly, for others it is a gradual process that slowly takes hold of us and we don’t even realise it’s happening, then one day we wake up and wonder how we got where we are. That’s why it’s so important to surround ourselves with good, moral people who will keep us accountable, who will keep us from sliding down that slope. Also, don’t fall into the temptation of ending up with a group of people around you who end up sliding with you! That’s truly dangerous.
It’s been fascinating watching the transformation of Walt from a good guy who does bad things, to bad guy who does bad things. It’s a process that we don’t always notice when it’s us it’s happening to. As we justify our behaviour to ourselves, we make excuses, and all of a sudden there are shades of grey everywhere. I don’t want to wake up one day and wonder how I got to where I am.
It’s never too late to take control of your choices. Muddy up the water and start being who you want to be.