Breaking Bad is back, and once again we’re thrust into the criminal underworld of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where being a killer is kind of a given, and it’s nothing more than how guilty they feel that separates likable characters from black-hearted villains. With the show promising to complete Walter White’s journey from beaten down science teacher to evil meth kingpin before the end of the season, this seems like a good time to check in on each character’s moral compass. From painfully naïve Walter Jr. to major players in the southwest’s drug trade, we rank Breaking Bad characters from least to most morally reprehensible, after the jump.
Walter White, Jr.
After four seasons, Walt and Skyler’s cerebral palsy-afflicted teenage son remains a puzzlingly under-developed character. Absent for episodes at a time, he shows up once in a while to emphasize how far his dad (and later his mom) have strayed from their original middle-class lifestyle, briefly changing his name to “Flynn” when he’s unhappy with his namesake’s behavior, starting a “Save Walter White” website (that later becomes a handy money-laundering tool) to raise money for his father’s cancer treatment, and cheering on Walt’s fabricated gambling habit because he hopes it will earn him a sweet ride. While he can be selfish and greedy — and he’s always bugging someone to make him breakfast — Walt Jr. is Breaking Bad’s one true innocent, a character whose transgressions never amount to anything more than standard teenage selfishness.
Marie’s not necessarily the most likable person in the world — she’s shallow and vain and snobby, and she harbors a home decor-destroying obsession with the color purple that would only be remotely acceptable in a tween. Also, she has that little kleptomania problem that once drove her to steal some poor old couple’s framed photo of themselves during an open house for which she created an entire fictional identity. But she genuinely loves her poor, recovering husband and extended family, and has never caused anyone grievous bodily harm, and that’s really all it takes to be the second most morally righteous character on Breaking Bad.
In the beginning, we didn’t think we’d like Hank. For one thing, he was a DEA agent, and personally we think the War on Drugs is a whole lot of ineffectual, expensive nonsense that’s fueling, rather than destroying, an international black market. He’s also the kind of guy who thinks having friends and co-workers of color gives him a free pass to call Mexicans “beaners,” and that working for the government entitles him to certain contraband perks, like Cuban cigars. When he manages to locate Walt and Jesse’s meth-cooking RV but they escape by outsmarting him, he goes off the rails and shows up at Jesse’s home to deliver a beating. But despite his considerable shortcomings, Hank is basically a good-hearted family man who’s had a tough several months, from panic attacks triggered by a gruesome stint at a prestigious yet more dangerous base in El Paso to his suspension from the DEA to a debilitating injury at the hands of two brutal cartel members.
Were you surprised when Skyler finally jumped on the Heisenberg bandwagon and decided to help her meth-cook husband launder money? We weren’t particularly, because despite thoroughly disapproving of Walt’s activities — not to mention being more than a little bit naïve as to the extent of his involvement with dangerous criminals — she wasn’t exactly innocent in the first place. Remember when she was sleeping with Ted Beneke and helping him commit tax fraud in Breaking Bad’s second season? All that is, of course, nothing compared to her activities in recent seasons, when Skyler tricked Bogdan into selling the Whites his car wash at an insultingly low price, dressed up as a floozy to fool the IRS into thinking Ted’s cooked books were an honest mistake, and then sent a few of Saul’s thugs over to her former boss’ house to force him into paying back the government. Now, Ted is laid up in the hospital, and Skyler has joined the long list of Breaking Bad characters with grievous bodily harm on their conscience.
It’s no accident that Jesse occupies the exact middle position on this list. Has he done unforgivable things? Absolutely. He influenced his ex-addict girlfriend, Jane, to go back to heroin, resulting in her death; he has used Narcotic Anonymous as a venue to sell meth; and most of all, he’s a killer, shooting Gale to save Walt and himself and murdering a bunch of cartel guys to protect Mike and Gus. But here’s the thing about Jesse, who happens to be our very favorite character on Breaking Bad: he’s got a soul. When Combo is shot and killed, Jesse tries to avenge him. When Mike is injured by the cartel, Jesse gets upset that he isn’t a high priority for Gus’ doctor. When Andrea’s son, Brock, is mysteriously poisoned, Jesse drops everything and risks his own life and freedom to help save him. His guilt over the pain and death he’s caused is debilitating, and sinking into meth-fueled debauchery is the only way he can soothe his conscience. And, of course, almost everything terrible Jesse has ever done can be traced back to Walt’s manipulation.
Over four seasons in, Mike is still something of an enigma. A seemingly omnipresent ex-cop, private investigator, fixer, and assassin, he’s often been of service to Saul, but his true loyalty was to Gus. Although Mike doesn’t seem to feel even a bit conflicted about the crimes he commits, he also isn’t terribly interested in gratuitous cruelty or shooting his way to the top of the meth lord food chain — he just does what’s necessary to keep himself and his boss safe, with a minimum of ego-tripping and drama. He’s also very sweet to his grandchildren.
Your classic crooked lawyer, Saul Goodman may look like a goofy ambulance chaser on TV, but he turns out to be quite good at his job — manipulating the legal system to help criminals, in exchange for a sizable chunk of their profits. He’s also one of the underworld’s greatest connectors, hooking Walt and Jesse up with everyone from Gus Fring to a guy who can make all traces of an entire family’s existence disappear. Saul doesn’t have much of a moral compass; even murder doesn’t phase him unless it somehow endangers his interests, and he’s always happy to a put one client’s interests above those of another, for the right price. We did get a glimpse of his ethical limits in the Season 5 premiere, though, in which he tried to cut ties with a crazed Walt after learning that he’d been used to send a little boy to the hospital.
Now we come to the man for whom the term “breaking bad” was seemingly invented, a character that creator Vince Gilligan has said will fully transform into a villain by the time the series wraps at the end of this season. For our part, we first understood that Walt was capable of profound evil when, after sneaking into Jesse’s bedroom, he saw Jane choking on her own vomit and allowed her to die because she was coming between him and his partner. As an indirect result of that passive murder, Jane’s air traffic controller father caused a horrific jet crash, proving that the implications Walt’s selfish actions are limitless. Between then and now, he has caused a slew of other deaths, feeling less and less guilty with each kill. But far and away his most morally reprehensible act was poisoning little Brock at the end of last season to manipulate Jesse into helping him kill Gus. Although the boy didn’t die, he certainly could have, and putting an innocent child’s life in danger confirms that Walter White has finally lost his last shred of humanity.
Last and most terrifying, the late Gustavo Fring — Breaking Bad’s benchmark for evil. Behind the soft-spoken and mild-mannered veneer, the owner of Los Pollos Hermanos was a hugely powerful meth distributor who didn’t hesitate to commit murder via box cutter just to scare his minions into falling in line. Whether it was drug dealers or children, human life meant nothing to Gus, and he’d do anything to neutralize his enemies and maintain control of his territory. And yet, there have been clues that he didn’t start out utterly soulless. Gus had always appeared to have no personal life, but at the end of last season, we learned that he had very personal reasons for wanting to kill his elderly nemesis, Hector. Although we don’t get any details before his, er, dramatic death, the clue does go a long way to confirming our suspicions that Gus was once very much like Walter.