Spoilers ahead, if not obvious.
The conclusion of last night's Granite State episode of Breaking Bad, with Walt's former Grey Matter partners Gretchen and Elliot running him down, brings home what I think was Walt's motivation, and one of the lessons of the show.
What we know: Walt took a (relatively small) settlement and got out of Grey Matter not long before it went big enough that its two remaining partners could make a $22 million contribution as a pre-emptive publicity move. Walt eked out a modest living as a high school physics teacher, nursing a resentment at the success of his former partners, which he perceived to be on his back.
We don't know the reasons why Walt got out of Grey Matter. One possibility that seems consistent with the events of the show is that Skyler was uncomfortable with Walt working so closely with his former love Gretchen, insisted he put some distance between them, and Walt complied. Or perhaps there was some other ethical disagreement.
So, Walt sees Gretchen and Elliot's success, and thinks that it is only his commitment to marriage and ethics that kept him from similar success. That difference between him and them isn't smarts or intelligence or hard work, but ethical "flexibility." He could be just as successful if only he was willing to bend a little bit.
Maybe he can accept this. So what if they drive nicer cars and have a bigger house? But then comes the cancer diagnosis along with Molly. Suddenly, things seem a lot less fair.
I think we can all relate to this. We scroll through Facebook and see people we don't think as much smarter or harder working than us seeming to have great success, or even complaining about problems we only dream of having (toddler is crabby on her third vacation this summer!), and our minds can go to dark places. It can't be that maybe they do work harder or are smarter than I think they are. Or that it's just plain luck or good fortune or making their own luck. They must be doing something fishy. And I could be that successful too if only I were willing to do so as well. Maybe I'll just fudge my taxes a little or hide a mistake. It's only fair...
Breaking Bad has spent the last five seasons demonstrating that this is not the case. To achieve his "success", Walt didn't just dip his toe into evil, he had to dive headfirst, crossing every ethical line, deal with despicable figures, ruin countless lives, and tear apart his family. And he still didn't get what he wanted. The Devil is greedy, and doesn't always come through on his promises.
A corollary is the notion that criminals are dumb, and if we were to play on their playing field rather than the legitimate one, we would dominate the field like the Miami Heat would dominate a CYO league. Sure in the legitimate world, Walter White is a chemistry teacher in the middle of the middle class, but in the criminal world, he'd be Heisenberg, feared kingpin.
Not quite. Walt was able to be successful in the criminal world, but not through the sheer force of his intellect. Criminals aren't just successful because they're willing to break the rules; they also take enormous risks and have to be willing to do anything. There's a reason the Nazis are the ones left standing.
We may think that only our moral scruples are keeping us from a life of luxury and riches. Breaking Bad shows us that it's not so simple.