The five-season, history-making TV series “Breaking Bad” is officially over, concluding on September 29 with as much creative genius as its mastermind, Vince Gilligan, gave us in every former episode. Yet on another level “Breaking Bad” has not ended at all and cannot end until the vampire behemoth known as industrial civilization has been terminated and ceremoniously cremated. Its hero, or rather anti-hero, is Walter Heartwell White, (“I’m in the empire business”) the consummate caricature of the aggrieved white male sociopathic tyrant and the embodiment of the post-modern emperor.
I say sociopath not because Walter was burned with matches then locked in a closet by his parents. I say it because “Breaking Bad” is nothing if not the saga of someone who opts to divest himself from all empathy and a fundamental sense of human decency—not because he is forced to, but because he can. But really, what does that matter? Isn’t Walter just another Dexter or Tony Soprano? Well, yes and no. As sociopathic anti-hero, he falls in the same category, but there’s something else about him, I believe, that makes him even more significant, make that riveting, in our collective consciousness.
Huffington Post blogger Maureen Ryan rants about the unsettling number of people who are willing to defend Walter White. “Why are we so willing to give this man a pass?” she asks. “Why are we so willing to be manipulated?”
Well, let’s back up and begin with a few basic aspects of the story. Set in Albuquerque in current time, our anti-hero, Walter White, is a Masters level high school chemistry teacher who worked briefly at Los Alamos National Laboratories and helped found Gray Matter, a tech company whose share Walter sold to partner, Elliott Schwartz. Early on in the series, Walt is diagnosed with lung cancer. Although he has health insurance, it will not pay for all of his very expensive chemotherapy treatment, and Walt and his wife Skyler are confronted with the probability that like millions of other Americans, medical bills will catapult them into bankruptcy.
Walt’s brother-in-law, Hank, is a DEA agent and one day invites Walt to join him for a ride-along so that he might educate Walt in the process of apprehending drug dealers. Walt is reluctant to accept Hank’s invitation, but the wheels in Walt’s head begin to turn, especially as the bills for chemotherapy pile up. One day, Walt joins Hank on a ride-along as Hank and his crew take down a couple of meth dealers and destroy their lab. While Walt is waiting in the car for the DEA contingent to return from their conquest, out of an upstairs window of the meth house falls Jesse Pinkman, one of Walt’s former chemistry students. And now another type of chemistry congeals as Walt approaches Jesse with the prospect of the two of them manufacturing and distributing some “crystal blue persuasion,” culminating in one of Breaking Bad’s classic lines, “Let’s cook.”
Meanwhile, Elliott Schwartz and wife Gretchen, offer to pay for Walt’s cancer treatment. Deceptively telling Skyler that this is happening, but secretly declining the Schwartz’s offer, Walt launches his meth empire with Jessie. What ensues are four more seasons of everything that usually happens with underworld enterprises and the families knowingly or unknowingly involved with them—mayhem, greed, burgeoning addiction, destroyed marriages, soul murder, and hollowed out lives. Eventually, Walt confesses his empire to Skyler who, already the mother of teenage Walt Jr. with daughter Holly on the way, chooses to remain in the marriage and enable Walt by laundering money in a car wash they have purchased for that specific purpose. Certainly, by the end of the series, Skyler is one of the most tragic psychological casualties of Walt, and we are left wondering if she has any possibility of getting her life back. Walt’s cancer goes into remission but returns toward the end of the series.
Episodes may be watched at Breaking Bad’s official website, and I highly recommend viewing them for a more detailed study of a cast of superbly fascinating characters.
Creating Meth Or Myth?
As Ryan McGee notes, “Walt’s true skill isn’t the creation of meth, it’s the creation of myth. It’s all about the story lines that favor him, allow him to dominate or neutralize criticisms of him.” Does this ring any bells?
In Breaking Bad, the “White House” like the actual White House in Washington, DC is the spawning ground for domination and an infinite obsession with creating and maintaining a death machine that serves no one but the engineers and enablers of that empire.
In “Walter White’s Sickness Mirrors America,” David Sirota asks, “What makes the show so historically important?” His answer:
Maybe Breaking Bad has ascended to the cult firmament because it so perfectly captures the specific pressures and ideologies that make America exceptional at the very moment the country is itself breaking bad.
Walter White is all about hubris and delusionally drowning in one’s own teflon exceptionalism. He did not need to establish a meth empire in order to pay for his treatment, but it was never about the money. It was about power, control, and ego-gratification. It was about dominating people and things and engineering and winning myriad pissing contests with his dark-skinned cartel competitors.
Colin McEnroe in “Breaking Bad: Walter White Must Be Punished—America, Finally Needs To See Someone Pay,” argues that “There’s something in Walt’s self-righteous tone and his indifference to the little people who get hurt that we recognize from today’s news…At a macro level, he’s a stand-in for all the Wall Street guys who crashed your 401K and were never punished.”
R.J. Eskow says that “In many ways, Walter White is a quintessentially modern American CEO.” The number one character who “embodied more than any other: the 1 percent, and his insatiable drive to be part of it.”
“It’s all there,” says Eskow, “the ego, entitlement, the testosterone-fueled drive to come out on top, and the sense that money, not character or relationships, defines a person’s worth. Above all else, there’s the sense that even the most venal and criminal of enterprises becomes enabling when your earn lots of money for it.”
In addition, we have in Walter White the stereotypical distortion of good become evil. When Jesse asks Walt why he wants to get involved in the meth business, Walt answers, “I am awake.” A line from Buddha, of course, but Walter is hardly awake in any sense that has to do with the values of the ancient sage. “Awake” to power, control, and criminally acquiring more money than your grandchildren’s children can spend is as comatose and unconscious as it gets. Nothing could be more ironic than his middle name; clearly, his heart is not well, and Breaking Bad lays out in lavender how he lost it while riding his meth gravy train.
Of course, as with many CEO’s and the architects and engineers of empire, Walt incessantly asserted that all his crimes were done for the sake of his family and that anyone who did not understand that had no moral compass at all. And so it is that empires are fueled by similar delusions and egregious, vehement declarations that conquest, resource extraction, and mass murder are for the greater good, and furthermore, anyone who disagrees is a terrorist.
In the final episode, Walt finally confesses to Skyler, “I did it for me; I liked it; I was good at it; it made me feel alive.” There you have it. Is there a more succinct summary of the vapid psyche of the economic and political emperor?
Yet Breaking Bad did not ignore the reality that women are often key players in empire-building. Yes, Skyler is a poster child for enabling and standing by her man, but Lydia is a high-rolling entrepreneur who moves meth not just around the Land of Enchantment but all over the world. A complex character who is always obsessing about her health and drinking only chamomile tea with soy milk and Stevia, Lydia is both the doting mother of one little girl and a monumental barrier standing in the way of Walt’s ownership of the Albuquerque meth business. No wonder his ricin finds its way into a package of Stevia on Lydia’s table, and she dies from, in Walt’s words, “that crap you put in your tea.”
The development of Vince Gilligan’s characters in Breaking Bad is pure genius, and admittedly, Walter is a complicated human being. Clearly, many people identify with him for any number of bogus reasons that avoid the most difficult one to admit: the fundamental tendency with which we are all inculcated in industrial civilization, namely the quest for power and that “aliveness” that Walt felt while breaking bad. Walter White shows us where following that tendency ultimately leads—to personal and collective demise. Or in the words of Vince Gilligan, “Walter had cancer, and then he became a cancer.”
In the end, Walt dies on the floor of all he has left in the world besides a few dollars—a giant meth lab. No wife, no kids, no friends. Just bottles and beakers and lots of lung cancer. It’s the end that all empires come to and that few emperors escape. The death machine, whether drug-induced or drone-enforced eventually dies by its own hand, but not before scorching the earth and shattering innumerable lives.
We have long since forsaken the good guy in the white hat character so prevalent in 1950s movies and television dramas. Sixty years later it’s the anti-hero who mesmerizes us. Yet he mirrors the parts of ourselves that we reject in an image-intoxicated culture. Walter the “not-white” stands in for us in our refusal to confront the darkness in ourselves and in our culture, and all the while we fail to deal with the Walter in our own psyches, hence opening ourselves to utter economic, political, and social domination by the “chemists” of civilization who constantly sell us “crystal blue persuasion.” No wonder we can’t stop watching Breaking Bad.
“Could You Just For Once Stop Working Me?”
Admittedly, I have one favorite character of all the gems in Breaking Bad, and that would be Jesse. He’s seen it all, having witnessed the death of friends and his own dreams amid the tragic human wreckage wrought by his participation in the meth business. As the symbolic “son” of Walter, Jesse and Walt’s relationship mirrors the Chronos myth in which the father devours his child—eats him alive without remorse. Finally, Jesse realizes that everything Walt has done or said in their relationship was all about Walt, and Jesse screams, “Could you just for once stop working me?” Yet in the end, Jesse lives when everyone else around him is dead. He steps over the dead bodies and blasts out of his literal and symbolic dungeon. We want to believe that from there, Jesse will go find Brock, the little boy that Walt tried to poison, and we can even hope that Jesse will end up back at that Narcotics Anonymous meeting where he originally went to sell meth. Perhaps not, but Vince Gilligan has left us with that possibility in the final episode.
In a sense, we are all Jesse. We have bought into the paradigm and drunk the Kool Aid repeatedly. It has taken us to hell and back several times, and now, we can choose to spend the rest of our lives walking away from empire and extricating it from our bodies and minds, or we can keep giving a pass to the Walters of the world. They do not protect us from danger, but like Walter White, if they are honest, must confess that they are the danger. Empire will “work us” until we refuse to participate. Unless we do, we too become the danger.