When Vince Gilligan pitched Breaking Bad to AMC, he presented a rather unoriginal mission statement: he would turn Mr. Chips into Scarface (Nussbaum). The show’s protagonist was Walter White, an everyman high school chemistry teacher with a pretty wife, a teenage son with epilepsy, and a baby on the way. Owing to Gilligan’s monumental spoiler, Walter becomes a meth kingpin who in the final season has no reserves murdering his partner at odds or a dozen of prison inmates. Much like his cancer that initiates his change, the saga of Heisenberg—the alias for his badass on-field self—is a chronological one with a definite start and an end. The director’s initial vision of the show of Mr. Chips into Scarface, however, simplifies the characters of Walter the chemistry teacher and Heisenberg. (I take joy in disagreeing on a piece of art with the authority of the creator. The capability for varying interpretations corroborates the artwork’s standalone status as a masterpiece.) These two personas are more than their places on a moral scale; looking to Jean-Paul Sartre clarifies how these two characters are similar in denying the human will to freedom.
Those who hide from this total freedom, in a guise of solemnity or with deterministic excuses, I shall call cowards. Others, who try to show that their existence is necessary, when it is merely an accident of the appearance of the human race on earth – I shall call bastard. (Sartre)
Both the coward and the bastard are those that do not will freedom; the coward denies it for himself, whereas the bastard for others. Walter White has changed from a pushover coward, then a condemned freeman, to a domineering bastard, although his development has been more erratic than linear. To better understand Walter White as a character, we must look to the Pilot episode, which features all of the personas mentioned. (Gilligan)
In the beginning of the series, we see Walter living a caricature of the American dream—a decent job, a car, a reasonable house, and a family. Todd VanDerWerff argues that his life is not so bad: “He has a pretty wife and nice house. He has a loving son and a baby on the way. Above all, he has friends and people who care about him, a community of loved ones, just waiting to help him out if need be” (VanDerWerff). This critic fails to see the underlying frustrations within Walter, sometimes worsened by this exact contradiction between what he should feel, and what he actually feels about his life.
The chronologically first scene of the show is of him waking up in the middle of the night. Even though his wife Skyler is sleeping in the room, his wake is quiet and lonely. He does not light the other room he walks into fully; perhaps, he fears that Skyler will wake and get mad, citing the books that she read on baby care about the mother’s sleep. He exercises on the stepping machine, and heads over to a wall of the room, still dark. A plaque commemorating his contribution to a Nobel Prize hangs in the nursery, and we then know the poorly paid high-school chemistry teacher is also a genius in hiding. The glamorous plaque, his past potential and the future imagined, stands in comparison with the low-grade exercise machine, the modest, impotent reality of the present.
Next morning, we see a shot of a plate with veggie bacons spelling 50. It’s Walter’s 50th birthday. It would not surprise if his wake in the night were because he was facing that unique age, half of hundred, considered by many to be the middle of your life. “Turning 50 is a big deal,” Skyler says later in the episode. At his mid-life checkpoint, he perhaps saw the exercise machine and the plaque on the wall, thought about what he could have done and did not do, and struggled with these contradictions.
The writers then give a glimpse of more frustrations of Walter than just wasted potential. Walter works two jobs to support his pregnant wife Skyler and his handicapped son Walt Jr. His ugly, brown Pontiac Aztek is falling apart. A day at the car wash is arguing with Bogdan, reluctantly agreeing, and cleaning cars, a task that Walter’s job does not entail. His students make fun of him and his son. His brother-in-law doesn’t respect him. His wife is domineering. In other words, Walter is a pathetic figure, with no agency in his own life. “Get a little excitement in your life, would ya?” says his brother-in-law, referring to his lack of vitality that we sensed from seeing a day of his life. By Sartre’s definition, he is a coward “in a guise of solemnity”—the first time he genuinely smiles on the show is when he is describing the chemical equipment to Jesse—and “with deterministic excuses,” as he does not will to change his undesirable lifestyle. Later in the show we learn that he blames his pathetic life on the Gretchens, his colleagues that supposedly stole his genius. A man has the freedom to choose, to pursue, to take ownership of his actions. To exempt oneself from this human duty is to live in bad faith, and thus his pre-defined essence imposes himself onto the world as the object rather than the subject. A human being has the capability to define existence before essence, but Walter’s inability to act as subject is limiting his potential.
While working at the car wash, Walter faints; he is taken to the hospital, scanned, and diagnosed of inoperable lung cancer. Walter is put on a death sentence, and thus awake in front of this certainty. It takes Albert Camus to understand the awakening of the condemned man.
Death is there as the only reality. After death the chips are down… But at the same time the absurd man realizes that hitherto he was bound to that postulate of freedom on the illusion of which he was living… Thus I could not act otherwise than as the father (or the engineer or the leader of a nation, or the post-office sub-clerk) that I am preparing to be… Thus the absurd man realizes that he was not really free… But [losing oneself in that bottomless certainty] takes the place of the illusions of freedom, which all stopped with death. The divine availability of the condemned man before whom the prison doors open in a certain early dawn, that unbelievable disinterestedness with regard to everything except for the pure flame of life—it is clear that death and the absurd are here the principles of the only reasonable freedom: that which a human heart can experience and live. (59 – 60, Camus)
His supposed death sentence reaffirmed his belief that he was confined within a shell that he forged for himself. And just as he forged those shells with his bare hands, he broke them down himself; cancer was simply a catalyst. Not only is cancer a self-derived disease, but Walter’s musings in the past few days also line up too perfect with the diagnosis. Even before he finds out about cancer, Marie and Skyler discuss how he has been “Quieter than usual,” and Marie—though most of her comments in the show are destined to be comical—suggests that he may have a “mid-life crisis.” The change was gradually built up; the recognition of the absurdity followed by diagnosis of cancer was no coincidence in this fictional world.
It is not to say that Walter is absolutely free after certainty of death, for there is no absolute freedom without assurance of eternity. If death was so certain and full freedom not guaranteed, what would motivate him to live fully? It seems that our protagonist had similar thoughts as well; he comes home after the diagnosis and dramatically quitting his second job, and sits next to the pool. The place is gray and barren, almost too stereotypically existentialist; the leaves are scattered, the pool water grotesque with a floating layer of junk. He is sitting on a black chair, and lighting a match on fire, one by one, and throwing them into the pool. The match is colorful, bright, but short-lived at the hands of Mr. White. He sees himself, or the man at grips with the absurdity of the world, in this match. Both are objects of fate, inevitable termination of existence. Yet after it escapes its confined box, the match burns bright, and so should Walter; he must seek the pure flame of life to will the only reasonable freedom that a human heart can experience. Thus, he reconsiders his past illusions of freedom, such as his role as a father, or safety of inaction. All his past choices are also redefined in light of his temporal existence. Then he makes the call of visiting the meth lab to his brother-in-law, his commitment to venture, and the first important action he takes to change his life.
At the gates of his future drug partner’s house, he says, “It’s me. I’m alone,” as the validation of his entry literally for the house but also for the meth business. He is now an awakened individual, a source of spontaneous creation. He alone can define what the pure flame of life is, and he alone can choose to pursue that flame. His pseudonym Heisenberg is from the physicist whose uncertainty principle expresses the idea that the presence of an observer changes the nature of what is observed (Scott). To him, he is the most important observer of the world. He knows only what he observed with certainty, and therefore no longer lets others define the world for himself. The pursuit of chemistry becomes his flame of life. Even during their first cook, he tells his partner Jesse, “You and I, we will not make garbage. We will make a pure, chemically stable product.” Entering the meth business was supposedly for the family, but Walter feels the presence of meaning in doing what he was good at. He forges the world around him the way he envisions it.
There is a fine line between being an awakened man and a bastard, however. Once a coward wakes and realizes the possibility for his strengthened independence, he may see desire defining the world for others as well. This man is to create meaning by taking it from others, a streak of vengeance from his days of cowardice. Perhaps this is why a meth kingpin will always be a bastard; in his lifestyle, he must necessitate his existence rather than acknowledge the empty reality—the existentialist starting point of God is dead—of the world.
Given this definition of the bastard, I disagree with Camus’s notion of the meaning of life in an awakened man’s universe,
But what does life mean in such a universe? Nothing else for the moment but indifference to the future and a desire to use up everything that is given.” (60, Camus)
While the search for pure flame of life may use up everything that is given, one must tread lightly in a world where every human being is inevitably connected; Sartre elaborates upon the implications of willing freedom.
Consequently, when I recognise, as entirely authentic, that man is a being whose existence precedes his essence, and that he is a free being who cannot, in any circumstances, but will his freedom, at the same time I realize that I cannot not will the freedom of others. (Sartre)
The contents of morality differ for each person, but when he denies others of their freedom through murder or forced obedience, he is a bastard.
Despite his ugly growth from a coward to a bastard and egregious criminal activities, some of us still loved him all the way throughout, a phenomenon that even Vince Gilligan did not predict (A Conversation with the Breaking Bad Cast). Emily Nussbaum explains by writing that the show “increases that cognitive dissonance, turning some viewers into not merely fans but enablers” (Nussbaum). This show, however, seems to be more than living vicariously through a bad boy we can’t possibly be. By tossing us into the world of Walter where morality exists on a subjective level and accurately portraying that world as to allow near-complete empathy, the creators have challenged us to define our moral criteria for ourselves. Is it alright if he cooks methamphetamine, but does not hurt anyone? How about killing a dozen inmates versus a child, or even an employee of a drug empire? When Walter makes a choice in these situations, we make a choice as well. Through these decisions we are reinforced of the idea that the world is ours to forge; only we can decide for ourselves to build a drug empire or found a multimillion-dollar chemical company.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. N.p.: Vintage, 2012. Print.
“A Conversation with the Breaking Bad Cast.” TimesTalks. The New York Times. 30 July 2013. TimesTalks. The New York Times, 30 July 2013. Web. 15 Dec. 2013.
Gilligan, Vince. “Pilot.” Breaking Bad. Dir. Vince Gilligan. Prod. Karen Moore. AMC. AMC, 20 Jan. 2008. Television.
Nussbaum, Emily. “Child’s Play.” The New Yorker. Condé Nast, 17 Aug. 2012. Web. 15 Dec. 2013.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism Is a Humanism.” Lecture. Existentialism Is a Humanism. Club Maintenat, Paris. 29 Oct. 1946. Marxists.org. Web. 15 Dec. 2013.
Scott, A. O. “How Walter White Found His Inner Sociopath.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 24 July 2013. Web. 15 Dec. 2013.
VanDerWerff, Todd. “Breaking Bad Ended the Anti-hero Genre by Introducing Good and Evil.” The A.V. Club. The Onion, 30 Sept. 2013. Web. 15 Dec. 2013.
Special Mention: Reddit, the front page of the internet, for the inspiration.