WAY BACK AT THE BEGINNING of Breaking Bad, before we all became addicted to watching his ultraviolent escapades, Walter White stumbled enigmatically onto the small screen wearing just tighty whities and a gas mask. He hyperventilates, his gaze darting around the New Mexico desert like a small rodent caught in the open. A siren sounds in the distance, driving Walt back into his wrecked RV where he pries a gun from a corpse on the floor, shoves it in his underwear, and grabs a camcorder from the glove compartment. Emerging back into the harsh New Mexico sunlight, he aims the camera shakily at himself: “There are going to be some things that you’ll come to learn about me in the next few days,” he says, addressing his wife and son, but “no matter how it may look, I only had you in my heart.”
Tonight Breaking Bad returns to AMC for its final eight episodes. We’ve come to learn many things about Walt over the last five years, including how he wound up half naked in the desert, but I think we’re still trying to figure out what is really in his heart. On the surface, Walt appears to pursue power and money for the protection of his family with a cold and calculated rationality. His actions seem to make sense. On closer inspection, however, Walt’s motives begin to appear paradoxical, as his simultaneous desires for power and family intertwine and compete until they are literally at cross purposes. As a result, Walt’s intentions and emotions remain unreadable.
With Tony Soprano, we always knew why he did what he did — a mere glance from James Gandolfini would tell us when Tony’s anger was taking over at the helm. But we can’t similarly get inside Walt’s head. Walt is never subject singly to any one desire, so he seems to choose his own motivations, as if he’s free not only to decide what to do next, but to control what desires will shape his very character. A version of Nietzsche’s superman, Walt is the American ideal of self-determined individualism taken to a terrifying extreme.
Diagnosed with cancer and unable to pay his bills, Walt reinvents himself as a brutal drug lord, using his skills as a high-school chemistry teacher to cook higher-quality (and bluer) crystal meth than anyone on the street has ever seen. Breaking Bad’s creator Vince Gilligan says he wanted to tell a story that would turn Mr. Chips into Scarface. By itself, such an exploration of human mutability would be an admirable artistic project: in a world where we all too easily demonize others because of political, racial and religious differences, we need reminders that everyone has the potential to act monstrously, including ourselves. The radical degree of freedom with which Walt recreates his own identity, however, makes a far deeper claim about what it means to behave badly in the modern world. Walt’s power to transform his basic character, the extremity of his self-determination, calls into question, I would argue, our foundational notions about good and evil.
In a New York Times Magazine profile, Gilligan admits to a need for “biblical atonement, or justice, or something” for crimes like Walt’s. Many fans and critics of the show similarly embrace the language of sin and evil in their understanding of Walter White. Walt’s continuing ability to determine who and what he will be, though, belies such biblical, moralizing conclusions. His identity remains mutable, making it impossible to pigeonhole him into metaphysical moral categories of good or evil. In a world where we all determine who we will be, there’s no reason to believe people are essentially good or evil — at the most there are good or evil effects of our actions, and often there are both. Walt’s freedom thus threatens to corrode the very idea of moral personhood just as decisively as he dissolves his murder victims’ bodies in hydrofluoric acid. So, as Breaking Bad’s final episodes unfold, expect to wrestle with a question more usually associated with philosophy seminars than with primetime TV: in our increasingly secular, individualistic age, how can we find ways to hold on to ideas of right and wrong?
In casting Bryan Cranston as Walter White, Gilligan picked an actor whose career arc dovetails uncannily with his character. For seven seasons on Malcolm in the Middle, Cranston played a likeable milquetoast of a modern father, a subservient husband whose rebellious younger days lie far behind him. As Walt morphs from such a family man himself into a power-hungry killer, Cranston’s acting subtly conveys how both identities continue to inform all of Walt’s actions. With potently ambiguous expressions and body language, Cranston refuses to show us the inner life that Gandolfini doled out so generously, and we are as in the dark about Walt’s true intentions as someone he is about to murder. Perhaps the most enjoyable (and disturbing) part of the show is trying to decipher what’s going on behind Walt’s craggy visage.
Let me tease out one particularly important example. In the second-season episode called “Over,” Walt’s cancer enters remission and the family celebrates. Walt, the teenaged Walter Jr., and Walt’s DEA agent brother-in-law Hank sit by the pool with a bottle of tequila. Dazzled as ever by his macho uncle, Walter Jr. attends closely to Hank’s story about a giant tortoise crossing the desert with a human head on its back. Rigged by a Mexican drug cartel, the tortoise explodes once it reaches a circle of DEA agents, and Hank explains that this was the cartel’s way of sending a message: the head belonged to a snitch named Tortuga. Groping for the word “symbolic,” Hanks turns to Walt, the brains of the family. “It’s not a metaphor, not an analogy, it’s a, Walt, what’s the word I’m looking for?” he asks. Walt glares silently ahead, and Hank settles for “poetic,” repeating the word softly to himself. As he refills their shot glasses, Walt contemplates his 16-year-old son’s cup, tosses its no doubt benign contents in the yard, and fills it with tequila.
Walter Jr. smiles sheepishly at his uncle, then looks at his dad for direction. “Go ahead,” Walt intones. They knock back their shots, Walter Jr. coughs, and Hank pats him companionably on the back. Walt studies the glasses for a moment, then refills all three. When Hank starts to protest, Walter Jr. glances hesitantly at his uncle, and Walt snaps at his son, “What are you looking at him for? We’re celebrating.” So Walt and Walter Jr. drink again, and Walt moves to refill the glasses once more. Hank covers Walter Jr.’s with his hand, but Walt pours anyway, splashing tequila across Hank’s fingers. Hank grabs the bottle and stomps away, trying to return the situation to normalcy — “I think we been Bogartin’ this puppy long enough.”
Still seated, his voice low, Walt grinds out, “Bring the bottle back.” Hank remains where he is, and Walt shoots to his feet, the two men locking eyes. “My son, my bottle, my house,” Walt barks. The camera hovers over Hank’s shoulder, watching Walt’s face, his head tilted forward, his eyes staring up. “The bottle. Now.” We have seen Walt’s murderous side before, but never in his own home, and Walt’s family has to be wondering who this man is. Hank puts a hand on Walt’s shoulder, but Walt smacks it away and steps closer, his face now ominously filling the screen. Suddenly, Walt Jr. vomits, and the tension diffuses. While Hank and Walt’s wife Skyler look after the boy, Walt sits calmly down to sip another shot. His mouth flirts with a self-satisfied grin, but his lips don’t quite make it there, flickering like a bad fluorescent light between grin, grimace, and a neutral expression as cold as an EKG flatline.
“That for which we find words is already dead in our hearts,” Nietzsche wrote, and I don’t think words can adequately express the complex emotions we see on Walt’s face. We can of course guess why Walt insists that his coddled son drink the liquor and attacks Hank for intervening. Walt’s intoxicated himself, and he’s simultaneously elated and disappointed at surviving cancer. He also despises Hank for not figuring out his secret identity (while being relieved at the same time), and, more importantly, he hates Hank for being a better father figure for Walter Jr. Finally, Walt wants to exercise the same control within his family that he does in his drug business, and he wants both his son and Hank to know the kind of power he wields in the outside world. These complex motivations, however, conflict violently with one another. Walt exalts in fooling Hank by momentarily revealing the vicious side of his secret identity, threatening to blow his own cover, just as he celebrates beating cancer by abusing the family he didn’t want to leave behind, just as he tries to reclaim and un-coddle Walter Jr. by doing him harm. The power Walt has discovered to protect and enrich his family thus works precisely and paradoxically by tearing his family apart. Walt’s motivation seems to erase itself, and this, I think, renders it ultimately inexplicable. Nevertheless, Walt’s flickering expression makes it undeniably clear that Walt feels his reasons for acting, even if we can’t quite make sense of them.
In the essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” T.S. Eliot calls Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy an “artistic failure” because, he argues, Hamlet’s emotional response to his situation exceeds the reality dramatized within the play. Instead of single-mindedly seeking revenge on his murderous uncle and complicit mother, Hamlet dithers and devolves into half-mad speeches, before the play takes a sharp turn and ends with a body-strewn stage. Eliot thinks the angst that delays Hamlet’s revenge transcends any of its possible motivations and that as a result neither we, nor Hamlet, nor even Shakespeare can quite comprehend Hamlet’s actions. The Danish Prince, Eliot writes, is “dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear.” Walt’s motivations similarly exceed “the facts as they appear,” but rather than making Breaking Bad (or Hamlet) an artistic failure, these inexpressible, conflicting emotions make Walt seem alive, a breathing, thinking individual onscreen. Hamlet says “I have that within which passeth show,” and Cranston’s acting, with its acknowledgment of the multifarious and self-contradictory impulses that lie behind a single expression, similarly implies that, even if he wanted to, Walt couldn’t come clean to his family. Walt assures Skyler and Walter Jr. that he only had them in his heart, but Nietzsche warns us that words can never capture what we truly feel inside.
The inaccessibility of Walt’s inner life has serious consequences for his self-determination. Last year, Michelle Kuo and Albert Wu argued in the Los Angeles Review of Books that, like Milton’s Satan, Walt chooses to become evil and invite divine retribution. The Satan of Paradise Lost claims to choose how he sees the world — “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav’n of Hell,” he says, so reminiscent of Hamlet’s “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” But Satan ultimately experiences the world that God created, and his choices serve the demands of a plot that God, as divine author, foreordained. Satan’s really not so different from sitcom characters who are subjected to the demand for comedic situations. Walt, in contrast, exceeds the situations in which he finds himself. His mind truly is “its own place,” set back from the world around him, as impenetrable and irreducible as Kurtz’s “the horror” in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This extreme subjectivity opens a space for Walt to author himself. In the show’s first episode, when Jesse asks why Walt decided to “break bad,” Walt responds, simply, “I’m awake.” Walt’s become aware that he can abandon his middle-class, middle-age life story and start over in medias res. He’s awoken to the fact that he can rewrite his own script as his story unfolds.
Walt’s freedom to reinvent himself comes from his sudden discovery, rather like Dorothy with her ruby slippers, that he’s long had the power to write and rewrite the world around him in spectacular ways. Most obviously, his mastery of chemistry gives him an immediate advantage in the criminal underworld. In the very first episode, two drug dealers invade Walt’s mobile meth lab. They plan to kill him, but they want to learn his meth recipe first and foolishly let him handle chemicals. As Walt explains to his protégé Jesse: “Red phosphorous in the presence of moisture and accelerated by heat yields phosphorous hydride. Phosphine gas. One good whiff and — poof.” And poof go the drug dealers. Four episodes later, in “Gray Matter,” we learn that in grad school Walt was “the master of crystallography,” using synchrotron radiation to obtain “purer and more complete patterns” of how substances are composed. As a dealer, Walt leverages this expertise to build his empire on a “purer” crystal meth than anyone else can manufacture, turning the chemical formulae and crystal patterns he used to write on his high-school chalkboard into real-world weapons and hard-core drugs.
A born scientist, Walt also sees human beings through chemistry’s lens. A flashback in “And the Bag’s in the River” shows Walt in grad school with his romantic interest Gretchen. They’re alone in a classroom, and he displays a lost vitality and vulnerability as he and Gretchen discuss the human body’s chemical composition. Walking to the chalkboard, Walt says, “Let’s break it down” — while present-day Walt is busy decomposing a drug dealer’s body in hydrofluoric acid. Reversing the dealer’s disintegration, flashback Walt composes a human being by writing elemental symbols — C, H, O, etc. — much the way the Br of bromine helps compose the words “Bryan Cranston” in the opening credits. When he’s finished writing, Walt tells Gretchen, “The whole thing adds up to 99.888042 percent … We are .111958 percent shy … There’s got to be more to a human being than that.” Gretchen proposes that the missing element might be the human soul, but Walt scoffs, leaning flirtatiously over her: “The soul? There’s nothing but chemistry here.” Even in one of his most tender, humane moments, he declares that he can fully understand humanity through chemical equations.
But just as Walt romantically doubles the meaning of “chemistry” in his flirtation with Gretchen, his choice of Heisenberg as his alias acknowledges that words and actions are ambiguous. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle dictates that we can’t determine a particle’s exact position and velocity simultaneously, and Walt clearly enjoys the implication that he, as Heisenberg, likewise can’t be understood through external observation, as we and the other characters in the drama are viewing him. His adopted name emphasizes the unpredictability that allows him to freely rewrite his own identity. By adopting an alias that points to the limitations of knowledge and interpretation, however, Walt also unintentionally suggests the possibility that his chemical equations can’t completely explain and control the people and events around him. If his own words and actions are ambiguous, other people are free to interpret him as they will and to write their own life stories in ways that Walt can’t predict.
As a short story writer, Skyler is the one with the talent for manipulating words, but her efforts to understand and gain some control over her life through language similarly go astray. At the start of his life as Heisenberg, Walt covers up his drug dealing and emotional distance by claiming that he’s been smoking marijuana. Trying to figure out if she’s being played, Skyler asks her sister Marie if pot can change someone’s mood. Skyler assures Marie that she is “strictly asking about a story that I am writing,” but Marie, too, wonders if she is being played and interprets Skyler’s question as an indication that Walter Jr. is smoking dope. Marie tells Hank, who thinks he can’t be played when Walter Jr. denies smoking pot, and he takes the kid on a tour of the dark side of town, where they meet a prostitute who is, coincidentally, a friend and accomplice of Walt’s partner Jesse. As fiction and reality raggedly overlap in this comedy of errors, the stories that characters tell to understand and order their lives can be easily misinterpreted by others, who inevitably set off their own unpredictable chains of events.
In the face of such unpredictability, Walt desperately wants to control his life story as precisely as the chemicals in his meth lab, but his words betray him. On some level he knows he cannot control others, and that knowledge fuels his desperation. In “The Fly,” Breaking Bad’s most overtly ruminative episode, Walt wonders if he can find a way out of the deep mess he’s in. “I truly believe there exists some combination of words,” he tells Jesse. “There must exist certain words in a certain specific order that would explain all of this. I just can’t ever seem to find them.” Walt thinks that if he can discover a sequence of words as perfectly ordered as the crystal patterns he discovered in grad school, he can justify all his actions to Skyler and repair his broken family — perhaps even alter the unalterable wrongs he has done. But Nietzsche’s warning about language comes to mind once more: words can’t capture what we truly feel, and we can’t control how others will hear even the most perfect story we might tell.
So it is fitting that literature, in the end, looks like it will prove Walt’s downfall. When last we saw him, in the episode “Gliding Over All,” Hank was sitting on the toilet, finding Walt’s copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. After five years of searching, the answer to the riddle of the blue meth falls right into Hank’s lap: he opens the book and reads an inscription that connects Walt with Heisenberg. “Gliding Over All” is also a Whitman poem that aptly concludes with the line “Death, many deaths I’ll sing,” pointing to the multitudes that Walt and his near-perfect meth have already killed and the additional victims we can expect in the final eight episodes. That Hank, who once dubbed an exploding tortoise “poetic,” uncovers Walt’s secret in a volume of Walt Whitman’s poetry ironically emphasizes once again the severe limits of Walt’s ability to author himself. Walt has discovered a radical kind of freedom, but this freedom does not prevent others from intervening in his life story, perhaps even bringing it to a catastrophic conclusion.
Writing for Grantland, Chuck Klosterman says that in Breaking Bad “morality is a continually personal choice.” But Klosterman resists the implications of such choice by claiming that “at some point [Walt] decided to become bad,” as if at that unspecified moment Walt chose to stop choosing, solidifying instead into a statically evil character. James Meek and Emily Nussbaum, in the London Review of Books and The New Yorker, similarly rely on essentializing language about heroes and villains to explain the show, reducing Walt to a stereotypical bad guy straight out of an old western. And reaching a bit wider, Kuo and Wu claim that in Breaking Bad’s “moral universe […] metaphysical truth exists,” while Gilligan himself admits what many viewers must also feel, a transcendent “human desire for wrongdoers to be punished.”
But if these critics all agree that Walt chooses how he will behave, and in so doing chooses who he will be, then he can’t choose to become stuck in a static role as a villain. There are no such static roles, Breaking Bad implies, no metaphysical categories of good and evil, only continual choice and personal becoming. Hank’s discovery of Leaves of Grass might feel like a deus ex machina manifestation of Breaking Bad’s “moral universe,” but in the world of the story it merely signals that Walt has become so confident and comfortable in his criminality that he leaves a damning book sitting in plain sight. And if Walt gets his expected comeuppance in the final eight episodes, it will be the result of contingent human actions by himself and others, not some foreordained karmic payback. Once we define human experience as individual and free, that is, Breaking Bad warns us that we can’t retreat into quasi-religious categories of good and evil to wish punishment on the people who scare us. Self-determination means that no one can be essentially good or evil, and this in turn precludes any kind of metaphysical punishment.
If biblical categories of good and evil no longer apply in Breaking Bad, or in a culture like ours that’s similarly built around the irreducibility of individual experience, does any space remain for moral judgment? The show, I think, tries to find a way to answer yes. Breaking Bad insists that we look directly at the violent consequences of Walt’s choices: it depicts the suffering and deaths he causes in all their brutal reality, be it the strangulation of a murderous drug dealer or the unplanned shooting of an innocent boy who happens to ride his bike in the desert on the wrong day. Watching Walt and some of his associates try to minimize or suppress their own gut-wrenching reactions to the death of a child only invites us as viewers to feel it for them. And by rejecting the safe categories of good and evil with which we usually make sense of human actions, Breaking Bad urges us to use such visceral reactions to violence to judge Walt in the here and now, without deferring to divine retribution. At the end of Heart of Darkness, Marlow refuses to tell Kurtz’s fiancée what really happened in the jungle because “it would have been too dark — too dark altogether.” Breaking Bad chooses to show us the pain and devastation, all the darkest things that come from human freedom. How this experience shapes our hearts is up to us.
Andrew Lanham is a DPhil student in English literature at Oxford University, where he is a Rhodes Scholar.