Walter Hartwell White, an (exceedingly) overqualified middle-aged high school chemistry teacher, despite never having smoked, is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer on his 50th birthday. Sorely lacking the financial resources to see to it that his wife, handicapped teenage son, and unborn daughter are cared for upon his death, Walt deploys his genius and skill toward the end of manufacturing—“cooking”—methamphetamine.
Along with a former student, Jesse Pinkman, Walt begins to cook meth.
Within about a year or so, Walt metamorphoses from an unassuming family man into a ruthless, murderous drug kingpin with a net worth of $80 million.
Few samples of popular culture are as philosophically rich as the television series Breaking Bad (BB).
Metaphysics and BB: The Nature of Change
The creator of BB, Vince Gilligan, has said that his aim was to invert the traditional television convention of character stasis by making change the engine of his series. BB “brings fundamental transformation of its main character. To that end, the mandate here has always been [to] take our hero and turn him into a bad guy throughout the life of the series.”
But what is change?
(1)From its inception, among the battery of problems to which Western philosophers have fastened their attention is that regarding the relationship between permanence and change.
This has been treated as a philosophical problem because while our shared intuitions demand that we acknowledge the reality of both permanence and change, the two are contraries: Permanence, after all, seems to be synonymous with changelessness, and change identical to impermanence. At one and the same moment, change seems to both undercut and presuppose identity: To say that X has changed is to imply that the object to which the change has occurred is still, somehow, the same object. Still, change equally implies that the thing changed is no longer what it once was.
The paradoxical nature of change has lead philosophers to explore various theories of personal identity, and some philosophers to deny that change is real at all!
The ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides argued that change must be illusory. His argument went something like this:
There are but three options, three possible ways of describing any thing:
(a) It is;
(b) It is not; and
(c) It is and it is not.
However, when we examine each of these options carefully, what we discover is that only (a) is logically possible, for (b) and (c) both refer to what is not. The problem here is that what is not is, quite literally, nothing. And nothing is inconceivable: We can neither think nor speak of nothing.
Now, change, Parmenides believed, necessarily refers to what is not, for whatever changes is not what it once was and is not yet what it will become. But what is not is nothing, and nothing is inconceivable. Therefore, change is inconceivable.
Permanence, meaning changelessness, is the only reality.
From such atomists as Democritus and Leucippus to more notable thinkers like Aristotle and beyond, philosophers have rejected Parmenides conclusion by rejecting his premise that change inescapably refers to nothingness. Aristotle, for instance, contended that change is a process by which a “something”—the subject’s potentiality for change—is actualized. This conception of change was subsequently endorsed by many medieval Christian thinkers, particularly the Aristotelian par excellence and “Angelic Doctor” of the Roman Catholic Church, Thomas Aquinas.
Within this vision of change, we can say that if Walter White truly changed from one kind of person into another—i.e. his criminal alter ego, “Heisenberg”—then this could only be because the latter already existed potentially within him.
Still, the actualization of one potentiality extinguishes the actuality that it replaces. For example, a piece of steel that has been lying in the snow for hours is actually cold. It is, however, potentially hot. Once that actually cold piece of steel is held over a fire, it changes from being potentially hot to being actually hot. But this necessarily means that it is no longer actually cold (though it now is potentially cold).
Change, as the philosopher Michael Oakeshott has said, is “an emblem of death.” Change extinguishes that which it affects. For this reason, it elicits from us the same range of responses that death itself invites: excitement, anxiety, grief. So, if, as Vince Gilligan thinks, his hero, Walter White, changes into a villain, Heisenberg, it is still the case that, in some very real sense, Walt has died.
But is this what occurred? Was Walt a very good man who became an evil man? Or was he a not-such-a-wonderful man who became a really bad man?
Ethics, Epistemology & Theology in BB
Hannah Arendt was a 20th century philosopher, a Jewish woman who fled her native Germany when the Nazis came to power. Upon observing the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the “architect” of the Holocaust, Arendt admitted to having been struck by Eichmann’s “curious, but quite authentic, inability to think.”
Eichmann was unremarkable in all other respects. In other words, he conspicuously lacked any particularly wicked motives. But he appeared radically incapable of thinking beyond the stock phrases, clichés, and conventionalities of the day. And this handicap, evidently, both reflected and reinforced his penchant for obeying the commands of others—regardless of what they were.
This experience of Arendt’s inspired her to begin considering the relationship between thinking and morality. Could this inability to think—a phenomenon from which no one is exempt—be related to immorality?
Arendt notes that the word “conscious” literally means “to know with myself.” The human person, then, is a unity-in-difference, a two-in-one (Perhaps it is the awareness of this that leads us to refer to “conscience” as if it were something distinct from us, “a little voice” inside of our “heads”). This is significant, for just as a person’s character development depends in large measure upon the kind of people with whom he chooses to associate, so, similarly, if I am not right with myself, I risk corrupting myself.
In her analysis, Arendt selects the person of Socrates as the paradigmatic illustration of how thinking and morality intersect. Socrates had insisted that it is always better to suffer wrongdoing than to engage in it, for the person who acts viciously makes himself into a vicious person, a person with a vicious character. But a vicious character is a corrupt character.
Thus, the wicked or immoral person is like one who is maimed, only here, it is his character that is debilitated, and it is he who maimed himself.
Now, what I suggest here is that Walter White was never right with himself. Vince Gilligan is incorrect in thinking that Walt underwent a genuine and “fundamental transformation.” Caterpillars transform into butterflies. Walt did not transform into Heisenberg. Heisenberg had been living in White for a long time.
And he finally decided to make his move and come out.
For as brilliant as Walt may have been, he sorely lacked that one excellence without which, the ancients were convinced, none of the others could be had.
Walt lacked wisdom.
To be clear: From what BB audiences could gather, Walt had always lacked wisdom.
In fact, Walter White was never even as intelligent or clever as he styled himself—and Walt, in his heart of hearts, knew this to be true.
From time to time, viewers of BB had been permitted to catch glimpses of Walt’s past, of his promise as a young aspiring scientist who, along with his one-time love interest, Gretchin, and his best friend, Elliot, founded what would eventually become a multi-billion dollar company (Grey Matter). Only Walt would never see this success, for very early on, he sold off his shares for $5,000.
It would appear that the irresistible urge to control his surroundings that we find in Heisenberg had always driven Walt. And this need, in turn, was fueled by the fear that, he confesses to his brother-in-law Hank, had always kept him awake at night.
Walt feared that his company would flounder and, so, he abandoned it to his friends who persevered and prospered.
This fear and the obsession with micro-managing every aspect of his existence to which this fear lead were conjoined in Walt with great arrogance, a profound lack of humility that, in blinding him to his vices, prevented him from assuming responsibility for having sold his shares in Grey Matter. Moreover, it is Walt’s monumental hubris that explains his readiness to blame his partners for having “cheated” him of the billions that he chose to forego, billions to which he never stopped feeling entitled.
Saint Augustine of Hippo articulated the Christian conception of evil well over 1500 years ago when he identified evil with a deficiency in the human will. Each will is only as good as the objects to which it is oriented. When the will turns inward and upward toward the Ground of its being and its supreme bonum, it is eminently good. Yet when it is scattered about fleeting, temporal satisfactions, when it is focused not on God but on the self, then the will is bad. Evil is a turning of an inherently good thing, the will, away from God and toward oneself.
The worst of wills is the will that has made itself equal to God.
The will of Walter White had, in effect, done this long before the Southwest had so much as an inkling of Heisenberg.
To be sure, its subtlety notwithstanding, something like an Augustinian theology informs BB’s depiction of Walt’s journey to full-blown Heisenberg.
Many of the world’s best scientists, particularly physicists, are people of genius, discrimination, and humility. Many not only refrain from denying God’s existence; many affirm it. The point, however, is that those who are the best and the brightest in this domain recognize that, qua scientists, they are ineligible to speak to matters of religion, morality, art, politics, history, etc. Walt, in glaring contrast, knew of no such limits.
Walt, that is, didn’t believe in science as much as he believed in scientism. Between the two is a difference in kind.
Scientism is not science. It is a philosophy, metaphysics, an ideology or doctrine. The proponent of scientism seeks to reduce the multifarious phenomena of existence, its variety of voices, to a single mode: science. For the devotee of scientism, there is no supernatural, for there is nothing that, in principle, Reason, via science, can’t master.
Walt’s scientism determined his subscription to philosophical naturalism. In a flashback sequence, audiences see a younger Walt with Gretchin trying to map out the human being solely in terms of bio-chemical components. When Walt notes that “something is missing,” Gretchin suggests that it may be “the soul” for which they’ve failed to account. Walt chuckles. Without giving it a moment’s thought, he dismisses this idea out of hand while insisting that the only “stuff” of which human (and, by implication, all existence) consists is physical.
Walt is the caricature of the Man of Science, the Rationalist and atheist whose dreams of a world that will finally be brought before the tribunal of his own reason—which, not coincidentally, is imagined to be synonymous with Reason itself—propels him, eventually, to spare no occasion to conscript those around him into the service of realizing his own designs.
Keats once remarked that Shakespeare “possessed so enormously” what he called “negative capability,” “the ability to contemplate the world without the desire to try and reconcile contradictory aspects or fit it into closed and rational systems.” The person with negative capability is “capable of being in uncertainties,” of accepting “mysteries” and “doubts [.]” This in turn means that the person of negative capability is “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
Negative capability precludes an obsession with control, with ordering realities in accordance with one’s desires.
Brother David Steindle-Rast, in his classic work, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, makes a similar point when he distinguishes “purpose” from “meaning.” He explains that “to achieve our purpose, whatever it may be, we must take hold of the situation, take matters in hand, take charge of things.” In short: “We must be in control” (emphasis added).
In glaring contrast, in those circumstances in which we “experience deep meaning,” we find ourselves saying that we “were touched, moved, even carried away by the experience.” In such situations, we don’t see ourselves as being “in control of what happened.” Indeed, it is precisely because we “gave” ourselves over “to the experience” that “took hold of” us that we were able to “experience meaning.”
Walt is, and had always been, a man entirely devoid of Keats’ negative capability. And his is a cosmos devoid of all meaning, a universe that is nothing more or less than blind, dead matter in motion.
But as many philosophers from the Pythagoreans to Neitzsche have noted, when we think about something long enough, we assume its characteristics. This is the significance of Walt’s cancer diagnosis. It is not by accident that Vince Gilligan chose to inflict his protagonist, who had never so much as taken a puff of a cigarette, with terminal lung cancer: It isn’t his physical health that was primarily in jeopardy, but his spiritual health. The cancer eating away at Walt’s body is a symbolic expression of the spiritual cancer that had been eating away at his soul or character for quite some time.
Yet when confronted with the fact that the cold, impersonal, meaningless material universe of his worldview was about to scatter the atoms composing his existence back into space, Walt’s death sentence dispersed his remaining inhibitions, unleashing his urge to bend reality to his wishes: The penchant for mastering his surroundings that, in varying degrees, Walt had always revealed, was now set loose.
And, thus, even as he continued to fight against the cancer that threatened to send him to the grave, Walter White’s race toward his spiritual demise began in earnest.
Walt’s unadulterated philosophical naturalism, his scientism, and his self-delusion that he can force the world—other human beings—to comply with his own machinations, are mutually reinforcing. These two things lead Walt to reject both God and an objective moral order, i.e. any semblance of transcendent meaningfulness.
The control of nature means, and can only mean, for Walt, the creation of his own moral values, of his own meaning. Walt aspires to be something on the order of Neitzsche’s “Ubermensch,” an “Overman” or “Superman” who strives to go “beyond good and evil.” In Walt’s universe, God is indeed dead.
However, Walt’s universe is not the universe of Breaking Bad. Walt’s efforts to make of himself an idol are doomed to failure, for in the cosmos of BB, there is meaning, a moral law that we violate at our own peril.
This, I submit, is either a lesson that Walter White never learned or, if he did, he learned it, as we say, too little, too late.