There are a number of similarities between my favourite book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and my favourite TV show, Breaking Bad. Drugs, sweltering-hot cactus desert, and unpredictable plot twists are recurring themes in both, but the most profound connection between the two is the quote at the beginning of the former, which for me encapsulates much of what lies at the heart of the latter:
He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.
When we first meet him, it’s painfully obvious Walter White is impotent. He sports a mousey little moustache; wears a colourless ‘old dad’ jumper; even when he smiles it’s like his face is being painfully stretched into an expression alien to its nature. In one early scene we see him getting jacked off by his wife, a blatant demonstration in case you still needed one that this is anything but a virile, manly man.
Around the same time though we’re offered glimpses of his former self – a good-looking man of great intelligence, calm and self-assurance – and really what Breaking Bad is after this point is a return to a supercharged and darker version of this former self… a man who’s brilliant and ambitious, but whose confidence mutates into arrogance and impulsiveness, and who becomes as intimidating-looking as he was previously pleasant- then wretched-looking. The next time we see a ‘sex’ scene it’s an actual sex scene – his libido returned, Walt engages a pleasantly surprised Skyler in passionate sex in their car. But the next sex scene we see after that is an outright assault, Walt forcing himself onto an unwilling Skyler in the kitchen, signalling that his ascent out of wretchedness is becoming, arguably, a descent into darkness… careening way past healthy confidence and assertiveness into the rough and dangerous wilderness beyond – a badland of aggression, impulse, power and control.
The ignition for all this is a cancer diagnosis, the huge treatment costs of which drive Walt to throw together an illegal meth operation. This germinates and sets into motion the evolution of ‘Heisenberg’ – Walter White’s alter-ego; in a sense a re-manifestation of the chemistry genius we glimpsed before but indelibly marked by what has happened since – and what lies ahead. Faced with an inoperable disease and the likelihood of eventual death, Walt has nothing to lose – which gives him not only the impetus to use criminal means to relieve his family of crippling debt, but affords him a critical edge over the experienced, usually much ‘harder’ criminals he contends with. “You got balls” Tuco tells the skinny, bizarrely out-of-place novice in episode 6, and he’s right… because the threat of being shot, hospitalized or otherwise killed is far less confronting when you’ve been more or less assigned a death sentence anyway.
The issue is, the cancer corrupting Walt’s body also corrupts his metamorphosis into a new man. With his cancer time-bomb ticking away he is forced to speed ahead too fast, too aggressively, along a perilous get-rich-quick route that no suburban layman is equipped to navigate – and he ultimately veers off track, giddy off the velocity, and arrives at a very different place to where any of us could’ve imagined. But for me it is understandable if not inevitable – as Walter himself says in an early chemistry-class scene:
The faster they undergo change, the more violent the explosion.
So the question in Breaking Bad isn’t “Is Walter a good guy or a villain”, but do we respect Walt for making it out of the rock-bottom situation he was in – chemistry-teacher dweeb, shat on by even his monobrowed carwash-owner boss, and now issued a medical death warrant – or do we condemn him for going too far? That’s really what the pro-Walt versus anti-Walt debate boils down to – the fact is he goes through an incredible self-actualization, finally applying his scientific genius and mustering up an awe-inspiring reserve of balls, wits and cunning – except that it leads him to criminal activity. Does the former justify the latter? No. But postmodernism dictates that at the end of the day, scriptwriters don’t determine a story’s message: the audience does, and the audience latches onto what it relates to and perceives. As a grown-up, white, middle-class man who knows how life can kick you in the guts even when you’ve only meant well, I’m inclined to cheer when someone Walter White makes good by breaking bad.
In a sense, Walter White represents the latest in a long tradition of pissed-on, then pissed-off, middle-class white dudes who do the wrong thing that feels oh so right. In the early 90s we saw Bill Foster, aka D-FENS – a dorky white-collar engineer – rampage through Los Angeles as he finally loses his shit at an estranged wife and an estranged society at large. Later in the 90s we saw Jack, a self-professed “white-collar slave”, finally break out of the stupor of his meaningless existence to forment a radical alter-ego who makes soap out of human fat and engages in self-affirming violence via organized fights. Derek Vinyard in American History X, and Lester Burnham in American Beauty, are also representatives of men who in their own way stand up to a modern American(ized) society in which the nice meek white guys seem to finish last – and they’ve had enough of that fact.
I’m not making any kind of political argument here that white men are some kind of oppressed species – simply that it’s a common thread between these films and one that invariably resonates with audiences such as myself, even if we know to take it with a grain of salt. Simply put, there is, like a very low but clearly perceptible rumble, an uncomfortable, shameful sense of waste… as Tyler says in Fight Club, “Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering.” In Breaking Bad, we see repeated flashbacks to a Walter White who could’ve been anything – who by rights should’ve been a millionaire running a cutting-edge biotech company called Grey Matter – but instead ended up on his arse, a struggling nobody, through no real fault or crime of his own… and it’s genuinely sad, and you can feel his shame and sadness, see the very weight of it on his sagging shoulders.
Which brings me to what I believe is at the root of Breaking Bad – depression. Depression is ultimately what’s behind Walter’s ongoing stagnation, pathetic passivity and wasted talent, his disappointments and regret so heavy, and buried so deep inside him, that they produce the emotional numbness and physical frailty plastered all over him yet ignored by everyone. It’s only when he’s faced with pretty much the most shocking news one can face in life – inoperable cancer in his chest, itself probably a manifestation of this mental sickness – that something is finally lit and his frozen-over manhood begins to thaw out… a spring after a long and dismal winter that, for all of the uncertainty and volatility it contains within it, is still undeniably a rebirth. “Losing all hope is freedom,” says Jack in Fight Club, who goes to cancer support groups to curb insomnia – and Walter similarly says
I have spent my whole life scared, frightened, of things that might happen, or might not happen. Do you know what? Ever since my diagnosis, I sleep just fine.
We see just how important his diagnosis is to this renaissance of himself when, after receiving news that the cancer’s in remission, he goes to a restroom and bashes the hand dryer or towel dispenser (I forget what exactly) in a rage, deprived of the time-bomb that provided the crucial focus and motivation for the mission he’d just commenced, and already was beginning to enjoy, as it breathed new life into him. Asked by Jesse “So why are we doing this?”, Walter simply replies “I am awake.” The adrenaline, the sense of mission, and the raw utilization of his long-dormant chemistry brilliance that drug-making affords Walter, is what gives rise to Heisenberg – Walter White’s own Tyler Durden, liberating him from a slow death as an ignored, underpaid chemistry teacher who potentially drains his family’s entire savings, and transforming him into a multimillionaire known and respected by even the most hardened bad-asses:
I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not.
It’s Walter’s depression at the start of the series, I think, that determines whether you root for him later. Because if you know how debilitating and soul-destroying the experience of depression can be – the hopeless lack of vitality, the helpless lack of self-belief – you feel for this loser guy even as you recognise he’s a bit of a loser… and this is what makes his phoenix-like rise to Heisenberg all the more impressive – because whatever the moral sensibilities, it represents a tremendous victory over a crippling state of life and mind. I still recall the tangible thrill I got when, at the start of episode 6 of season 1, you see a premonition of Walter, head shaved, blood trickling out of his nose, storming with steely eyes through a scene of devastation which it’s apparent he’s responsible for. To paraphrase Fear and Loathing, it’s apparent this man has bought the ticket and is now taking the ride – a man no longer content to sit meekly in the back seat, strapped in til he’s immobile and told to shut up… Walter White is now very much the driver on a war path from which there is no going back. It may be the dark side of it, but he is finally realizing his potential. He is finally “awake”.
Because I sympathize with the depressed Walter I’ve ended up hating the other characters, all of whom seem to miss this point – that this was a man forced to make a beast of himself to cast off a life-sucking demon, Heisenberg representing the porkpie-hatted exorcist. Depression irrepressibly drags us down, and just as a rocket can only escape gravity and proceed into space with a huge, powerful level of propulsion, so it was necessary for Walt to take off using extreme measures. With a shallowness that’s disgusting bordering on disturbing, those closest to him see only the surface end product – a drug kingpin – immediately losing all sight and memory of the man beneath, the kind, well-meaning husband/father/brother-in-law who he was not only in the past but even as he led this second life. None of them ask “Why?” when to me it’s obviously the first and only thing they should do.
Whatever bad Walter did he generally did because he needed to – he cooked meth to provide for his family; he became hard because the world he was dealing with was brutal and ruthless; he killed to protect himself and those close to him – even twice saving the life of Jesse who’d later turn him in and express so much joy in seeing him handcuffed. Who are we to hate him for this? What right do the other characters – free from the agonizing losses, regrets, humiliations, burdens and consequential depression – are to instantly judge, turn their back and even try to ruin the rest of his life on account of this? Because according to our black-and-white version of the world Walt is now a ‘baddie’?
Me, personally, I respect the man behind the chemistry, and was moved to tears by the show’s finale, where my interpretation was (at least for me) finally confirmed by those beautiful few lines he says to Skyler:
I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it, and I was alive.
As a guy who’s just turned 30 and went through a troublesome 20s, with its own share of what-could’ve-beens and blows to my self-esteem, I understand ‘the dark side’ as a necessary if volatile ingredient in regaining one’s strength. Because sometimes you gotta get tough and angry to get back on your feet and march forward. Because as men, it’s in our nature to be proud and primal, and it can take some violence and ‘bad-assness’ to wrestle out of that slowly suffocating anaconda grip of depression. Sometimes, as in Walt’s case, the demons are so powerful and ingrained that is takes a brutal but necessary spiritual/psychological chemotherapy, that inflicts damage on one’s humanity even as it necessarily kills off the cancer of depression, regret and self-loathing. It’s just sad that sometimes, as in the case of Anakin/Darth Vader in Star Wars – one of the few sagas I’d rate on par with Breaking Bad – it drives us all the way past the edge, turning ourselves wholly into beasts to get rid of the pain that overwhelmed us before – like terminal cancer. For these tragic characters though, I feel pity rather than hate… and for Walter, who I don’t feel ever went that far, and who despite constantly proving that he was indeed “the danger”, retained his humility and his humanity to the end… I cannot help but deeply admire.
You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.
– Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight Rises