Breaking Bad, Dostoevsky, and Marketplace Morality

Tom Connolly

From the perspective of the television series, Breaking Bad’s anti-hero Walter White is not just an “angry middle-aged white guy.” He represents the repressed rage of America’s ill-used PhDs. This is why “he is the danger.” White has lived his life according to what he thought was standard and decent conduct. In a significant character development, late in the series, we learn how he shortsightedly deprived himself of a legitimate fortune when he opted out of the Gray Matter Corporation.

This matters because earlier there had been vague hints that Walter had somehow been cheated out of his rightful share. It is disconcerting that we learn that he was not bought out of his share of Gray Matter through corporate chicanery — he either lost faith in it or did not have the nerve to continue the risk. So he cashed out for a few thousand dollars. This is the turning point in the Walter White/Heisenberg axis. Thenceforth, we see him as someone who is definitively making up not for a “lost” opportunity, but for one that he threw away. The risks he takes now have little to with financial loss, much to do with violence and death.

White’s life has not turned out the way he planned. Indeed, it seems as though he stopped planning a long time ago — the outstanding example being his wife’s pregnancy. White enjoys his work and appears to be a good teacher who is both respected and liked by his colleagues. He is given extra responsibilities and is clearly an important employee of the school. Nevertheless, we learn that he burns with the inner knowledge that he has forfeited his potential.

A key moment is the first episode of season three where Walter is asked to address a school assembly where the students have gathered for public grieving in the wake of the airplane crash for which Walter is more than indirectly responsible. Walter delivers what at first seems to be a stoic’s eulogy for our transitory lives, how we humans have the capacity not only to endure suffering but to overcome it.

Walter’s speech is a scientist’s “proof” of the indifference of the universe and the irrelevance of sentiment or morality. The Great Maw of existence takes in everything without consideration. There is something else going on though — what Walter is doing is at once absolving himself of crime and telling himself that he will get through this. It is from this point on that his Doestoyevskian descent into existential self-justification moves him from any hint at Stavroginish guilt or remorse and directly toward the pure nihilism of Pyotr Verkhovensky.

Having said this, as compelling as Walter White is, how could Breaking Bad approach the intricacy of Dostoevsky’s novel, The Possessed, in which the two characters, Stavrogin and Verkhovensky, test the limits of narrative itself with their philosophical and psychological complexity? While the exigencies of television — it is a visual and aural medium — might seem to obviate such a question, and it may not seem “fair” to contrast a television series with a Russian novel, recall that it is not uncommon to make favorable comparisons between Spiderman and Odysseus in contemporary courses in the epic. (If such courses even exist any longer by the time you are reading this). There are large numbers of professors and critics eager to overturn what they would term the hierarchy of genre and accept all creative work as having the same legitimacy. They are all “products” of creativity, after all.

Dostoevsky’s The Possessed is particularly pertinent to those who would put Archie and Jughead on the shelf next to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza because it so thoroughly engages the concept of nihilism. Dostoevsky goes farther than Turgenev did in Fathers and Sons. Yet Turgenev’s character Bazarov, the first literary depiction of a nihilist, is almost benign compared to Dostoevsky’s creations. Bazarov is more a variation on the frustrations of the “superfluous man.” Both Stavrogin and Verkhovensky embody the destructive potential of nihilism. Nonetheless, both Turgenev and Dostoevsky give us hundreds of pages to contemplate. Dostoevsky offers complex psychology and dense philosophy.

Even though a television series may run for years and take up more hours of a viewer’s life than those needed to read a 19th-century Russian novel, nothing inhabits one’s consciousness the way literature can — or used to. There is no need to rehearse the half-century-old arguments about the effects of The Vast Wasteland. (This term was first used in 1961 by the chair of the , addressing the National Association of Broadcasters). On the contrary: put this brief discussion into the context of utilitarianism that so agitated Benda, Ellul, Dickens, and Dostoevsky himself, among many others. What are novelists selling? What are TV viewers consuming?

Meanwhile Back at the Lab…

After Walter dispenses with his original plan to make a specific sum of money to provide for his family after his death and embarks on a quest to become the greatest meth manufacturer there is, one recognizes that we are in a post-Nietzschean scenario and are on Walter’s “side” no matter what. Even though Walter rejects morality and his only imperative is his ambition, the point of view that the series insists on is Walter’s. So even if a viewer might protest against Walter’s corruption, each new episode (of that corruption and the show itself) encourages ever greater complicity.

The most fascinating thing is the skewed scope of Walter’s ambition. He only wants to create and sell the highest quality meth there is. He wants to accomplish this for its own sake. He makes the “chemistry” of this his grail. We almost never see Walter enjoying the money he has made. He buys a couple of cars and a condo, but only briefly, in a scene with his son where they are revving their cars’ engines, does Walter seem to take any pleasure from his meth money. He has lost his job and his family. He confesses as much to Jesse that all he has left is “cooking.” How bizarre that Walter’s Ding an sich is the almost abstract act of asserting his no longer-alter ego “Heisenberg” and shuffling off the coils of Walter White.

He allows nothing to interfere with the grandiosity of his “product.” As his enemies increase he is unable to see the consequences of his actions: the trail of violence, destruction, and death that he blazes. He is disturbed that no one else is as “professional,” as he is. He even accuses his seeming former role model, Gus Fring, of taking things “personally.” Clearly, Walter places himself on a plane of objectivity that moves from “chemistry” to “business.” “Heisenberg” applies scientific objectivity to professional gangsterism. We now watch this drama of dehumanization, but such is the power of melodrama that we still “take sides.”

It’s All About the Chemistry

The most hypocritical aspects of Walter’s original turning to crime, his “break baddest,” is his insistence that what matters is “the chemistry.” He calls this, “his field.” He defines it: “the study of matter.” Yet, you can contrast this objectified definition with an obvious question: “What matters?” At first, Walter has an articulated goal: to raise three-quarters of a million dollars to provide for his family after his death. This goal is shunted aside, gradually then rapidly. Midway through the final season of the series, Jesse confronts him, demanding to know why he is still chasing the money. Shortly thereafter, after successfully making his operation a transatlantic concern by shipping his product to the Czech Republic, for reasons that are not made clear, he announces to Skyler that he is “out.” Is he yet again, pointlessly placating Skyler?

Adding to this dilemma is the audience’s knowledge that his brother-in-law has figured out that Walter is the dreaded “Heisenberg.” Hank figured this out from a “W.W.” — for Walter White — reference inscribed in an edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass that Hank picked up in a bathroom in Walter’s house. It should not be surprising that the “text” that leads to Walter’s unmasking is an actual book. While Walter is totally dependent on his cell phone, he is never shown going online. He never “texts.” He never even refers to the internet.

These omissions are interesting, as is the Whitman reference. Walter’s breaking bad is a song to himself — his step by step breaking down of adhering to any code of behavior beyond his own ambitions. He is the Nietzchean of Allan Bloom’s worst nightmare. This connects Walter to Dostoevsky’s Verkhovensky. It is no accident that he is a man of science. In addition to the necessity of being able to produce crystal meth, Walter’s being a scientist instantly implies that he sees the world in a purely rational manner. Of course, there are those who distrust science and would take this as a means by which he may rationalize and excuse his own behavior, which is exactly what Walter does. Could Walter White have seen Visconti’s film, The Damned (1969) and been influenced by the discussions between Aschenbach and Bruckmann about Hegel’s expendable flower?

The discovery of Walter’s identity in the bathroom is a none-too-subtle slam at both culture and courtesy. The book was given to Walter by his former lab assistant and acolyte Gale. Shortly thereafter, Walter had dispatched Jessie to murder Gale. After this crime, Walter leaves this valuable edition of a classic of American literature beside his toilet. The casual placement of this token from his victim shows that he lacks both guilt and an appreciation for literature.

What does it mean that Walter is so obsessed with chemistry? Why did he turn his back on higher research and become a high school teacher and not even a professor? We know by the testimony of his billionaire friend and former colleague that Walter is a genius — surely he could have done something more. Nevertheless, it is clear that Walter sought to immure himself in the elements of chemistry by teaching at the high school level. He wanted to run from anything at a higher level, anything speculative or abstract. How adequate a parallel for the way that he flees from morality by finding any way to justify the actions that he takes to protect and expand his enterprise. It is a chemical reaction in the purest sense: each action having a reaction that flows from the previous one.

Walter is remarkably oblivious to the possibility of exponents. He deludes himself with the pursuit of “pure chemistry”, an echo of the “ideal” of unmotivated science that has been challenged since long before Dr. Josef Mengele’s experiments. Another Doestoyevskian resonance is the possibility that the show is an anti-capitalist polemic.

Walter accumulates money for the sake of accumulating money. He amasses wealth, but does nothing with it, not unlike so many 21st century financial institutions, the so-called zombie banks for instance, or the billions of dollars of Federal “bail-out” funds allocated to corporations that have never been spent. Walter’s metamorphosis is guided by the Invisible Hand of the Market. Caveat venditor. Therefore, Walter White is not an anti-hero. He is the perfect hero for a world in which the marketplace alone determines value.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store