The Lessons of Walter White
September 20, 2013 at 12:49pm
Breaking Bad is a classic tragedy told across 5 seasons of high-quality TV. The anti-hero, Walter White, is a Caltech-degreed chemist who mysteriously ends up teaching high school chemistry to ingrates in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which acts as a seedy and naturally-beautiful backdrop to the chains of events and moral failures that destroy his world.
Reason.com this morning ran a piece on some idiot DA’s Time Magazine essay claiming Breaking Bad normalizes meth use and makes fighting it harder. The DA writes in a long tradition of belief that knowledge of evil is dangerous and freedom to ponder its meaning suspect. It probably does not help that Breaking Bad (and the even-more-complex world of Baltimore explored in The Wire) calls into question the morality and efficacy of prohibition thinking — the black market and law enforcement cultures created have done far more damage to the normal moral life of their communities than drug use itself ever could. So our DA understandably walls himself off from that lesson to continue the belief that what he does is meaningful and right.
At first viewing, it appears that Walter’s troubles are the result of bad luck (the Nemesis of his lung cancer) combined with a defensible decision to make meth to leave his family a nest egg. What makes a tragedy, of course, is the downfall of a noble person because of flaws in his character. We admire Walter for his logical mind, his creative use of chemical knowledge, and his strong will to achieve — and yet a few seasons in, the viewer begins to understand that Walter has been brought low even before the tale begins by his pride and inability to communicate with those closest to him. At every juncture when someone he cares for is in pain and he could say something about the truth or his feelings to ease their way, he is frozen and either says nothing or lies. With his wife Skyler, he dissembles unconvincingly even after she has figured out that he’s lying, and even after his shady lawyer Saul comments that he has to confide in her. With his young business partner Jesse Pinkman (a slacker former student who became a small-time meth producer before the tale begins), Walter has obvious paternal feelings, but expresses them mostly in criticism of Jesse’s weaknesses, and when given the opportunity say or do something to help him, fails to do so.
At the end of Season 2, Walt’s small negligences, concern for Jesse, and a chain of coincidences lead to the death of Jesse’s girlfriend and a midair plane collision that kills hundreds of people.
So Walt’s fatal flaw is pride — the guarding of his secrets and his self-image as a logical guy who does the right thing have led to destruction of everything he supposedly valued and was trying to save by going to the Dark Side. His failing to do the right thing at the important moment for those he loves implies he is a failed human being, and his failure as a scientist, a husband, and a partner are all due to this one flaw.
Now my life resonates a bit with his fictional one — I think of myself similarly; I graduated from MIT but failed, really, at being a good team member and achieving what I might have achieved if I had been more courageous and less lazy about communicating. I won the award for being the best high school chemistry student in greater KC. I had an academic chemist friend who cooked up a batch of meth to pay his bills back when the customers were primarily long-distance truckers who wanted to stay awake. One of my friends went on to achieve enormous success by sticking with a narrow field of inquiry and never understanding enough about how the world really works to be discouraged, and in turn his friends defended him and made him rich. And today I live in a Southwestern town with a colorful cast of characters, including meth addicts, porn stars, and normal middle class folks in one big stew.
So we have Lesson 1: Do the right thing and take the risk of action to help those close to you understand reality and know your feelings.
Lesson 2: Drug Prohibition, like the previous incarnation, carves out a lawless society and is itself responsible for much of the destruction of minority communities since the 50s. Millions of people live in fear of gun or police violence because of it. Drug use is destructive, but while some are crippled or killed by it, it appears safe and legal sources and viewing addiction as something to be treated and managed would reduce that harm. To minimize lawless cultures, we need to free people to be responsible for their own actions and accountable to themselves. We all must serve someone, but a free person is one who has enough productive relationships and skills with people to make their own way, threatened by no single lost relationship. Setting up a society where money comes from illicit trading (both made profitable and endangered by law enforcement) and government handouts is a recipe for corruption and loss of the skills of surviving in a healthy community.
For more on pop culture:
The Morality of Glamour
“Mockingjay” Propaganda Posters
“Big Bang Theory” — Aspergers and Emotional/Social Intelligence
Real-Life “Hunger Games”: Soft Oppression Destroys the Poor
Reading “50 Shades of Grey” Gives You Anorexia and an Abusive Partner!
YA Dystopias vs Heinlein et al: Social Justice Warriors Strike Again
“Raising Arizona” — Dream of a Family