Badness Is Its Own Reward: Breaking Bad and Existential Philosophy, Part 1

*Note: So far, I have only watched the first two seasons of Breaking Bad and part of the third. If you haven’t watched that far, I should warn you this essay contains some spoilers. Also, whatever you do, don’t post spoilers as to what happens later!

Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston

To paraphrase Fyodor Dostoevsky, give man his paradise and he will destroy it with a smile. While this line of reasoning might sound a tad sardonic, that wasn’t Dostoevsky’s intent. In his classic work of philosophical fiction Notes from The Underground, the narrator describes an idea where if you were to place a man in a crystal palace that is by all means a paradise and where his every need is met, he would sooner or later  break that palace down. Why? For man, luxury and comfort aren’t the greatest ideals to live by: freedom is. For human beings to feel alive at all, they have to exercise that freedom by making choices that they know are their own–hence, in an earthly paradise where everything is good, man asserts himself by doing bad. How does this relate to the television show Breaking Bad? The series has many themes that run throughout, but tantamount is that of freedom, and how terrible true freedom can be.

Shortly after Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche would pick up the line of thought where he had left off. Nietzsche then added that it was from exercising freedom that man attained true happiness, but furthermore, the ability to be free directly correlates to how much power one has.

Let’s look at this in connection to the first episode of Breaking Bad. It begins with Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston brilliantly), a pleasant, fussy, inward high school chemistry teacher whose life isn’t perfect, but at a distance it seems like his life is the closest a middle-class male during an economic decline can come to paradise: he has a loving family, a happy relationship with his in-laws, a decent job, two cars in his driveway, and he’s good at what he does. What he desperately lacks though is freedom. As the first and second episodes unfold, it’s revealed that Walter is essentially bossed around by everyone he knows; some do it in a caring, benign way, while others are not so subtle.

This changes for Walter in a way that every existentialist could have predicted what would happen next. In the very first episode, Walter is diagnosed with lung cancer and is told the future doesn’t look good. Walter, jumping to conclusions a bit, takes this to mean he has no real future beyond a few tentative months or a year or so at best. It’s not until he’s shorn of a future that Walter is able to open up to the thought of freedom.

Let’s go back to Dostoevsky and his most famous quote, “Without God, anything is possible.” It’s never specifically stated what Walter’s religious beliefs are, but I’m led to believe they aren’t too strong. A religious person put in his place would very likely console themselves with their fate by thinking of the life to come, eternal bliss and so on. For Walter though, his religion was in a way his future. His characteristic goodness came from his plans for the future, i.e. he was committed to his job because he wanted to save up for retirement and so on. His goodness came from his foresight; stripped of a future, everything is possible for Walter.

Marie, Walter's sister-in-law, played by Betsy Brandt

Existentialist philosophers frequently reference the idea of freedom to be rather frightening at first, and is generally hard to even imagine. When Walter begins to have intimations of this new freedom, he doesn’t know what to do about it or what to think. He then decides whatever he does, he will do for his family. This idea is strictly nominal. In reality, what he does is for himself, and through his actions, he accumulates, perhaps for the first time in his whole life, power.

As you might guess, this is where the crystal palace shatters.

That’s it for now.

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This is only part 1 of an essay I’m writing about Existentialism and Breaking Bad. If you find this interesting, remember to check back at this site in the future. You can subscribe for free.

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