Walter Makes a Meth of Things: Breaking Bad and Existential Philosophy, Part 2

*Note: I’ve now watched the first three seasons of Breaking Bad. If you haven’t watched that far, this might contain spoilers. If you haven’t read part 1 of this essay, click here.

Bryan Cranston as Walter White

Existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre put forth an interesting piece of rhetoric that I think will prove very relevant to the central conflict of Breaking Bad. Here’s the scenario Sartre posed: imagine a French man who cares deeply for his mother. It is the start of World War 2 and the Germans are invading France. To better protect his mother, should he A) join the French resistance and help prevent the Germans from endangering his ailing mother, or B) stay home and protect her. There isn’t a definite answer to this question. By staying home, he can at least directly help her, whereas by leaving his actions will be a few degrees removed from reality.

Walter White, the main character of Breaking Bad, played by Michael Cranston, faces the same sort of dilemma at the start of the series, with one big distinction: his war is the Drug War. In the first episode, he is diagnosed with lung cancer. He is a high-school chemistry teacher without good health insurance. He and his family belong to the vanishing middle-class and can’t afford his treatment without racking up considerable debt, unless… After a series of strange events, he realizes one way he could generate income would be to cook crystal meth. His dilemma then is much the same as the one proposed by Sartre: does he A) spend what remains of his life becoming closer to his family, or B) start producing meth to bring in enough money to keep his family stable after he is gone. Walter chooses option B.

Walter’s problem then is the same as that of the French soldier: he is now distant from the people he is trying to protect. For the first two seasons in particular, this creates a large problem in the White household. Walter is absent for long periods of time without an explanation. He has to find ways of explaining his new income. The worst part is, he has to consistently lie to his wife and son. At least the French soldier’s mother knew where he was.

To go back to Sartre’s rhetoric, it should also be pointed out that while the soldier is away at war, it’s entirely possible his mother may die of natural causes or from accidents that have no relation to the advancing army. Then, when the soldier returns and finds she is gone, he will no longer feel justified in choosing to fight. Essentially, something similar happens to Walter in season 3 (spoilers ahead). After Walter goes through this whole ordeal to rise higher in the drug racket and finally find a method of distribution that would earn his family millions of dollars, his wife Skyler leaves him, precisely because of the distance Walter has placed between them.

Walter White speaking to Gus (played by Giancarlo Esposito), his boss at the meth lab

In the worst case scenario, what happens then? If the French soldier didn’t believe in the cause of the resistance, then he is left with blood on his hands after he returns to find his mother gone. In Walter’s case, when he comes home from the Drug War and finds Skyler is filing for divorce, well… Walter is left holding the baggie.

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One thought on “Walter Makes a Meth of Things: Breaking Bad and Existential Philosophy, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Review: Breaking Bad – Season 1 « M-E D I A

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