I resisted the Breaking Bad temptation for several years, but finally succumbed after seeing numerous mentions on social networks and upon heeding the feverish recommendations of trusted friends. I persisted through the darkness of the early episodes because the story called to something deep within me and the words were as old as time itself.
Before we attempt to “find ourselves” in Walter White, let’s meet the chap who foreshadowed Breaking Bad.
Over 700 years ago, Dante Alighieri penned a work of genius called The Divine Comedy. Dante himself wrote on the nature of interpretation in his early work Il Convivio (The Banquet) as a system to understand story—to understand great art. There, he reflected the traditional medieval understanding that interpretation can take place on four levels: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical.
It is within these layers that I came to realize Walter White was actually me. His story is universal. It can be found in Dante, but also in the stories of religion—in the Old Testament failures whom we call heroes, in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and it can be found unfolding in the days of our lives.
Let’s meet Walter White, the protagonist of the popular television show Breaking Bad.
Layer One (Literal)—Walter White is a bright high school chemistry teacher and family man of the middle-class.
Layer Two (Allegorical)—Much like SISYPHUS, as Walter enthusiastically attempts to teach the wonders of chemistry to apathetic students, he feels doomed to repeat the same task over and over, condemned to a meaningless task in life. Another interesting twist: he also opted to sell his shares in a research partnership that was fueled by his ideas for a few thousand dollars. This research company soon after became a multi-billion dollar company.
Layer Three (Moral)—Walter begins to experience an existential crisis and feels the absurdity, anguish, despair, and alienation of his life when he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. He searches for meaning in life and believes he has found it in the ability to create an incredibly valuable pure blue crystal meth. He justifies and rationalizes his choices morally and ethically by saying it will provide money for his family upon his diagnosed death.
Layer Four (Anagogical)—He becomes the mystical god—Heisenberg—who can defeat evil drug lords, seemingly invincible Mexican cartels and eventually anyone who comes against him. For the first time in his life, his brilliant intellect is recognized and results in intoxicating power.
The creators of Breaking Bad do not hesitate to show the universal flaws of other characters as well. Jesse’s addictions, Hank’s ego, Skylar’s affair, Marie’s shoplifting—even the seemingly pure Walter, Jr does not get off lightly as they portray his internal fear. If we can’t find ourself in Walter, the writers of Breaking Bad are determined we will find ourselves somewhere.
Walter (and the the other characters) bounce back and forth between layers just like we do. Thankfully the writers give us color schemes that represent specific layers so that our dumbed-down Western sensibilities can subliminally follow along.
I believe Breaking Bad is great art.
The big question is where will the creators leave Walter in the finale on Sunday, Sept. 29?
Unlike Walter, however, our creator has left that decision to us as individuals.
So the big existential question for us is where will we leave ourselves?
Breaking Bad calls up from within ourselves echoes from the beginning of time.
It calls up the Old Testament view of human beings—fundamentally, permanently, almost fatally flawed unless they’re redeemed by something outside themselves.
In the words of Kant, “From the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”
And that is why we find ourselves in the layers of the story. We are flawed. All of us. All. Of. Us.
Hopefully one day we (and Walter) can echo the redemptive words of T.S. Eliot,
All manner of thing shall be well
When tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.