Meditations on Mortality: Breaking Bad

by francine Hardaway on September 30, 2013

Now that it’s over, I view “Breaking Bad” as an extended contemplation of mortality — of one’s own, that of Walter White, and of those of the people around Walter. The entire show is a metaphor for Walt’s approaching death. After all, if you had received a diagnosis on terminal cancer, what would YOU do with the last year of your life?

Like Walt, many people receive these diagnoses when they really don’t feel so bad. Yes, they are probably still told to get their affairs in order, but then what else do you do?  And even while you are “getting your affairs in order,” do you just sit around and wait to feel worse or die?

People in this position do one of four things: they keep on leading their old lives, going to work or pretending nothing’s wrong for as long as they can; they focus on doing things they’ve never done before, like traveling to Europe or taking a cruise; or they collapse into a major depression. The fourth alternative, which the health care system has embraced for years, is to “fight it.” Cancer is a war, and you have to keep fighting it, in the words of the current meme.

If you examine the show, Walt attempts to do all of these, either simultaneously or one at a time.

He keeps on teaching and acting like the “old Walt” for as long as he can. Indeed, he keeps teaching long after he doesn’t need the income. Teaching, although it wasn’t his first choice of profession (he thought he’d be an entrepreneur, didn’t he?) was familiar to him, and he seemed to do it reasonably well. When he begins to work with Jesse Pinkman, Walt’s abilities as a teacher help him teach Jesse to “cook.” His family is also part of his “normal” life, and the initial reason for him to cook met, he says, is to provide for its security.

But he keeps cooking long after he has reached that goal. Why? He tells us why at the very end.  It was his version of leading a life he’d never gotten to lead: the life of the villain. Being in the drug business was like taking that Alaskan cruise you never got to take, or going on an extended safari to Africa. Guys like Walt just don’t ordinarily do those things, and since his life was already out of the ordinary — well, he may as well just do everything, right?

Walt also lapses into his depression once he realizes he’s broken the law so far that he can’t just go back. That’s probably when he realizes Hank is on to him. That depression shows up again on the final day, when he sees his kids for the last time and Skylar only allows him five minutes. That entire old life is gone, and now he’s just waiting to die. Might as well commit some form of suicide. Can you imagine Walt really going to trial and prison for the time he has left? Not his way.

Ultimately, what he does is what everyone does when they realize they are terminal: fight it as best he can and live for the moment.  That’s why in his final confession to Skylar he says “I did it for me. I was good at it. And I was really — I was alive.”

Now go re-watch Steve Jobs’ 2007 Stanford Commencement speech.




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