One’s Self I Sing – Breaking Bad and Freedom

If you watch Breaking Bad on Netflix, you will not notice that the show’s final season was bifurcated. But if you watched it at the time, you had to wait almost an entire year between the first and second half of that season. The first half ends with Hank Schrader discovering that Walter White is Heisenberg. That is, in my current season, where I have stopped.

My reason is purely emotional. There’s a moment in the end of that episode, right before the discovery is revealed, where you’d like the story to just stop. Walt is out of the meth trade, his cancer is in remission, he seems to have reconciled with Skyler, we could put a pin in it and he could escape. It would be over.

But that can’t be. Walter has done too much evil to be allowed a happy ending. The blood of dead innocents is on his hands, in his lungs. He must be brought down. He will be. I will watch it.

There are few programs of the now-gone Golden Age of Television Drama that hold up as well as Breaking Bad. It’s AMC-mate Mad Men slowly bled out, with nothing to say that was not present in the first three seasons. It became a documentary of Modern America’s bloody birth, and less a study of the people we first came to meet. It’s end was uninteresting. I never watched The Sopranos, for the simple reason that I no longer find Mafia stories interesting. I realize it’s more than that, thematically. I don’t care. I’ve absorbed The Godfather and Goodfellas and Donnie Brasco, and one or two others. I need no more.

Breaking Bad is grander in scope, a Faustian tragedy centered in the heart of America. Others tried the selling-drugs-in-suburbia line before (Showtime’s insipid Weeds), but Breaking Bad gave us a story that shakes us.

When we meet him, Walter White is a gormless schmuck, underemployed as a chemistry teacher, moonlighting at a car wash. He has a teenage son with cerebral palsy, a pregnant wife who nags him to take his echinacea, and the world’s dorkiest car in the driveway. Instead of rewarding his scientific education and knowledge, the world has made a dishrag of him. He is the poster boy for Quiet Desperation.

And then the chemistry of his body betrays him: inoperable lung cancer. He has, he notes clinically, a year to live. He will die, and leave behind a widow with no means of supporting herself, her crippled son, her infant daughter. He will have failed in every way possible.

His solution for this problem is the hook of the show: a boring, tighty-whitey chemistry teacher cooking meth with a ne’er-do-well former student to keep the wolf from his door. He does this despite a nigh-comical inability to understand the nature of the business he is entering. He never comes to any understanding, either. He keeps thinking that it is a business, in which one can simply negotiate poundage and price, and push product like Coca-Cola. He never, over his entire narrative arc, understands it any better. He relies on men who know the streets, and pointedly refuses to accept their advice. He has to be the Smartest Man in the Room.

Consequently, while always believing himself hunted, Walter White/Heisenberg (an alter ego, taken from the German physicist) amasses an impressive body count: Emilio and Krazy-8, Jane Margolis, Hector Salamanca, Gale Boetticher, Mike Ehrmentraut, All of Mike’s Guys, Gus Fring, Todd and his Uncle Jack and all of their crew. He is also indirectly responsible for the deaths of Hank Schrader, Steve Gomez, and the victims of an airline disaster. Heisenberg is a monster that weeps. His arc bends towards death.

His junior partner, Jesse Pinkman, is the aforementioned former student. His arc runs nearly opposite to Walt’s: from an overgrown teenager, druggie and dealer, to a man willing to leave the trade behind, haunted by the ghosts he’s had a hand in making, and finally, a prisoner released. His arc bends toward escape.

They are a strange pair, barely able to understand one another, yet some force neither fully grasps keeps them together. The relationship becomes almost paternal: Jesse becomes a surrogate for Walt’s actual son, Walter, Jr., who Walt is unable to open up to or trust in the same way. And as with all Walt’s relationships it becomes toxic as a result. Walt/Heisenberg nearly destroys Jesse’s life. He is almost the bearer of Walt’s sins (literally, in one case: it’s Jesse who actually shoots Gale Boetticher, at Walt’s instigation).

One question I have pondered during my current re-watch is, why? With everything that holds them apart, what exactly keeps them together? What is the bond between them?

The answer can only be guessed at. But I think a way can be found in looking at the younger character. Walter is manipulative and deceptive – near the end he seems to forget what the truth even sounds like – and Jesse knows it, so it’s not mutual affection. Early on, Jesse asks Walt why he suddenly decides to “Break Bad”, to walk away from the straight and narrow confines of his life, Walt says only that he is awake for the first time. Jesse doesn’t get this, but on some level, he accepts it.

Walt never bothers returning the question, but the show does. Jesse Pinkman was not born to the streets. He is the eldest son of middle-class strivers, with a spacious home in the suburbs. They are not abusive or negligent, although they are wise to their prodigal son’s ways, and no longer roast the fatted calf for him. Jesse was born to a comfortable life, and possessed a yen for drawing. With a minimum of application, could have staked his claim. Instead, he broke bad, a white boy parodying a gangsta, doing and making hard drugs. At one point, furious with him, his mother howls “Why are you like this? WHY?”

He does not answer, but I think I know: Freedom. Jesse Pinkman doesn’t want to be shackled to a 9-to-5 and a mortgage, to be obligated to care about violin lessons and PTA Meetings, to be grateful to golf on the weekends. Jesse decided sometime in his youth that such things were false, and he wanted real things. The Streets, eschewing such things, speaking blunt language and trading in pleasure, seem like the purest liberty.

He learns, the hard way, that the Freedom of the Underworld is a lie. Underneath the license are greater and deeper shackles, to hard cash, to bosses and territories, to violence, to the drugs themselves. Drug cartels merge seamlessly with multinational corporations, and local players like Walt launder money through local businesses. There’s no escape from the need to make product. It’s capitalism all the way down.

Thus, Jesse is not truly free until he can actually escape the world his plunged himself into, until he follows the road of excess to the best place it can go (around the Palace of Wisdom is Golgotha). But at the end of the show, and more pointedly in the El Camino sequel film, Jesse does just that. He is out. He is free. He is his own man, at last.

And I think, despite Walt’s protestations of his need to provide for his family, that he acts on a similar motivation. True Freedom consists of living your True Self, and one must admit that Walter White is not doing that before he breaks bad. He has nearly lost himself in service to his wife and son, an empty shell and also-ran where once a brilliant chemist stood. His diagnosis provides him with an excuse to throw off the shell and become a chemist again, and to get paid real money for it. His devotion to this overrides all his moral qualms, slowly at first, then all at once.

And when everything is destroyed, he at last admits, to his estranged wife, that he did it all for himself. That he liked it, and was good at it. He was alive when he was cooking meth. He was himself. He was free.

He wasn’t, really: he was surrounded by enemies, including the woman he loved, the woman he endlessly deceived, even as she became his accomplice. Never could he simply cook; he had to manage two worlds simultaneously, neither of which suited him, both of which eventually reject him. Only the chemistry understands.

Herein lies the tragedy. The classical Greek formulas hold that the peripeteia comes only when the protagonist understands himself at last. He transcends at the same moment, slipping the boundaries of earth, and it is over.

One’s-Self I sing, a simple separate person,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.

Of physiology from top to toe I sing,
Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse, I say
the Form complete is worthier far,
The Female equally with the Male I sing.

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine
The Modern Man I sing.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass


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