The following is an excerpt from “‘Breaking Bad’ and Philosophy: Badder Living Through Chemistry,” edited by David R. Koepsell and Robert Arp. The book is now available from Open Court Publishing. The excerpt below was made available by the book’s publisher.
“Badder Living Through Chemistry” is the latest in Open Court’s series of essay collections applying philosophical thought to pop culture favorites.
The piece below, “Hurtling Towards Death,” was written by Craig Simpson, a PhD student at Trinity College, Dublin. His primary research interests include the relationship between contemporary Hollywood film, cultural theory, and philosophy (philosophy and film, film as philosophy). The “Breaking Bad” character that he can relate to most is Saul Goodman… and he finds this somewhat disturbing, as he would never decorate his office like that.
There is a tendency of plots to move towards death… the idea of death is built into the nature of the plot. A narrative plot is no less a conspiracy of armed men. The tighter the plot of the story, the more likely it will come to death. —Don DeLillo
“Breaking Bad” is a show that’s first and foremost about reactions. These reactions can be chemical, as when pseudoephedrine is mixed with iodine crystals and red phosphorus, which then react to make crystalline methamphetamine. They can be physical, as when cells in human bodies grow uncontrollably and metastasize into malignant cancers due to reactions with toxins in the environment or our DNA. These reactions can also be human, as with the overwhelming feeling of despair that follows in the wake of being told that you’re going to die.
All of these reactions in “Breaking Bad,” this interplay between the chemical, the physical, and the human, can be linked in one way or another to the show’s antihero, Walter White, an overqualified high-school chemistry teacher who’s been told that he’s suffering from a rare and deadly form of lung cancer. After the initial shock of this news, he formulates a plan of action that will safeguard the financial security of his pregnant wife, Skyler, and their cerebral palsy-stricken son, Walt Jr.
What this drama presents us with is a man who’s been thrown into a seemingly hopeless situation and who must come to terms with not only his own mortality, but also the knowledge that he’ll be leaving behind the ones he loves in a potentially precarious situation. Walt’s realization that he’ll soon die from cancer, that his lifespan has now been drastically shortened (barring a miraculous recovery), means that death is now for him not an abstract or distant limit to life, but rather an overwhelming presence in every waking moment of his existence. Walt is from the very get-go propelled towards death. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger claimed that all human existence is what he called being towards death, “the possibility of our own impossibility.”
An Authentic Life
Death, as Heidegger sees it, is the most personal life experience that a human being could have. It’s ours and ours alone: once we die we cannot share our experience of it with anyone else because it dies along with us. Heidegger thinks that being towards death can define authentic human existence and provide us with the grounds to question the very meaning of our existence.
Heidegger argues that human categories of experience are built on the knowledge that we’re ultimately finite, historically situated, and grounded in a life towards death. When one realizes and accepts this reality of life towards death, then one is living an authentic existence. Authenticity also includes living every moment to the fullest while at the same time being mindful of life’s transitory place in the stream of time. Heidegger attempts to find the healthiest relationship human beings could have with their own mortality — the best way that a human being could live a life in the face of an unstoppable, certain death.
Heidegger believes that we human beings have chosen profoundly inauthentic ways of living our lives in the face of this threat of unavoidable mortality. In fact, he accuses traditional Western philosophy of being guilty of a dereliction of duty when dealing with the question of death. Philosophy has been more concerned with deathless truths than with the truth of death. For example, the notion of the immortal mind or soul has been privileged over the decaying, finite matter of the body.
Thrown into Time
For Heidegger, the only true facts of life are that we’re born and that we die. Being is what happens in between. We always find ourselves already at a certain point in time and have no control over when we enter into its stream. Our existence on Earth is thus heavily influenced by time. Heidegger isn’t referring to ordinary clock time — which we imagine progressing forward in a series of nows and where a human being is seen merely to exist in a long line of successive, passing moment — but rather time viewed as a limited space (because of its status as a historically conditioned environment) that opens up the possibilities for the emergence of what he would call authentic being, or Dasein.
Humans, says Heidegger, are thrown into time, and there’s something very Heideggerian about the way we’re “thrown” into the narrative timeline of “Breaking Bad” with the explosive opening scene of the pilot episode when Walt is shown driving a careening Winnebago in nothing but tighty whities and a gas mask. The rest of the episode is then told in flashbacks as we come to learn how Walt came to be in this odd situation.
Flashbacks are an important storytelling device in “Breaking Bad,” and we can use them to explain some of Heidegger’s ideas about being and time. Heidegger believes that being emerges from a unity of past, present, and future, with our actions in the past setting out a number of possible futures for us. He says that a human being’s past is never really left behind; it lingers and influences who we are in the present and who we might possibly be in the future.
“Breaking Bad”‘s flashbacks show us the moments in Walt’s life before he became the mythical, meth making and dealing Heisenberg. When viewed in this light, the flashbacks become more than just a means of telling the story. Their philosophical significance comes from the fact that we’re given brief but telling glimpses of the man that Walter once aspired to be (for Heidegger this is one of Walt’s possibilities): the renowned chemist who could provide for Skyler and Walt Jr. while at the same time enjoying all the material trappings that the American Dream has to offer.
Though in some twisted way Walt manages to achieve these aspirations, it’s fair to say that it wasn’t in the manner that he had envisioned! In the Season One episode “…And the Bag’s in the River,” a flashback is triggered when Walt is cleaning up the acid-dissolved remains of Krazy-8’s partner, Emilio, whom Walt had killed when Krazy-8 and Emilio had attacked Walt and Jesse at their mobile desert laboratory. Here we’re shown Walt in his younger days at the Sandia Labs as he tries to quantify the chemical makeup of the human body with his enthusiastic lab assistant, both of them clearly reveling in the joys of scientific leaning. Walt’s past as a skilled chemist has become intertwined, in a comically macabre fashion, with his present situation as a man who has committed murder and who must now actually rid himself of human remains.
In the Season Three episode “Full Measure,” we see Walt in happier times, this time with his pregnant wife Skyler, as they both imagine what the future holds for them now that Walt can afford to provide for the large family they both desire: “We’ve got nowhere to go but up,” gushes an optimistic Walt. There’s a certain poignancy to these flashbacks because of what the viewer already knows about Walt and Skyler’s life and the very different paths that they have taken together.
Heidegger believes that what has already happened in the past is then at the same time already inscribed into our present and our future. Walt’s hubris or arrogance at planning his life (something that we all do when we mark a calendar or diary) along a linear time line (modern clock-time) means that he’s attempting to separate past, present, and future along a flat, unified line of existence. For Heidegger, it’s futile for us to behave this way towards temporality because we don’t exist in such a way that can allow us to see all three — past, present, and future — at the same time, as separate and distinct blocks of time.
By planning or organizing our lives like this we’re actually living inauthentically because we’re passively longing for a future point of time. We can see in Walt’s statement, “We’ve got nowhere to go but up,” that he believes that his status in society and the future happiness of his family is secure. Flashbacks in “Breaking Bad” serve to remind us that Walt’s past has had an influence on his present condition — he’s still, after all, practicing chemistry and looking out for his family’s well being — as well as on his possible futures. Heidegger would call this Walt’s futurity, his Dasein directed towards the future that always contains the past — his has-been.
This has-been of Walt’s past (his passion for chemistry while at Sandia labs, his love for his family, and his desire for happiness) doesn’t just disappear once he learns of the cancer that has resulted in his life taking a drastic new direction. While it would be impossible to argue that Walt’s life hasn’t changed because of these new circumstances, these flashbacks to his former life show us that the man he is now was always a possibility on the horizon of his existence.
Towards Our Own Annihilation
Everything that Walt was before he learned of his impending death, his former life, with its hopes and aspirations of not just a happy family life but also his desire for upward mobility (which is intimately tied up with this notion of the American Dream) is an element of the unified whole rather than a segment of what has passed. This idea of the whole is a very important aspect of Heidegger’s ideas about temporality because he sees the past, present, and future as one and the same. In other words, the future shouldn’t be viewed as being later than the past and the past earlier than the present (which is more in line with this modern, vulgar conception of time). For Heidegger, it is through this unified whole that temporality reveals itself as past-actualizing-future.
As with everything in Heidegger’s philosophy, death is never far away, even when we make plans. When we plan for the future, as Walt does, we’re always moving ever closer towards death because to make plans of this nature and project ourselves into a time that hasn’t yet arrived is always a movement towards our own annihilation because death is, at some point in our lives, a certain, undeniable fact. Yet in our everyday plan-making Heidegger feels that we ignore the possibility of death and live our lives as if all the goals we make will be reached without its possible intrusion. If he were alive today he would no doubt balk at our attitudes towards our own mortality. Western culture remains in a state of abject denial as to the reality of death where, deep down, we refuse to accept that we’re all going to die.
We live in a culture of widespread death anxiety, where we try to fend off the aging process with cosmetic surgery and even dream of being able to download our conscious minds into sophisticated computer hard drives. When Walt is told of his cancer, he’s in a sense made aware of his own embodied existence as a finite being who, like all of us, is vulnerable to suffering and death. If disease does anything for us today, it’s perhaps to remind us of the material nature of our bodies; that we are, when push comes to shove, the same decaying, organic matter as everything else. This is perhaps why we hear Walt say that, “There’s got to be more to human being than that.” He finds it difficult to accept that there may be nothing more to a human being than our flesh and blood make-up.
But this death denial anxiety, denial, and repression are also apparent in Walt’s calculative thinking before he learned of his cancer. For Heidegger, calculative thinking was a way of viewing the world that, in a strange way, took flight from thinking itself. It’s a form of thinking so intent on achieving goals and getting results that it can never really stop to think about everything that is, to slow down and ponder the everyday. We can view it then as a form of thinking about the world that leads to thoughtlessness. Heidegger believes that it is the sciences of the modern technological age that have used this kind of thinking most because it serves specific purposes. While he sees it as beneficial to human needs in the technological world, he laments the fact it is narrow and limited when it comes to thinking and being in the world.
Remember that Walt is a scientist at heart. We can see for ourselves that Walt’s calculative thinking, his planning ahead, didn’t achieve the goals it had set out when he states, “We’ve got nowhere to go but up.” Maybe this is the reason we’re presented with a man in “Breaking Bad” who seems desperately unhappy even before he’s told about his cancer. He’s shown to be an ineffectual chemistry teacher and is humiliated when one of his students sees him moonlighting at a car wash for additional income. Calculative thinkers are only able to take into account the present circumstances, from which they then plan and set out to achieve goals in the future. Walt’s initial disappointment comes from a belief that he hasn’t achieved all that he set out to with his life. His expectations are dashed when things didn’t work out as he’d planned.
Heidegger believes that there’s a possible remedy to this very modern, rational way of thinking: meditative thinking. It’s perhaps easier for us to view meditative thinking as the polar opposite of calculative thinking because for Heidegger, it means to take notice, to observe, pause, and focus on the moments that make up one’s life, “to awaken an awareness of what is actually taking place around us and in us.” Calculative thinking’s main limitation seems to be a lack of awareness and a restlessness that comes about because of a narrow focus on the pursuit of goals and (what we believe) to be beneficial results. If meditative thinking has a goal, it’s thinking itself, which Heidegger believed required patience, care and determination. Rather than mock this kind of thinking for its lack of practicality and usefulness, Heidegger actively encouraged it because it can allow us to focus on the here and now.
Walt the Meditator?
Having learned of his cancer and his own impending death, Walt actually becomes more meditative in his own thinking by dwelling on what is closest and of most concern to him. In the Season Three episode, “Fly,” both Jesse and Walt are working in Gus’s hi-tech meth lab when Walt sees a fly towards the end of their cooking session, leading him to embark on an Ahab-like mission to kill it because he views it as a possible contaminant risk. Walt quickly becomes obsessed, resulting in a number of humorous, slapstick situations between Walt and Jesse as well as drug-induced revelations by Walt about his life, and perhaps most intriguingly of all, his death.
After Jesse spikes Walt’s coffee with sleeping pills to try and calm him down, we see him open up to Jesse with a remarkable frankness and clarity. In a poignant monologue, Walt outlines the seeming lack of control that he has over his life (killing the fly would perhaps have been a minor symbolic victory for him, yet even this alludes him). He talks about how “it wasn’t meant to be this way,” how the perfect moment for him to die was months back, before Skyler became aware of his secret life.
What we can read into this is that Walt has realized that his calculative thinking has failed him. Behaving like the rational scientific man that he is, he always believed that the best result was to make enough money for his family and then to die without revealing to them the man he had to become in order to this. But now this is all tainted, particularly with Skyler, who learns in Season Three of his deception.
This realization brings him into the realm of Heidegger’s meditative thinking. Walt’s reflections on his life and all that he feels has gone wrong with it have now led him to become a more meditative being: he’s now thinking about his existence in a manner that allows him to dwell upon that which is closest and of most concern to him. This (admittedly drug-induced!) moment of clarity with Jesse results in the kind of awakening and awareness that Heidegger believes meditative thinking enables. Walt’s admission to Jesse about his own death and the moment it should have happened is startling because it’s not something we would expect any human being to talk so openly about.
Yet, this is what Heidegger sees as meditative thinking’s particular strength and why he openly encourages this as a way of thinking for all of us. It helps us to think outside the box of modern, rational, calculated thinking and look beyond that which we would see as being merely useful to us. By thinking about his own death, Walt has realized that he’s a finite being who will one day die. And it’s this meditation that pushes Walt closer to what Heidegger would call a more authentic way of living. By talking about the moment he should have died, we can also say Walt is acknowledging his own temporality — his ‘thrownness’ in time as a historically situated being — where each present moment is one of transition because it’s always already fading into the past.
Reflections on The End
The real crux of Heidegger’s authentic-being-towards-death is that we should live every moment as if it will be our last. When we think meditatively about these moments in our lives, as Walt does here (even though it’s obviously tinged with regret), we begin to acknowledge their everyday significance because we realize just how fleeting they are. Calculative thinking reinforces an inauthentic being-towards-death because we ignore the possibility of death when we make plans and set goals for ourselves. It pushes the everyday aside and humans become, as Heidegger says, uprooted from reality, and ultimately, from themselves.
Martin Heidegger has a particular relevance in light of an American TV landscape that’s awash with death and populated by characters who, like Walter White, must often come to terms with their own mortality. If Don DeLillo is correct to say that there’s a tendency for all plots to inevitably hurtle towards death, then perhaps there’s no better man for the job.
Reprinted by permission of Open Court Publishing Company, a division of Carus Publishing Company, dba ePals Media, Chicago, IL, from “Breaking Bad and Philosophy” edited by David R. Koepsell and Robert Arp, © 2012 by Carus Publishing Company.