Breaking Bad

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.

Bryan Cranston in 'Breaking Bad'
Ursula Coyote/AMC Bryan Cranston in 'Breaking Bad'

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.

There's something very Heideggerian about the way we're "thrown" into the narrative timeline of "Breaking Bad."

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.

'...And the Bag's in the River'
'...And the Bag's in the River'

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.