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Heidegger Would Have Been a Fan of 'Breaking Bad': A Philosophical Take on the AMC Series

By Craig Simpson | Indiewire July 11, 2013 at 2:19PM

Thoughts on "Breaking Bad," death and Heidegger in an excerpt from "'Breaking Bad' and Philosophy: Badder Living Through Chemistry."
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'Breaking Bad'
Ursula Coyote/AMC 'Breaking Bad'

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.

When we plan for the future, as Walt does, we're always moving ever closer towards death.

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.

Calculative Thinking

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.

'Breaking Bad'
Ursula Coyote/AMC 'Breaking Bad'

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.

'Gliding Over All'
'Gliding Over All'

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.

This article is related to: Television, TV Features, Breaking Bad, AMC





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