I had mentioned before I had never watched Breaking Bad, because I don't have cable and very rarely watch TV. I finally bought the series and have been watching them. Even though I hadn't seen any of them before, I had a strong hunch what it would be about, because of the state of American society, and what I would write about it. For that matter, do write about it.
Turned out I was right. And it's a subversive program, which I didn't expect.
Breaking Bad is about meaning, importance and community. Walter White doesn't have much of any of them, and when he starts cooking meth, he achieves all of them. Example: in many ways he's closer to Jesse than his natural family. His wife....God, what kind of wimp would ever marry such a pompous self-righteous woman? And yet, even she falls under the spell of his life - at first, until both her and his son begin to hate him because of what he has turned into.
He achieves, for the first time, feeling really alive. Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, said what we want out of life is the feeling of being truly alive. Walter achieves that. He achieves mastery over his life, competence, control, being really good at what he does. He also once said he was "awake," and in the last episode, said he did what he did because he "felt alive."
In his case, he felt alive by living on the edge. This is a fairly common thing, and generally leads to disaster, which it certainly did in Walter's case. He was, unfortunately, seduced by the Dark Side.
Everybody seeks community according to their desires. Such community could be as small as two married people or two friends. Not many people can live totally alone as recluses. Those who are truly isolated are defined as schizoid, which is listed as a mental/emotional disorder.
It’s not just community people seek; there is also meaning and importance, again, the feeling of being truly alive, of having weight to their lives, of being connected to something larger than themselves.
People have to feel emotionally connected. Unfortunately, this can be a good or bad thing, depending on what they’re connected to. Walter, for example, is connected to the wrong thing - cooking meth. If only it was a good thing. But it’s not, because people are inherently flawed.
The word “religion” means “to tie together, to bind.” In other words, to connect. To have community, meaning and importance makes people feel truly feel alive, satisfied with their life, achieving competence and mastery. The true meaning of that word, “religion,” is why I believe everything is a religion, for good or bad.
Community is so important to that one of the worst things that can be done to people is to ostracize them, to “shun” them. To cast them out of their community. Is the purpose of this not to humiliate people, to take away the meaning and importance in their lives?
John D. McDonald wrote that people are “herd animals, social and imitative.” This fact is why people are so sensitive to being ostracized, ridiculed and humiliated.
Walter feels humiliated in his life. Mostly he's not, but he doesn't think he has the money and power he deserves. And the control and mastery over his own life.
Aristotle defined happiness as prosperity and virtue. Prosperity is relative. We are today far richer materially than Aristotle ever was, and the word "virtue" breaks down into the root words, "the powers of man." Those powers can be for good or bad, which is why the word "virtue" should not be used. There is far too much of a moral connotation to it.
Walter achieves his prosperity and his powers. He doesn't use his powers for much good. but again, I'll repeat, he achieves control and mastery over his own life, the feeling of being alive, meaning, importance, and community.
What is subversive about the program is that in real life Walter could never achieve what he did. But the program isn't real life. But it does illustrates a quote by Dostoevsky: “Whoever has experienced the power and the unrestrained ability to humiliate another human being automatically loses his own sensations. Tyranny is a habit, it has its own organic life, it develops finally into a disease. The habit can kill and coarsen the very best man or woman to the level of a beast. Blood and power intoxicate ... the return of the human dignity, repentance and regeneration becomes almost impossible.”
Walter suffers from Hubris, which the Greeks defined as a type of insanity - and ends up losing everything ("Guess I got what I deserved..."). Not surprisingly, he follows the exact sequence the Greeks outlined: Koros to Hubris to Ate to Nemesis.
And that is why Walter loses his conscience, although he redeems himself at the end. The last song, Badfinger's "Baby Blue," illustrates that: "Guess I got what I deserved...it's all over now, Baby Blue." For that matter, the opening Badfinger song in this article could have been used, too: "If you want it, here it is, come and get it."
I’ve said before that the purpose of the State is to turn people into cogs in a machine. Organic cogs, as in “Star Trek’s” Borg, but nonetheless machines. Walter, I'm sure, felt he was a cog, since he taught in a public high school to students who weren't interested. But, in his own way, he broke free from the Machine. He "broke bad."
It occurred to me to wonder if that Walter had achieved something as a teacher - if his students had been interested in what he taught instead of bored and inattentive...perhaps he wouldn't have broke bad. And, I'm sure, having a better family life couldn't have hurt. Instead, I think he probably felt like a serf wearing a collar.
Walter makes $42,000 a year as a teacher. It's more than enough. If you can't be happy on $42,000 you're not going to be happy on $42 million. But there are far more important things than money. Feeling truly alive trumps that, and the comparison isn't even close.
In many ways, the purpose of the State (and society today) is to destroy community and therefore to impoverish, humiliate and degrade everyone. Then, of course, comes payback from the oppressed – revenge.
And that is exactly what Walter did. After all, living well is the best revenge. And Walter, in his own way, lived more in one year than many people live in their entire lives.