WARNING – Spoilers for Season Two, Episode Three of Breaking Bad
I’m just now watching Breaking Bad. Not because I didn’t believe it was great. When I started hearing about it, I didn’t want to dig in to something else that would sap my time and energy. I’m now at the point where I’m more than happy to have something else sap my time and energy. Unsurprisingly, the show is great.
This episode pulled together some interesting ideas for me.
We might assume that Walter White is in the process of dismantling his identity. He’s a family man and high-school chemistry teacher who’s decided to make a ton of money by cooking meth. He’s shaven his head. He’s all but quit his job. He’s killed people.
If you don’t remember the situation, Walter and Jesse have escaped from Tuco, only to have Hank show up and engage and kill Tuco. Walter has spent the last day or so with a known and much sought after meth dealer (Tuco) in the company of a known and less sought after meth dealer (Jesse) and he needs some kind of cover story. Now that he’s put himself in a situation where he needs cover, he’s actually going to strip, which flirts with the idea of exposing the truth of oneself.
He shows up in a grocery store naked, apparently in a fugue state. But this apparent unmasking is actually another mask.
By stripping himself down, he’s actually added another layer. He continues to do this in the episode. When he establishes client/patient confidentiality with his hospital-assigned psychiatrist I wondered for a second if he was going to tell this guy that he’s been cooking meth and killing people. Of course, he doesn’t tell him that. Under the guise of exposing himself he adds another layer of disguise. He claims to simply be a middle-class Job, beset by trials and acting out to escape. The details of his life are overwhelming, and he couldn’t handle them. So he ran, then decided to come back. In order to avoid further queries about this, he faked a fugue state.
This false vision of Walter White helps us to see more about the true Walter White. He’s not driven to escape his circumstances. He’s driven to beat them. Walter White wants to win.
This resonates with me not because I have a disturbing, hidden truth at my core, but because I’m perpetually unsettled by how we all create narratives that we think offer us shelter, which actually keep us from shelter. I do this constantly.
Instead of Walter’s arc in Breaking Bad being a hero’s journey—the story of an individual experiencing death and resurrection and expanding and becoming a fuller representation of the potential of human life—Walter’s potential dismantling of himself does not yield transformation, but a continual hardening of the core that’s always been there, adding another layer. Walter White wants to win. He’s always wanted to win.
In this way, stripping down to nothing is a cover-up. Walter White can’t emerge from behind his masks (at least at this point) because to do so would mean accepting help. People who want to win can’t accept help. Walter White can’t lay down his narrative covers and become beholden to other humans. And it’s going to cost him his soul.
It’ll cost me mine. It’ll cost you yours.