Easily one of the best shows in television history, Breaking Bad owns up to its ingenuity through its complex philosophy. The great thing about Breaking Bad is that the characterizations, plot lines, and themes are delicately planned out and are designed to create questions for the audience. We constantly question Walt’s motives and ask ourselves if what he is doing is just. I will be using David Koepsell and Robert Arp’s Breaking Bad and Philosophy to help explain the intricate morals, cumulative transformations, and real-life translations.
Walter White starts out as a high-school chemistry teacher living with his wife, a son with cerebral palsy, a soon-to-arrive daughter, and overwhelming pecuniary problems. Having left a successful company and settling instead as a teacher, Walt is left dissatisfied. Uxorious and unable to do what he wants, Mr. White’s life is dictated by those around him. He is a man of reason, but he lacks assertiveness and is disparaged by his ambitious DEA brother-in-law Hank. Here we have an excellent setup for the plot. Walter White is a nerdy chemist who cannot stand up for himself. What makes Walt’s characterization so powerful is its shock factor. By going from a very reserved teacher and interim car washer to a devious drug producer, the viewers get interested in Walt’s character. We do not expect this sudden transformation, which makes it all the more interesting.
Speaking of transformations, what is this whole Heisenberg persona about? Faced with cancer and a sudden realization of death, Walter White is detached from his conformed life. No longer concerned with living in accordance with the rules and authorities, Walt is able to choose his own life. Knowing he going to die one way or another, Walter is freed from his shackles to live the life he never had. Walter joins the meth business after observing Hank bust an operation. The large sums of money persuade Walt to produce meth to provide for his family when he is gone. Walt’s complicity in murder and drug distribution leads him to create Heisenberg. It can be argued whether Heisenberg is an alter ego or Walter himself. When he becomes Heisenberg, he is transcending his own morals, becoming Nietzsche’s Superman. At the same time, Heisenberg’s ruthlessness and spontaneity start to take over Walt’s personal life. We watch this rise to power in his everyday actions. Paradoxically, the cancer that limits Walt’s life subsequently opens up new more possibilities. Walt’s motives slowly change from providing money to being in control. Instead of thinking about the present, Walt starts to see life in the bigger picture. Our former chemistry teacher knows death is imminent, so he decides to do something about it. Walt’s carpe diem attitude leads him to do as he pleases without fear. Walter White no longer has to deal with the consequences of his actions, for Heisenberg has it all under control. There is a sort of connection we feel to Walter White. Trapped by the pressures of society and money, we can relate to Walt’s change of heart. A perfectly normal man is corrupted by the problems of our daily lives. When he dawns the black hat, Walt enjoys taking part in the illegal drug business, and it gives him a new meaning in life. Walt is creating a life worth living.
But while Walter is having fun blowing up cars and buildings in the name of his family, are his actions justifiable? Let us start off by examining his motives. Walter constantly tells his wife that everything he does is for her and the kids, and it is true for the most part. Cut short by cancer, Walt’s life is now dedicated to preparing his family for when he is gone. He arrives at the conclusion that he must acquire $737,000. What choice does Walt have? In the first season, Walt pridefully rejects his friend Elliott’s offer to pay for his treatment. Right here Walt could have avoided his life of crime. As soon as he declined the boon, he was destined to break bad. So, is selling meth to pay for his family’s future morally right? Yes and no. While Walter is not killing anyone, he is making the means to do so. Providing people with dangerous drugs is certainly bad, yet Walt is only making it. He and Gale Boetticher reason that people will get meth no matter what, but by creating pure meth, it is right. It is the user’s choice whether or not to do meth, so Walt is not responsible. Therefore, Walt has a sustainable source of money for his family. All the while junkies are dying because of him. But according to utilitarian principles, there is a contradiction: what is best for the people is best for virtue. There is a demand for meth, which, if supplied, will make them happy. On the other hand, people die from it, too.
Walter is responsible for many deaths for that matter. Overall, Walter is responsible for anywhere from 30 to 200 deaths. About ten of them were direct and the rest were indirect. Let us examine how justified these murders were. The first two deaths of Emilio and Krazy-8 were intentional. In a position of certain death, Walter acted in self-defense when he killed the former with phosphine gas at the threat of gunpoint. Krazy-8 is a bit more complex, though. Kept prisoner, is can be argued that Walt’s choking and killing the drug dealer was out of self-defense. Murder alone is immoral, but it can be said from a utilitarian viewpoint that it was acceptable. Think about it: both victims were drug dealers who have certainly killed before. By killing the both of them, Walt has potentially prevented future drug deals and murders. Several of Gus’ bodyguards were killed by gunshot and two dealers were run over by Walt. The first two are inexcusable as they are pure cold-blooded murder. The last, however, must be considered carefully. Walt killed the two dealers in order to save his partner Jesse from being shot. Jesse and Walter are very close so it is understandable why he would do such a thing. Yet then again, Walt did get out of the car and shoot one of the guys point blank. Some of the deaths were not as direct. Gale Boetticher was Walt’s former lab assistant before he was gunned down by Jesse. In this case, Gale was innocent and had no need to be expended. Walt ordered the hit, and in doing so, made Jesse a killer. Prior, Jesse had a (somewhat) clean record. Like his merciless employer Gus, Walt used Jesse as a mere instrument. Here, the blame is on Walt. Jane, Jesse’s late girlfriend, died from choking on her vomit; however, Walter could have easily prevented it. After accidentally pushing the drugged out girl on her back, she started to choke, and Walter just stood by and did nothing about it. Again, this could go both ways. This event could have been avoided had Jane done the responsible thing and not taken heroine. Conversely, Walter White could have intervened and saved her from dying. This one is up to you to decide. As a result of Jane’s death, her father, a now grieving air traffic controller, mindlessly crashed two planes. About 167 people died as a result. Walt inadvertently caused a chain of events leading to this, but it is a long stretch. Gus, Hector Salamanca, and Tyrus’ deaths were orchestrated by both Walt and Hector. While Mr. White supplied the bomb and came up with the idea, it was also Hector’s decision to go through with it or not. Both of them were under the threat of Gustavo Fring, so it was a dual effort. Here we have the same logic as Emilio and Krazy-8. Gus was a sociopath and he definitely deserved to die. Killing him freed Walt and his family from death and prevented further damage.
For further reading: Breaking Bad and Philosophy by David R. Koepsell and Robert Arp (2012)