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'Bad' Reading: Philosophers Ponder the Big Questions of Walter White
August 29, 2013  | By Eric Gould

[Editor's note: It’s the end of August – a last chance to, among other things, dive into fun summer reads. Here at TVWW, that means recent books about TV. Here's another recommended entry. - DB]

So, you think you've read all there is to read about the TV landmark that is Breaking Bad? Have you considered the Nietzchean view of Walter White?

It's worthy of all the recent attention. Breaking Bad's tale of a nebbishy high-school chemistry teacher gone rogue as a crystal meth drug kingpin has caught the imagination of millions. It also happens to be one of the more exquisitely crafted series of its time.

If you thought you knew where these last shows were going (ahem, you didn't, and you weren't alone) that's all the more reason to enjoy the inventive moral shadings of Walt's (Bryan Cranston) rage against the system – and his ultimate hubris, that will surely be his downfall.

Breaking Bad is an uber-weighty musing on good and evil that has poetically touched on all levels of family, money and social responsibility. So, why not go to the writers that take up those subjects for a living – philosophers?

Professors and editors David Keopsell and Robert Arp have done just that, in their 2012 Breaking Bad and Philosophy: Badder Living Through Chemistry, part of Open Court Press's series called Popular Culture and Philosophy. The series list makes for fascinating browsing, including titles on The Sopranos, dystopian visionary Phillip K. Dick and Sponge Bob Squarepants.

Badder Living is an often riotous yet serious-minded collection of essays by philosophers of all stripes, digging deeply into the antihero psyche of Walter White and other Breaking Bad characters. They excavate down into the tendril questions the series poses for viewers.

If that sounds like it's all in good sport, and not a three-hour exile into your professor's seminar, it is. While going into such classical musings as existentialism, the writers are, like us, fans of the show. So, while tackling big ideas, the writing in most cases is lively and quick, just like its subject.

In the first essay, "Heisenberg's Uncertain Confession," Darryl Murphy points out that Walt's choice to go criminal is an issue of his free will and the philosophical concept of "materialism" – that reality, like the cooking of meth, is chemistry and matter, and all acts must be morally relative, as matter has no innate conscience. Walt's evil acts are often committed coldly, because his is an evil business (drug dealing and addiction) with evil people (the deranged Tuco Salamanca), and therefore requires evil measures. Afterward, Walt can return to his home life, his other choice, where he can live morally.

In "Finding Happiness in a Black Hat," Kimberly Baltzer-Jaray writes about Walt fully experiencing himself in his own power. As Walt elliptically explains to Jesse in the pilot, when asked why he has decided to "break bad" and become a criminal, Walt offers, "I am... awake." He has the exhilaration of envisioning himself as finally in control of his own destiny, even though his time may be short, due to a terminal cancer diagnosis.

As Baltzer-Jaray explains, Walt existentially breaks from a resigned life of "bad faith," his former life as a mousy, downtrodden high-school teacher. He explodes and experiences himself finally as his own, authentic person, agressively taking his wife Skyler in the bedroom. He is an altogether new man, the alter-ego "Heisenberg," the bad boy in the black pork pie hat.

Megan Wright writes on similar themes, with Walt breaking into Nietzche's model of the Superman – the man who dares to create his own morality, even as he lies to everyone close to him. Patricia Brace and Arp write about the cost to society when it makes substances illegal, and how legislating sobriety is fraught with contradictions and unintended consequences.

Maybe most poignantly, in "Walter White's American Vice," Jeffrey Stephenson writes about Walt as an analog of the early 21st century American man – an Everyman reeling from a crumbling economy and crushed under a pile of debt.

In New York last July at a press conference at the New York Times Center, when asked if Breaking Bad was indeed that parable of the new American economic plight, series creator Vince Gilligan demurred, perhaps uncomfortable placing the show in a clearly political context. "Honestly," he said, "I was not thinking that much in terms of the terrible times we went through starting in 2008... there was nothing political I had in mind."

But, nevertheless, with a character in dire financial circumstances at its core, there was clear audience identification with Walt. And up to season four, when he went into sociopathic rage, there was a strong undercurrent that he get away with the crimes, run with the money, perhaps even outrunning his cancer.

The question was a good one, especially for a shared popular work that has become a cultural milestone, and is on the minds of many. "Badder Living" goes further, asking even more.
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