A while back, my wife and I watched the pilot episode of “Breaking Bad,” the 2008-2013 TV show about Walter White, a weak-kneed, pushover high school chemistry teacher who turns into a meth-producing drug dealer and murderer. My wife and I are Christians, and have no interest in drugs or the sick world of criminals; thus the reason why the show came and went and never entered our home for almost a decade. I should also say that two years ago I watched the pilot episode on my own, and then the second episode, but chose to end my viewing there because in the second episode the show simply got too gory and lost what I thought made the pilot episode so great. A year later, I finally got around to asking my wife to watch the pilot episode as well, because I wanted her to see someone depict something I talk about a lot with her: a man who decides to fully live.
What made the pilot episode so great, and what they abandoned in the second episode, was the story of a man who had spent much of his life getting pushed around by life. In the first half of the pilot episode, we see a plaque on the wall Walter received from doing research that led to a Nobel Prize in 1985. That was almost 20 years before the time in Walter’s life that the show picks up. So what did Walter do for those 20 years? We don’t know much, except that he got married to Skyler, a woman at least 10 years younger than him, who aspires to be a writer and dutifully manages the household finances. They had a son, Walter Jr., who is now a high schooler, has slight mental problems and is physically handicapped.
The last two decades have not led to financial security for the Whites. They bought a home in the Albuquerque suburbs that has a deficient hot water heater. Coupons adorn their fridge. Walter’s wife Skyler sells some of their household goods on eBay to earn extra cash. She is so emotionally invested in it that it seems reasonable to conclude that they really need the cash, she prides herself on being helpful to her husband, and she is a competitive person. Walter’s vehicle looks nice enough, but everything else in their life indicates that they have to pinch pennies to make ends meet.
Walter’s life as a full-time high school chemistry teacher — replete with students who clearly don’t care about what he is passionate about — and working an after-school job as a car wash cashier/detailer for an understaffed, overbearing foreign owner, indicates that the last 20 years of Walter’s life have been a steady decline into apathy, mediocrity, subservience to others, and the crushing of his spirit.
His relationship with his wife indicates this as well. In the morning, she serves him breakfast with bacon. Not real bacon that feels good, tastes good, and matches most American mens’ images of what a real man eats, but veggie bacon. She insists on it because it is healthier, he is sick, and he is getting older. In a way, Skyler is acting out of love. She doesn’t want Walter to die of heart disease or some other preventable disease brought on by an unhealthy diet. She still wants him to be able to eat bacon (of some sort). And at the supermarket, you’ll find that non-pork bacon such as turkey bacon is usually cheaper than pork bacon, so again she’s taking pride in looking out for the household. She is being a supportive wife. The trouble is that she takes pride in doing things that she thinks are helpful (which they are in a real sense) but which take a larger toll on Walter’s will to live — his morale — his sense of manhood.
We see another example later in the episode when Walter arrives home after a terrible day at both his regular job and his part-time job. At breakfast Skyler had questioned him about when he’d get home, and pushed him to stand up to his foreign boss and leave the car wash at 5 p.m. Any other day it would have been simply a wife telling her husband what to do, which is pretty soul-crushing to a man. But as we see when he arrives home harried and frazzled, on this day she has prepared a surprise party for him. His house is full of guests and relations who have had to wait an extra long time for him to get home from his part-time job, at which he again had to stay longer than usual. She didn’t want to inconvenience the guests, or be embarrassed by Walter’s uncontrollable tardiness (which is on account of his being a dutiful pushover). While ostensibly welcoming him as the returning hero, she whispers her complaint about his tardiness into his ear: a discouragement, a nitpick, a chastisement, an indication of who is really the boss in their relationship. She provides a good life for him, she thinks. He just has to follow her rules.
It gets worse later when they are in bed. It is the night of his 50th birthday. Hitting the 50 year mark is a milestone for anyone, let alone a man who has experienced such a humiliating stretch of years as Walter. Skyler clearly went to great lengths to organize his surprise party. But just as she put the needs of her guests ahead of him — why chastise the guest of honor if he is truly the person valued? — on his birthday night she put the needs of herself and her household ahead of Walter. In no sense did she put him first, even though Skyler did put his needs somewhere on her list of to-do’s. In bed, we see her trying to sell something on eBay. She sits upright next to Walter and, while she engages in commerce, she ticks off the Walter box off her list by manually stimulating him. This is humiliating. A boy can do this on his own. Why does a 50-year old married man need a hand job from his wife? Are her lady parts not working? Hardly. She is simply too preoccupied to notice that she is not giving him what he deserves and wants. And while he minds, he doesn’t object. The fact that he minds is apparent from his inability to get or maintain an erection. He is not turned on by her overt sexual behavior because she is not connecting to him. She is treating him and his sexual needs like a chore that needs doing. Just as she wouldn’t emotionally invest in taking out the trash, or put on makeup or lingerie to pay the bills, she won’t get off the computer or even look at Walter in order to sexually gratify him. And so she can’t. On top of the inherent problems of the situation, she then proceeds to discuss the day’s business with him, while vainly attempting to sexually please him. As usual, when discussing business with him, she is the one in charge and he is the one who gets pushed around. Then when she discovers that he is not erect, she blames him. “What is going on down there?” She puts the blame on him and his body, not on herself. Whose birthday is it anyway? Who is supposed to be the recipient of pleasure? Apparently Skyler. After ordering him to relax and focus on getting pleasured — which to some extent does happen — Skyler reverts to her real focus, which is the eBay sale. The climax of the bed scene is her success in selling something on eBay, not pleasing Walter.
Skyler’s brother Hank, who is a DEA officer, acts like the alpha male/frat boy jock at Walter’s birthday party. He throws his arm around Walter, takes Walter’s beer out of Walter’s hand, jokes about Walter’s huge brain and offers a toast — while drinking Walter’s beer. He then flips on the local TV news so he can see a news report about a drug bust that he made. Everybody focuses on Hank. At Walter’s party.
At his car wash part-time job, Walter works for a foreigner of Arabic or Greek origin. The owner might be nice enough, but he does not truly value Walter’s boundaries, which Walter had previously (and probably repeatedly) laid out. Instead, he treats this 50 year-old, Nobel Prize-winning researcher, father, and husband like a 16 year-old high school brat. He orders him around to perform menial tasks, even lower than the already low task of working a probably minimum-wage job as a cashier. The owner’s foreign origin compounds the humiliation. It is like servitude to a master who utterly does not understand, or care to understand, oneself.
After all this, we see the pivotal event in Walter’s life. It clarifies everything for him.
Walter finds out that he is going to die. He has inoperable lung cancer. At best, he would have a few years to live.
In conjunction with the information Walter gained from Hank at his birthday party, and subsequent information he gains from a ride-along with Hank on another drug bust, Walter makes the greatest decision of his life.
He decides to take control of his life using the gifts and talents at his disposal. He casts aside the societal, legal, and moral restraints to which he had hitherto submitted. He curses out his foreign boss, makes fun of his foreign appearance, and quits his job. He physically assaults and intimidates a large, young man who made fun of Walter, Jr. at a clothing store. He blackmails a former student, who now deals meth, into partnering with Walter to make a lot of money producing and selling high-quality meth. And at the end of the episode, we see things radically changed in bed. When Skyler starts to explain how she doesn’t like the way Walter has been acting over the past few weeks, Walter turns to her in bed, begins to kiss and caress her, and then physically makes it clear to her that he has regained his manhood. I love the last line of the episode, in which Skyler, shocked and pleased, gasps, “Walter! Is that you?”
Yes, Skyler, that is Walter. Walter was there all along. Walter never left. He just hid. He just allowed himself to go so far below the surface of his true nature, for so long, that most people never would have had any idea that Walter was anything other than a wimp and a loser.
Walter summed up the change in one conversation with Jesse, his former student-turned-meth dealer. Jesse reasonably asks for an explanation as to why his former chemistry teacher has embarked on a life of serious crime. Walter doesn’t offer a lengthy explanation, nor a philosophical one. He stands there silent for a while as Jesse questions him, and then simply tells Jesse “I am awake.”
That is true. Walter was asleep. Slumbering below the surface of the cog in the machinery of everyday life — at work, at his other job, in bed, with his kid — Walter was itching to get out. Dying, in fact, not from cancer, but from not getting out. From suppressing his true nature.
That could be anybody’s story. In this case, it took a medical death sentence to stimulate Walter into making a decision. Though we should be clear — the lung cancer and short life expectancy did not cause Walter to act. Walter simply could have acquiesced to his terminal cancer in the same way he had acquiesced to every other force imposing itself on him.
Walter acted because he wanted to. He valued something else above the supposed rewards of acquiescence to Skyler, society, his job, his foreign boss, his life. He decided and acted because he wanted something that was worth the cost of going after it. That also could be anybody’s story. We can all be there and do that.
In Walter’s case, he breaks bad. That is, he makes the monumental decision to change his life by means of producing and dealing drugs, and all that goes with it. The second episode depicted that lifestyle, and since it is inherently repulsive to me, I turned it off and do not have any interest in going back. The show’s creator made a choice to focus on Walter as a drug dealer. He intentionally made Walter descend into a criminal life, and Walter deformed himself in the process. Walter becomes less relatable and likeable throughout the show’s five seasons. I have no interest in seeing depravity. I have enough of my own to deal with, and thankfully it doesn’t involve dead bodies.
But what we can all take away from that pilot episode, which shows a character arc that is complete in itself and can be used as a model for others in real life, is how a man can change his life simply by virtue of making the decision to do so, and sticking with it, no matter the cost. We don’t have to embrace vice in order to radically change our lives. That was simply the direction that the show’s creator wanted to go in. It’s also what the networks want to show, because they love to degrade Americans by holding up evil characters for us to emulate. Disregard that nonsense. Take away the key principle: if the cost is high but the prize is worth more, we can change our lives. We have the force to do so in our souls. Man can do amazing things that seem impossible. The only thing that separates us from doing the seemingly impossible is the will to do it, stick with it, and not quit when the going gets hard. It will get hard. Taking out the trash can be hard. Driving to work can be hard. Sitting still in church or at school can be hard. But we do these things all the time. Why not stick it out through things that are really worth it to us, as opposed to only doing those things that society expects of us and rewards us for doing? Why value what others think and want over and above what we ourselves want? We don’t have to disrespect or disregard others‘ needs and feelings in order to do what we want. But we may need to knock the needs and feelings of other down a notch or two on our list of priorities, and hoist ours up a few notches, in order to make a more even-handed assessment of everyday situations. If you’re like me, who tends to fall into the party line and do what comes easy — that is, what is socially acceptable and rewarded — our problem is not thinking too little of others, it’s thinking too much of them and too little of ourselves. We don’t have to become drug-dealing murderers in order to fix that situation.
What do you want badly enough that you’ll pay any price, suffer any repercussions, to make it happen?