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The Darkly Changing Life of Breaking Bad's Walter White

Updated on December 20, 2020

The first season of AMC's Breaking Bad reveled in truly ingenious dark humor. Eliciting laughs from episodes dealing with cancer, drug addiction, and methamphetamine production hardly embodies an easy task for writers. Amazingly — and morbidly — they did so. The lead actors deserve enormous respect for credulously making the dark comedy work.

The dark comedy side of the series did not last for long.

The tale of Walter White's descent into a life of crime started humorously. As the series progressed, the humor faded, and a foreboding sense of menace and suffering took over the series.

The adventures of Walter and his partner, Jesse Pinkman, slowly transitioned from black humor slapstick to complete tragedy. Walter's motives are somewhat understandable. Stricken with life-threatening cancer, he chooses to cook and sell meth to provide for his family. Ironically, in death, Walter White can provide for his family. This goal was one he could not do in life.

With even greater irony, his ill-gotten gains pay for previously out of reach medical care. The medical care saves his life as cancer goes into remission.

Walter White's life, however, is ruined because he has reinvented himself as a criminal. The criminal life is not Walter White's calling. It's not who he is, but it is who he becomes.

Breaking Bad Means Breaking Into A Disjointed Life Transition

Both Zen and western empirical philosophy suggest life is the result of experience. The things one does in life -- the experiences undertaken in life -- craft and shape a personality. A person's perspectives on life are shaped by how he or she lives life.
Breaking one's life in a different direction means significant changes. Walter White is not a criminal, or so he believes. His perception of himself is that of a man providing for his family. Impressions mean nothing as they reflect biased perspectives on experiences.
Experiences flutter through the lens of the mind. The human mind has the potential to be rational. The human mind is often irrational. Human actions do frequently follow the path of the senseless.
Walter White may not perceive himself to be a criminal. The motivations behind his actions create a shield designed to rationalize his actions and free him of guilt or misgivings.

Perception is irrelevant. Walter White is a criminal.

Personal perceptions and self-serving moralizing mean nothing. The actions Walter White takes turn him into a criminal. White suffers because his transition to a criminal was far rockier and rushed than found in the life of "traditional" criminals.

Walter White's suffering derives from his lack of life experience as a criminal. Walter White remains, in many ways, the person he was before entering a life of crime. Once he moves into his new life, Walter cannot correctly balance his family man's prior persona with his newfound criminal identity. No complete transformation occurred. White's half-measured approach to embarking on a life of crime is the source of his pain and misery.

Breaking Bad and No Going Back

Walking a balancing act between a beloved family man and a member of the criminal underworld is not possible. At least not for Walter White. In the world of Breaking Bad, any involvement with the drug syndicate requires an acceptance of clinical murder. Lives require snuffing out in a cold-hearted, emotionless, and calculating manner. Ruthless criminals perceive murder no different from how any business terminates an employee. A criminal syndicate's approach to termination is much more final.

A sudden death looms for anyone at any time. Lives suffer violent ends without warning and any second thoughts, moral qualms, or guilty misgivings. Walter cannot go that far. His inability to look the other way at the violence, death, and nihilism around him. Walter White's failure to fully absorb the criminal life creates the conflicts that prevent him from "taking yes for an answer."

Walter White's refusal to fully embrace criminality is selective. White kills others. He attempts to kill others. The actions are born of self-preservation. While Walter White may maintain a moral code, the code is limited. And quite honestly, the code breaks down at numerous points as the series progresses.

Breaking Bad is exactly what Walter White does. Walter White travels to a place he cannot come back from. The uncontrolled nature of the universe causes Walter to break bad in an unchecked direction. Chemistry and lab experiments may occur in a controlled environment, but the chaotic nature of life is not so easy to measure.

Walter White chose the path of breaking bad, but the path took different courses, and Walter White ended up breaking bad in ways he neither wanted nor could imagine.

Should he have expected any other outcome?


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