TV MONTH: Breaking Bad (2008 - present)
THE EXISTENTIALIST ANTIHERO.
by Justin Langdon
Jesse: "A guy who actually wants to be in prison?"
Walter: "There’s more than one type of prison."
The word “existentialism” seems to strike a perfect balance between nebulous and highbrow, facilitating a wide usage with sparse understanding. It is a term that’s used about as consistently as, say, “irony” is, with a meaning that seems to morph to fit its surrounding context. So it’s perhaps no surprise that, sometime in the middle of the second season of Breaking Bad, I caught myself excitedly saying aloud to a room of no one, “Walter White is an existentialist!” I, too, am guilty. But before you judge, allow me to elaborate.
Existentialism is better understood as a cultural movement than as a definitive school of thought, which perhaps lends reason to its modern day ambiguity. Nietzsche’s notorious exclamation “God is dead” and his focus on the vacuum that ensues is an important precursor to the movement. Absent a God, humanity is without an external creator of meaning and arbiter of values. Couple this with the inherent inability of science to make headway in the world of “oughts” and suddenly there may be no objective basis to morality. This is a scary place to be. It’s too easy to slip into a passive, nihilistic disposition where there is no meaningful reason to act one way over another, and where “good and evil” are simply words detached of any transcendental importance. Nietzsche had his way of responding to existence in an indifferent universe, and the Existentialists, namely Sartre, had theirs.
Rather than succumbing to despair, existentialism confronts the meaninglessness pervading the human condition by prescribing action. In a crude way, it is philosophical self-help for those who find the state of our existence to be fundamentally unsettling. Because humans are purportedly without any preordained essence, we must define ourselves through the choices we make. To exist is thus to be free, and to be free is to navigate your own vessel down a river rife with forks. Meaning may not objectively exist to the existentialist, but it is there for each individual to create on her own terms.
Walter: “Look we all in this room, we love each other, we want what’s best for each other and I know that I am very thankful for that. What I want… what I want, what I need… is a choice.”
Skyler: “What does that mean?”
Walter: “…sometimes I feel like I never actually make any of my own choices. I mean… my entire life it just seems I never had a real say about any of it. This last one, cancer, all I have left is how I choose to approach this.”
Breaking Bad begins with a Walter White who fits easily into the spineless nice-guy archetype. He’s a good father, a mild mannered husband, and vastly over-qualified to be teaching high school chemistry. It even seems that his willingness to fit the mold that external circumstances have carved out for him has prevented him from reaching his potential. His passivity has trapped him somewhere near the top of Maslow’s hierarchy, but falling just short of reaching self-actualization. Early Walter White is an everyman, representing the vast majority of individuals in a post-industrial society who hover around the peak of the normal distribution curve of our capabilities, but are either too timid or too willing to exercise self-deception to do anything about it.
The story wastes no time getting to where it wants to be; in the pilot episode, Walter learns he has terminal cancer. Death loses its innocuous status as an uncomfortable thought pushed to the margins of the mind. It’s there in the forefront now, leaving Walter no choice but to acknowledge his finitude. It’s a narrative that’s hackneyed by now—a weak man experiences impending death, is reawakened, and comes to live on his own terms—but what keeps Breaking Bad so fresh and enjoyable is the authentic existence into which Walter White enters.
Jesse: “It’s weird is all, okay? It doesn’t compute. Listen, if you’ve gone crazy or something…I mean, if you’ve…if you’ve gone crazy or depressed, I’m just saying…that’s something I need to know about. Okay? I mean, that affects me.”
Walter: “I am awake.”
In existentialism, the concept of authenticity is the standard by which we evaluate our lives. It is a normative way of being, a value assumed as foundational within a world devoid of any preexisting values. To live authentically, in an existential sense, is to live in a manner that is one’s own and to which one commits oneself. This all sounds vague—and philosophers do like to be vague—but the idea here is that you should not imitate how a _____ person lives, the blank being any identifying social role. You should not try to live as a “writer” lives. You should not try to live as a “professor” lives. Or as a “sports enthusiast” lives. No: to live authentically is to make decisions because you want to own them, and these decisions reveal the values that only you can establish.
So, yes, Walter does adopt a new outlook on life once he fully comes to accept he’s a perishable good. But the true beauty behind Breaking Bad is how euphoric it is to watch a character come to own his own existence. We get to see a man who realizes that to live is indeed to be free—that we are irrevocably faced with choices of what life we want to lead every single day, and it is up to us as individuals to make these choices. This freedom is scary, and we find routine ways of evading it—ways of tricking ourselves into feeling trapped and even like victims of our own lives. Walter shows just how illusory such limitations are by refusing to act as a slave to the social expectations placed upon him. His bravery extends well beyond the occasional tough guy act: it is existential bravery. And I think perhaps this is why we return to watch his transformation time and time again. Because one can’t help but feel a little awe, seeing someone achieve this rare state of being.
Existentialism places the burden of becoming what you want squarely on your own shoulders. The responsibility cannot be shed; it is a condition intrinsic to the nature of our existence. Walter took it upon himself to become who he wanted. Actions that began as thinly-veiled altruistic gestures for his family eventually revealed themselves for the self-interested beasts they truly were. The intrigue with which he holds Hank’s gun and the interest he shows for the meth money both preceded any knowledge of cancer.
Walt knew all along that he wanted to be “the man doing the knocking,” and it’s terrific fun to watch him get there.
Justin Langdon is a twenty-something living in New York City who knows exactly what he is doing with his life. He once took a class on existentialism and it scarred him permanently. He tumbls here.
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