The Foolishness of Walter White
My wife and I finally got around to “binge-watching” the immensely popular TV series Breaking Bad on Netflix. I was initially reluctant to watching this show given my general skepticism to all pop culture phenomena. I assumed this was just another “shoot em up” excuse to glorify sex, violence, and drug abuse. However, as I quickly found out there was much more to this particular show. The drugs and violence of Breaking Bad, in fact, ruins the lives of every single character with no exceptions. Loved ones are lost, families are broken apart, and people die.
The basic plot is that the main character Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher, is diagnosed with lung cancer. He has poor insurance and his wife is pregnant with their second child. In addition, his teenage boy also has a disability. All of this leads him to begin to “cook” crystal meth in order to make enough money to pay for his treatments and possibly leave his family a “nest egg” after he succumbs to the cancer. You see a definitive change in Walt (his nickname on the show) over the course of the series. At first, you might be at least slightly sympathetic to his situation even if questioning his methods, but then by the end of the show, he becomes villainous and in many ways unlikeable.
If you plan to watch the show or are currently watching it, stop reading here – bookmark this page and come back when you’re done.
The biggest takeaway from the show for me is the need to make good decisions and conquer one’s own ego. Walt had complete free will throughout the show. He had other options. In the first season we learn that Walt helped co-found a company with some classmates from college. They secured patents for their research findings while in grad school. The show leads the viewer to believe that Walt was somehow ripped off by his friends who got rich while he got stuck making pocket change teaching high school and because of this the friends feel guilty and offer to pay for his treatment. However, towards the end of the series it is revealed that Walt sold his share in the company willingly. Walt in his pride refuses the money offered.
Walt does a good job of hiding his shadow life as a drug kingpin from his wife through the first few seasons, but eventually she finds out (by the way, her sister’s husband is a DEA agent). After his wife learns his secret, Walt repeatedly tells her that he is cooking meth for his family. Yet his actions place his family in a far worse situation than Walt dying and leaving them broke ever could. Over and over again Walt and his partner get into situations that lead to near arrest, getting killed, and/or losing their money. Walt’s intelligence gets him out of most of these situations, but his foolish pride and greed leads him right back into them again and again.
At the height of his “glory,” Walt amasses a fortune of $80 million – far more than his kids and grandkids could ever spend. Several times his partner Jesse and his wife try to convince him to stop, but Walt never listens. His greed is too great. His feelings of grandiosity keep in the “game.” Each subsequent hurdle gets bigger and bigger, but as Walt conquers each and every one his ego grows exponentially as well. Towards the end of the series, Hank (his DEA brother-in-law) finally discovers that Walt is the infamous “Heisenberg” (the codename Walt adopts) he has been diligently pursuing, forcing Walt to frantically hide his money out in the desert. At an earlier point, Hank thought that another chemist murdered earlier was the true Heisenberg and Walt was content to let him believe this until Hank began referring to him as a genius. Walt’s ego couldn’t take this so he convinced Hank that the real Heisenberg was still out there.
By this time, Walt’s shady ways had caused a rift to grow between him and Jesse leading his partner to work with the police to bring him down. Without delving into too much detail here, a series of events leads to a gang of Neo-Nazi meth dealers killing Hank, stealing most of Walt’s money, and kidnapping Walt’s partner Jesse, who they then torture and force to cook meth for them. Walt makes it home to his wife and kids, but when his wife finds out that Hank is dead she blames him, attacks him, and forces him to leave.
Walt was now alone. His family blamed him for Hank’s death. By this point, Jesse now hated him. With the police now in pursuit of him, his crooked lawyer also disappears leaving him with no one else to turn to. Walt is forced into hiding. After some months go by, Walt returns to take out the Neo-Nazi gang and rescue Jesse. In one last act of genius, Walt concocts a machine gun wired to work through his car’s keyless entry remote. He uses this to kill the gang while he dives onto Jesse to protect him. Yet in the process, Walt is himself shot – thus he ends up killing himself.
In the end, the cancer doesn’t kill Walt. A rival drug lord doesn’t kill Walt. He is killed by his own decisions. He is killed by his own greed. He is killed by his own ego. Many viewers complained about the ending, but I find the ending perfect. Walt dies alone in a meth lab touching and admiring the equipment. In his last words to his wife, he finally admits that he wasn’t doing this for his family – he was doing it for himself. He liked the adventure, the thrill of being a drug lord, and the ludicrous amounts of money he made. He claimed that he felt “alive” for the first time in his life. Because of his actions, he died alone. His family was destroyed. His children lost a father and his wife lost a husband. Every person he dealt with along the way either died or went into hiding. Worse yet, he spent the last two years of his life pursuing riches and not dedicating his last days to his family.
Of course, Breaking Bad is far from wholesome “Christian” entertainment. Still, important lessons about greed, drug abuse, and making good decisions can be gleaned from the series.
To live as Walter White did, basking in our own intelligence and bathing in our own greed, living only for ourselves, is to live a foolish life. If we live our lives consumed by our own egos, we will die alone as fools.