Breaking Bad as Literature
Get your fix of high-grade Shmoop.
If you're anything like us, Breaking Bad nailed you to your Netflix for weeks, and you burned through all five seasons like it was Heisenberg's Blue Sky.
Maybe you're even a Breaking Bad superfan: you shaved your head, got a tattoo that says "I Am The One Who Knocks," bought a pink teddy bear and mangled it up just to have one for yourself, and switched your college major to X-ray crystallography.
We at Shmoop have done all of that—and we've written academic papers on it, to boot.
So if you're interested in getting super deep into the show, you've come to the right place. Over the course of fifteen lessons, we'll be squashing your head with an ATM machine full of literary analysis. We're talking everything from Breaking Bad as a classical tragedy; the undertones of Shakespeare, Nietzsche, and Kafka; its visual symbolism and clever filming; why people hate Skyler; and everything in between.
Whether you're just a casual fan or a theory-crafting addict, we know you'll enjoy getting your fix of high-grade Shmoop.
The pitch that Vince Gilligan used to sell Breaking Bad went like this: "turn Mr. Chips into Scarface." Throw in the phrase "with meth," and there's your short summary.
Now, the long(er) summary:
Walter White is a high school chemistry teacher whose life is the pits: he's brilliant but underpaid, works at a car wash to make ends meet, his wife Skyler is accidentally pregnant, his son Walter Jr. is bullied for his disabilities, and on his 50th birthday, Walt finds out he's got lung cancer. So what would any reasonable chemistry genius do in that situation?
That's right: cook meth to support his wife and kids after his death.
But it turns out Walt's brother-in-law, Hank Schrader, is a DEA agent, and one day, when Walt rides along with him on a drug bust, he happens to see his old student, Jesse Pinkman, who's now a meth dealer and drug addict. Walt decides to chat with Jesse, and they go into business together: Walt cooks high-grade stuff with his chemistry know-how, and Jesse uses his drug connections to sell it. Oh yeah, and for his drug-related business transactions, Walt takes the name "Heisenberg."
Over the course of five seasons, Jesse gets arguably good-er, while Walt goes from good-guy-in-a-bad-position to cold-blooded killer.
Translation: he breaks bad. And brilliance ensues.
Walter White starts off as a 50-year-old high school chemistry teacher…until he breaks bad, that is. After learning he has lung cancer, he gets into the meth business to provide for his family, but he just can't seem to quit. Over five seasons of carnage and chemistry, he becomes someone way more dangerous, sinister, and uncontrollable: the great and powerful Heisenberg.
Jesse is Walt's former high school student. He's a small-time drug dealer and addict whose life becomes just a huge mess of meth once Mr. White enlists him as a partner-in-crime. Sometimes he has a hard time controlling his emotions, and he's prone to flying off the handle and going off the rails, but don't be too hard on the kid—he's always getting abandoned, pushed around, or beaten up. "For what it's worth," he says in "Open House" (Season 4, Episode 3), "getting the s*** kicked out of you? Not to say you get used to it, but you do kinda get used to it."
Oh, and he's a huge fan of a word that begins with the letter B.
Skyler is Walt's long-suffering wife. Her dream of becoming a fiction writer is fading, she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, and on top of all that, her husband is a psychotic mass-killing meth manufacturer. She'll do just about anything to protect her family, even if it means covering up Walt's shady business with her bookkeeping skills, but she'll only go so far before she's does what's best for her family.
Hank is Skyler's sister's husband, a tough-as-hammers DEA officer who likes beer and dirty jokes. He's also a pretty amazing detective and manages to tease out Walt's schemes as fast as Walt can cook them up (literally). He's brave, tenacious, and married to surely one of the most annoying people in Albuquerque, Marie Schrader.
Gus is a mild-mannered fast-food chicken restauranteur by day and a drug empire kingpin by night. He becomes Walt's boss at a secret meth superlab, and he has no problems manipulating or murdering anyone, friend or enemy. (But according to his restaurant's Yelp page, he gives free refills, so that's nice.)
Mike is the most chilled-out, world-weary assassin you'll ever meet. He's an ex-cop who works for Gus, and he can do just about anything: clean up evidence, break into fortified buildings, kill guys who are trying to kill him, whatever. But the guy is a straight shooter, literally and figuratively—as seedy as his activities are, he never tells a lie and never pretends to be someone he's not. (Which is more than you can say for just about anyone else on the show.)
"Nah, come on...man, some straight like you, giant stick up his a**? All of a sudden, at age, what, sixty? He's just going to break bad?" — Jesse, "Pilot" (Season 1, Premiere)
This is it, folks: the show's first encounter between Walt and Jesse and the only time the title is mentioned in the series. Without even knowing it, Jesse is basically summing up the premise of the show: at the age of fifty (Jesse's a little off), a straight like Walt decides to break bad.
And in reply, Walt says something that's unusually vague for a detail-oriented guy like him: "I am…awake." So right from the start, Walt is hedging on the moral status of his choices. For him, it's not about whether or not he's about to break bad, it's about whether or not he's "awake."
"Chemistry is—well, technically, chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change." —Walt, "Pilot" (Season 1, Premiere)
This is also in the first episode, and it's the other side of the show's premise: Walt changes—through the use of his chemistry. It's pretty amazing to see how loyal Vince Gilligan and his crew were to their original vision for the series: high school chemistry teacher becomes drug kingpin by pulling off MacGyver-style chemistry tricks.
But there's another layer to this quote, too: in Breaking Bad, "change" is inseparable from "matter." When Walt has to clean up the slushy remains of Emilio's acid-dissolved body, he's engaging with matter in an intimate way, and it changes him. Same deal when he sees Jane choke on her vomit, or cooks up ricin to stash in a burrito, or rigs a car battery out of spare change. It's usually physical circumstances that force Walt to change and adapt—not ideas. (You really can't argue with the guy.)
"I have spent my whole life scared: frightened of things that could happen, might happen, might not happen. Fifty years I spent like that. Finding myself awake at three in the morning. But you know what? Ever since my diagnosis, I sleep just fine... What I came to realize is that fear, that's the worst of it. That's the real enemy. So, get up, get out in the real world and you kick that bastard as hard as you can right in the teeth." —Walt, "Better Call Saul" (Season 2, episode 8)
Walt is in the middle of his meth-making activities at this point in the show, and he breaks down his own situation in an amazingly clear-headed way. He understands that something has changed in him, and that he's conquered the "fear" that's kept him nervous and unambitious for most of his adult life.
But at the same time, he's congratulating himself: like, it's sort of messed up that he's framing his murders and meth-making as "defeating fear." Without even realizing it, he's revealing that he's starting to confuse his risky and ambitious crimes with noble heroism.
It's pretty revealing that he uses a violent metaphor to express it, too ("kick that bastard as hard as you can right in the teeth"). And what makes this little speech doubly audacious is that he's delivering it to Hank. Yowza.
"No, it cannot be blind luck or some imaginary relative who saves us. No, I earned that money. Me!" —Walt, "Phoenix" (Season 2, Episode 11)
At this point, Walt is railing against Walt Jr.'s idea for starting a website to raise money for his cancer. What's important to notice is that this is a purely symbolic annoyance on Walt's part—on a practical level, it really doesn't matter where the money for Walt's treatment comes from.
But what Walt cares about now is not just providing for his family; it's getting credit for it. All of the sudden, we see the subtle shift in Walt's motives: it used to be "making sure his family is taken care of," and now it's "making sure he's the one who takes care of his family."
"I'm here because I owe you the courtesy and respect to tell you this personally. I'm done. It has nothing to do with you personally. I find you extraordinarily professional and I appreciate the way you do business. I'm just, I'm making a change in my life is what it is, and I'm at something of a crossroads and it's brought me to a realization: I'm not a criminal. No offense to any people who are, but…this is not me." — Walt, "No Mas" (Season 3, Premiere)
You could argue that this quote is a midpoint in Walt's transformation from Mr. Chips to Scarface. Walt is perversely proud of all the stuff he's done, but he still basically sees it as a temporary vacation into crime; deep down, he still sees himself as good ol' Mr. White. You can even see it in the polite, civilized tone he uses—it's like the dude is submitting a letter of resignation (which he sort of is, actually).
Of course, Walt's not wrong when he says he's at a "crossroads"; it's just that he's wrong about the path he's taking. Notice the title of the episode it comes from, "No Mas" (which means "no more"), and then the title of the one four episodes later… "Mas."
"I am not turning down the money! I'm turning down you! You get it? I want nothing to do with you! Ever since I met you, everything I ever cared about is gone! Ruined, turned to s***, dead, ever since I hooked up with the great Heisenberg! I have never been more alone! I have nothing! No one! Alright, it's all gone, get it? No, no, why would you get it? What do you even care, as long as you get what you want, right? You don't give a s*** about me! You said I was no good. I'm nothing! Why would you want me, huh? You said my meth is inferior, right? Right? Hey! You said my cook was garbage! Hey, screw you, man! Screw you!" — Jesse, "One Minute" (Season 3, Episode 7)
Jesse's just gotten the bacon beaten out of him by Hank, and Walt is trying to convince him to come back to the meth business; Jesse is rejecting him furiously.
This rant gets way deep into Jesse's psychology. It reveals how insecure and self-loathing he is, how much he needs approval and love from other people, and how he denies it to himself to hang on to his sense of pride. And who better to give him what he needs than ol' father-figure Mr. White? Doesn't he sound just like an angsty teenager, both defying Walt and begging for his approval at the same time? It's a dynamic that plays out all the way to the end of the series, which is why we think this quote is so great.
"Never give up control. Live life on your own terms… Every life comes with a death sentence, so every few months, I come in here for my regular scan, knowing full well that one of these times, hell, maybe even today, I'm gonna hear some bad news. But until then, who's in charge? Me. That's how I live my life." —Walt, "Hermanos" (Season 4, Episode 8)
Walt is at chemotherapy, and the cancer patient next to him has just uttered the fatalistic quote, "Man plans, and God laughs"; Walt dismisses the guy with this reply, which is half-inspiring and half-delusional.
It's a good one to compare to the "I have spent my whole life scared" quote: now that he's all done conquering his fear, he's moved on to taking control. It perfectly sums up Walt's classic existentialist stance: you're gonna die someday, so you'd better do everything you can to create meaning and take control in your life while you're alive.
"Who are you talking to right now? Who is it you think you see? Do you know how much I make a year? I mean, even if I told you, you wouldn't believe it. Do you know what would happen if I suddenly decided to stop going into work? A business big enough that it could be listed on the NASDAQ goes belly up. Disappears. It ceases to exist without me. No, you clearly don't know who you're talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot: you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks." —Walt, "Cornered" (Season 4, Episode 6)
This is probably the most-quoted, most-blogged-about monologue in all of Breaking Bad, and it's no wonder: it reads like a modern Shakespearean soliloquy. Skyler is trying to talk Walt into going to the police because he's in danger, and she unwittingly hits a deep nerve in Walt, insulting his pride until he blows his top.
What's interesting is how rambling and disconnected the speech is, even though he delivers it like a single thought. He's basically arguing that he can't be in danger because he makes a lot of money and he's a crucial employee of a huge organization. Then he suddenly flips it around to saying that he is "the one who knocks." Um, how does that relate to making lots of money and working for a big company?
What's Walt really trying to say, anyway? It's clear that he's lost his temper, and in doing so, he's accidentally revealed his delusional mindset. In Walt's mind, wealth, status, and violence are all the same; they're all types of power that make him invincible. It's a deep insight into why people pursue power in its different forms, and it's terrifying, to boot. Not even Samuel L. Jackson could deliver it as well as Bryan Cranston did.
"Because I say so." —Walt, "Live Free or Die" (Season 5, Premiere)
Mike has just asked Walt how he knows whether their plan to destroy evidence with giant magnets has worked, and that's all Walt tells him: "Because I say so." In Walt's power-crazed, delusional mind, he figures that he's the guy who outfoxed Gus Fring; he's the guy who (could've) won the Nobel Prize; and that's all the reassurance he needs. In this particular case, he happens to be right, but as Mike tells him in "Hazard Pay" (Season 5, Episode 3), "Just because you shot Jesse James, don't make you Jesse James."
"Jesse, you asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business. Neither. I'm in the empire business." —Walt, "Buyout" (Season 5, Episode 6)
And here we are, boys and girls: at last, Walt is fully Heisenberged, and he's perfectly aware of what he's doing and why he's doing it. He wants something that will outlast him; he wants to build a kingdom and be the king of it. It's no wonder the show names an episode after the Percy Shelley sonnet "Ozymandias," which is about what happens to everyone who thinks they're making something immortal: they die, time moves on, and everything they make turns to dust.
He even admits to Jesse, "This business is all I have left. All I have." And then, because Walt just can't stop jockeying for power, he turns this sad admission into a weapons-grade guilt-trip for Jesse: "And you want to take it away from me." But Jesse, taking a clear-headed view of things, wonders aloud, "Is a meth empire really something to be that proud of?" Jesse Pinkman: a dude with priorities.
Unit 1. Breaking Bad
The lessons in this course will make you see Breaking Bad in a whole new—very literary—light.
Sample Lesson - Introduction
Lesson 1: Meth, Myth, and Mayhem
We're about to cook up a fifteen-lesson batch of pure knowledge about Breaking Bad, the tensest, gnarliest TV crime drama since The Sopranos.
First stop: Breaking Bad as tragedy. This show has a ton in common with the classic tragedies of Western civilization, from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Scarface.
But before we can get into all that, we've got to wrap our heads around two things: exactly what tragedy is, and exactly what makes Breaking Bad qualify as one.
Okay, let's start up the RV.
Let's put up the Vamanos Pest fumigation tent.
Let's break bad.
Cue the Periodic Table of Elements.
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 1.1: Trauma Drama
We use the word all the time, but what exactly is it? According to Aristotle's classic Poetics, tragedy is a genre of drama that depicts a noble character—someone all high and mighty—who falls from grace. The genre is meant to create the emotions of pity and fear in its audience, who then purge those emotions in an act of catharsis. Translation: cry it out.
Usually, the whole fall from grace thing is brought about by some sort of tragic flaw (a.k.a. hamartia) in the hero, like ambition, greed, or pride (we're lookin' at you, Walt). But it can also just come from bad circumstances (Walt's cancer), unfortunate coincidences (Hank finding Gale's Leaves of Grass while on the toilet at Walt's house), and rotten luck (Jane's accidental overdose).
All this jazz got its start in ancient Greek drama, including plays like Antigone and Medea. But over the years, it branched out into other narrative forms. Novels like Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men or href Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are considered tragedies today.
And of course, so are cable TV shows.
Breaking Bad's Tragic Cred
Starting with the ancient Greeks, different cultures have added their own spins on tragedy, and Breaking Bad fits in with almost every convention.
We'll give you the low down on just a few.
Tragedy of the Common Man. Tragedy isn't just the stuff of nobles and kings these days. Go ahead and ready this short essay by famous playwright Arthur Miller, "Tragedy and the Common Man." Even though it was written back in 1949, the whole thing applies pretty directly to Breaking Bad, especially this little tidbit:
I think the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing—his sense of personal dignity. From Orestes to Hamlet, Medea to Macbeth, the underlying struggle is that of the individual attempting to gain his "rightful" position in his society.
Sometimes he is one who has been displaced from it, sometimes one who seeks [to] attain it for the first time, but the fateful wound from which the inevitable events spiral is the wound of indignity and its dominant force is indignation. Tragedy, then, is the consequence of a man's total compulsion to evaluate himself justly.
That's Walter White's whole deal in a nutshell.
Notice the big fat scare quotes around the word "rightful": Miller is saying that the hero is trying to claim what he thinks is his rightful position in society. Walt thinks his "rightful position" is as the billionaire Nobel Laureate who never left Gray Matter Technologies.
At the beginning of the show, he's totally robbed of his dignity (washing his students' cars, teaching for peanuts), and out of sheer indignation, he lays down his life time and again to become the man he really feels he should be: Heisenberg.
(Fun fact: Werner Heisenberg, the theoretical physicist Walt names himself after, won the Nobel Prize in 1932.)
Shakespearean tragedy. Of course, you can hardly say anything about tragedy without mentioning our boy William Shakespeare. In the first lecture of Shakespearean Tragedy, the famous Shakespeare scholar A.C. Bradley broke down the basic features of Shakespearean tragedies:
- One protagonist. Sure, there's Jesse and Skyler and Mike, but Breaking Bad is definitely "Pre-eminently the story of one person, the 'hero'": Walter White. (Or Heisenberg, if you prefer.)
- Exceptional suffering and calamity. Bradley says that stories about "a man slowly worn to death by disease, poverty, little cares, sordid vices, [or] petty persecutions" aren't Shakespearean tragedies. So if the show were just about Walt dying of lung cancer, it wouldn't count. But, of course, it gets a lot more exceptional than that: murders, kidnappings, betrayals, poisonings, assassinations, blackmail—and that's just the first two seasons.
- The tragedy extends far beyond the hero. One of the main things about Walt's tragedy is that he keeps sucking people into it—not just Jesse, Skyler, and the other main characters, but Jane, Gus Fring, Mike and his ten guys in jail, the 167 passengers on Wayfarer Flight 515 ("ABQ," Season 2, Finale), and much more.
- Five acts. Or five seasons, whatever. Spooky, right?
- A total reverse of fortune. Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, is frequently quoted as saying that his plan for the show was to "take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface." That's pretty much what happens, and it puts a complete 180 on Walt's life.
- Persons of "high degree." Bradley's talking about kings, princes, and generals, but as we read in Arthur Miller's essay, it can happen to the "common man," too. Still, you could easily argue that Walt's Nobel-caliber brain puts him a notch or two above Joe Schmo.
- The hero dies. We know that Walt's cancer is gonna get him—and sure enough, that’s the last shot of the show. Really, the question for most viewers is how he’s going down.
Revenge. Revenge became such a common theme in tragedies that they formed their own genre, the "revenge tragedy"—think Hamlet or the plays of Seneca. While revenge might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Breaking Bad, there's no denying that it plays a huge role in the plot:
- Walt explodes the "KEN WINS" car in "Cancer Man" (Season 1, Episode 4)
- Hank beats up Jesse in "One Minute" (Season 3, Episode 7)
- The Cousins shoot Hank in "One Minute" (Season 3, Episode 7)
- Gus poisons Don Eladio and his cartel in "Salud" (Season 4, Episode 10)
- Tio Salamanca blows Gus's face off in "Face Off" (Season 4, Finale)
- Walt impulsively shoots Mike in "Say My Name" (Season 5, Episode 7)
- Everything Jesse does to Walt after "Confessions" (Season 5, Episode 11), starting with soaking Walt's house in gasoline
Like Shakespearean tragedies, revenge tragedies contain a few specific elements, too:
- Secret murder. Walt's attempt on Brock, Gus poisoning Don Eladio, Walt killing Mike—the list goes on.
- Murder victim's ghost visits a relative. There may not be any ghosts, per se, but we've got plenty of flashbacks. Gale and Jane, especially, come back to haunt Walt and Jesse.
- Hero wants revenge. Take your pick, really.
- Plotting, Disguises, and Intrigue. Throw in "meth," and you've basically got a four-word summary of Breaking Bad. We'll get deeper into Walt's disguises later in the course, but for now: there's his Heisenberg get-up, his hazmat suit, and on a metaphorical level, his secret double-life as a mild-mannered schoolteacher.
- Real or pretend madness. Oh yeah. See Walt's "fugue state" in "Bit by a Dead Bee" (Season 2, Episode 3) and Skyler's pool party meltdown in "Fifty-One." (Season 5, Episode 4).
- Rising body count. Uh-huh.
- Major bloodbath, including hero's violent death. The bloodbath thing is pretty well-covered, wouldn't you say? It's worth pointing out how totally in-your-face it is about it—Gus Fring's head getting half-blown off, people getting turned into "raspberry slushy" in hydrofluoric acid, planes exploding in the sky, and Walt going down in a hail of his own robot-assisted bullets.
Gesamtkunstwerk. Big German words scare us, too, don't worry. But we'll break this one down for you.
Gesamtkunstwerk is a concept that was popularized in the 19th century by the composer Richard Wagner, and it translates to something like "the total artwork." See, Wagner had this idea that Greek tragedies represented the best of all arts, because they combined as many different kinds of art as possible—singing, storytelling, acting, and so on.
Whether or not you agree with Wagner (the guy was kind of a snob, not gonna lie), television definitely incorporates more different artistic mediums than ol' Rick Wagner could ever dream of: cinematography, directing, screenwriting, music, acting, computer graphics, special effects, and… we'll let you fill in the rest.
But Breaking Bad goes even further—bet you saw that one coming—by constantly throwing in new genres, styles, filming techniques, and points of view, and using them to flesh out the universe. Examples? But of course:
- The Los Pollos Hermanos commercial at the beginning of "Kafkaesque" (Season 3, Episode 9)
- The narcocorrido music video ballad to Heisenberg that opens "Negro Y Azul" (Season 2, Episode 9)
- Gale's Thai karaoke video in "Bullet Points" (Season 4, Episode 4)
- The episode that's basically one long scene ("Fly," Season 3, Episode 10)
Sure sounds like a Gesamtkunstwerk to us, especially if you count the games, quizzes, apps, graphic novels, and blog posts on the official website.