- Home /
- Breaking Bad as Literature
Breaking Bad as Literature
Happiness is a Warm Lab
Well, we've made it, Shmoopers—this will be our last word on the sick glory that is Breaking Bad. And what better way to close out this course than to discuss what it's got to say about happiness, meaning, and value?
(Cue beautiful violins.)
It's pretty obvious that Breaking Bad isn't a show that we should go to for moral instruction, but it's not exactly a cautionary tale, either. It doesn't really tell you what you should or shouldn't do, it just shows you what it is: this is what corruption looks like, this is what power looks like, this is what guilt looks like.
For our last trick, we're going to go back to the question of why Walt breaks bad: is it because breaking bad can actually be…better than being good? Could it be noble? Profound? Truthful?
Bear with us, dear Shmoopers.
Breaking Good and Evil
With its amazing metamorphosis of Walter White, Breaking Bad gives us two competing visions of human fulfillment.
In the beginning, Walt's a conventionally good guy with a humble job and a nice family; he doesn't cause anyone any trouble. He may be a good, but he's definitely not happy—he's full of regret for missing out on that Nobel Prize, he's overworked and underpaid, and he can't support his disabled son or even defend him.
But by the end of the series, he's left conventional morality way in the rear view mirror—and he has a lot of fun doing it.
There's no arguing that his power gives him a rush to pull crazy donuts all over a parking lot in a brand-new Dodge Challenger (which he then torches), or that his ego balloons when he gets the hardened Declan to "say his name" in the appropriately titled "Say My Name" (Season 5, Episode 7). He goes into raging fits of pumped-out bliss after he gets his money back from Tuco at the end of "Crazy Handful of Nothin'" (Season 1, Episode 6), and there's a reason why the pilot episode ends the way it does—with Walt getting frisky, and Skyler saying, "Is that you?"
What he tells Skyler in the final episode says it all: once he’s lost everything, and can no longer claim that he did things for the sake of his family, he admits it straight out: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really… I was alive.”
Walt is basically saying that being Heisenberg wasn’t about doing good or evil; it was about having a meaningful life, regardless of whether it was good or evil. And that makes him a perfect example of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch, which literally translates to “overman.” Nietzsche thought that humans were just a halfway point between apes and the Übermensch, a grand, noble person who puts aside conventional morality in pursuit of truth and the "Will to Power."
In Nietzsche's novel Thus Spake Zarathustra, the philosopher-prophet Zarathustra describes the Übermensch at length; so go ahead and read section three of Zarathustra's Prologue.
In particular, you should focus up on this primo passage right here:
Lo, I teach you the Übermensch: he is that sea; in him can your great contempt be submerged.
What is the greatest thing ye can experience? It is the hour of great contempt. The hour in which even your happiness becometh loathsome unto you, and so also your reason and virtue.
The hour when ye say: "What good is my happiness! It is poverty and pollution and wretched self-complacency. But my happiness should justify existence itself!"
The hour when ye say: "What good is my reason! Doth it long for knowledge as the lion for his food? It is poverty and pollution and wretched self-complacency!"
The hour when ye say: "What good is my virtue! As yet it hath not made me passionate. How weary I am of my good and my bad! It is all poverty and pollution and wretched self-complacency!"
The hour when ye say: "What good is my justice! I do not see that I am fervour and fuel. The just, however, are fervour and fuel!"
The hour when ye say: "What good is my pity! Is not pity the cross on which he is nailed who loveth man? But my pity is not a crucifixion."
He's making the bold claim that happiness, reason, virtue, justice, and pity are all moral values that the Übermensch puts aside to pursue truth and greatness. And he goes on to say that the path to becoming an Übermensch is "A dangerous crossing, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous trembling and halting."
Familiar much? It's an awful lot like Mr. White's journey to becoming Heisenberg.
- He throws out the happiness and virtue of his stable domestic life, which is nothing if not full of "poverty and pollution and wretched self-complacency."
- He surrenders the reason of his judgments—when Jesse asks him in "Live Free or Die" (Season 5, Premiere) how he knows the magnet scheme worked, he replies, "Because I said so."
- And he most definitely loses his sense of justice and pity, as he justifies murder after murder to save his own hide, at last calling in the hit on Jesse (see: Lesson 6).
Though you could argue that Walt isn't a perfect Übermensch, either—Zarathustra disses the average Joe Schmo by saying, "Just see these superfluous ones! Wealth they acquire and become poorer thereby. Power they seek for, and above all, the lever of power, much money—these impotent ones!" In other words, mo' money mo' problems; and what ends up luring Walt into Hank and Jesse's trap in "To'hajiilee" (Season 5, Episode 13)? His seven barrels of loot.
Walt doesn't have the corner on sad-sack problems, of course—we've already been over how the other characters are sad in their own ways, and how they all break bad to deal with it. Skyler cheats with Ted Beneke even before she finds out about Walt's doings; Marie (in easily the least awesome plot thread of the series) breaks mini-bad by shoplifting in Season 1; and there's little doubt that Hank works overtime and brews Schraderbrau in his garage just to get away from all of Marie's purple furniture.
So breaking bad is, after all, a complicated moral issue. The characters in the show aren't just doing bad things because that's what bad people do. It's just awfully tempting—after all, from a certain angle, breaking bad can look pretty darn über.Go to Unit 1 Study Aid: Study Questions