“I Am the One Who Knocks”: The Shadow of Death and the Meaning of Life

In the Shadow of the Sickness Unto Death: Walter White’s Transformation into the Knight of Meth

Frank Scalambrino

Death erases all distinctions...

S0ren Kierkegaard, Works of Love1

This chapter philosophically examines the transformation of “Walter White” into “Heisenberg,” as depicted in Breaking Bad, in terms of Soren Kierkegaard’s “stages of life” and Carl Jung’s “process of individuation.” Though Walt’s transformation is an oft-discussed topic regarding Breaking Bad, there has yet to appear in the philosophical literature an examination of this transformation in terms of Kierkegaard and Jung. Such an examination is important since it also addresses a number of the questions regarding the shift in Walt’s moral compass given his terminal prognosis. That is to say, Walt’s transformation into Heisenberg in terms of Kierkegaard and Jung provides a moral account of his decisions without having to sacrifice a notion of his free will or forcing us to accepting the imminence of death as justification for the perpetration of evil.

It is, of course, not a requirement of “existentialism” that it be atheistic. In fact, Kierkegaard famously understood human experience at the level of the individual to be one of “constantly dying,” despite “not being able to die” until the individual’s existential relation to God is established.2 This relation is of such importance that Kierkegaard used it to characterize an individual’s existence in terms of all the possible “stages along life’s way.”3 What is more, just as an individual’s relation to God determines the individual’s stage of life, so too the stage of life determines the meaning of the existential aspects of life, such

F. Scalambrino (H)

Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA, USA © The Author(s) 2017

K.S. Decker et al. (eds.), Philosophy and Breaking Bad, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-40343-4_4

as “love” and “death.”4 In other words, how an individual relates to their own existence and the existence of others may be understood as a development of the individual’s relation to God.

Whereas Kierkegaard’s examination of human existence provides a contextual understanding for an individual’s psychological relations, Jung’s indepth examination of an individual’s “process of individuation” highlights the more dynamic aspects of an individual’s psychological development. So by using Jung’s vocabulary, we come to understand Walt’s transformation into Heisenberg stemming from his existential crisis of love and death. Walt’s terminal prognosis of “inoperable lung cancer” presents him with a dilemma that reveals him as being either Kierkegaard’s “Knight of Infinite Resignation” (KIR) or “Knight of Faith” (KOF). Breaking Bad depicts Walt as the Knight of Infinite Resignation; in this stage, Walt’s relations with various villains account for the manifestation of his shadowy Persona “Heisenberg,” at least in terms of Jung’s psychodynamics.

Finally, we will look at Jung’s adoption of the vocabulary of “philosophical alchemy,” which allows us to tie the parallel depictions of chemistry and transformation in Breaking Bad together with Jung’s notion of individuation and Kierkegaard’s Knights. As we will see, the difference between the Knights in Kierkegaard is determined by whether the Knight attaches its identity to the changing world or to an unchanging God. It is as if Walt’s (infinite) resignation expresses itself as an understanding of the world and his relations to others within it (e.g., “Crazy 8,” “Tuco,” “Gus” and “Saul”) with an unstable identity. Thus, Walt’s existential situation is a catalyst for his own change—combining and bonding in interesting ways with the various villains of Breaking Bad. In this way, this chapter not only offers an existential reading of Breaking Bad but also speaks of a number of philosophical issues including concerns about personal transformation, personal identity over time, Walt’s morality and moral duties and the oft-discussed question of Walt’s alter-egos, also known as “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty.”

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