Toward the Alchemy of Breaking Bad
Alchemy tends to be depicted as either a forerunner of chemistry or as a practice of spiritual purification. Whereas the former refers to the infamous practice of transforming lead to gold, the latter refers to the transformation of the individual practicing the art.35 Jung famously invoked these thoughts of the medieval alchemists about psychological transformation as similar to his own.36 In this way, the alchemical quest for “gold” or the “philosopher’s stone” becomes a quest to transform oneself into a higher, more purified form of being.37 Though Jungians today tend to characterize the understanding of alchemy in terms of spiritual or individual transformation as “philosophical alchemy,” the language of chemistry and its transformation of base elements are retained in figurative form. This, of course, coincides well with the language of chemistry in Breaking Bad, such that these discussions, whether in Walt’s High School classroom or in the meth lab, could figuratively refer to the transformation of Walt into Heisenberg. Thus, these three interpretative elements—Kierkegaard, Jung and philosophical alchemy—provide a philosophical account of Walt’s transformation.
Intriguingly, the pilot episode of Breaking Bad reads as if it were written for the very purpose of establishing the base and trajectory of the main character Walt according to this kind of account. For example, in the initial classroom scene, Walt enthusiastically notes:
Chemistry is the study of ... change ... Now, just think about this ... they change their energy levels. change their bonds. Elements, they combine and change into compounds. Well, that’s all of life, right? ... It’s the cycle. It’s solution, dissolution. Over and over and over, it is growth, then decay, then transformation! (“Pilot”).
As the episode progresses, the next several scenes all reinforce the theme that Walt is neither respected nor admired in his Persona as High School chemistry teacher and family man. This lack of respect manifests for him through those who point out he doesn’t have enough money and those who ritually demean him in front of his friends and family. Of course, this is underscored by the fact that Walt did not receive the rewards due from his contributions to Nobel Prize winning work. Walt then receives his diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer and decides to break bad.
When Jesse Pinkman sees the purity of Walt’s methamphetamine for the first time, he notes, “This ain’t chemistry. It’s art!” (“Pilot”). Twice we hear in the first episode that Walt’s “heart” is “in the right place,” and in terms of philosophical alchemy “the heart” is that which survives dismemberment.38 Thus, Walt seems primed to become the KOF as his prognosis tears his relation to the future apart. “Best case scenario, with chemo, I’ll live a couple more years.,” Walt numbly parrots back to his doctor (“Pilot”). Instead, Walt transforms into Heisenberg. The transformation is signaled in the first episode when we see him standing in the desert, believing the sirens he hears signify his imminent arrest, Walt attempts suicide. He pulls the trigger, but, the gun’s safety is on, and it does not fire. Finally, Walt returns home from the desert already swelling with what will be his transformation into Heisenberg, and with an ego already inflated with more shadowy primal unconscious winds he presents himself to his wife Skylar. The episode ends with her asking, “Walt, is that you?”
In his Jungian book Anatomy of the Psyche: Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy, Edward Edinger provides the following vocabulary with which to organize the process of spiritual, or philosophical, alchemy: calcinatio., solu- tio, coagulatio, sublimatio, mortificatio, separatio and coniunctio. For Edinger, each of these operations involves a system of symbols, and these “central symbols of transformation ... provide basic categories by which to understand the life of the psyche, and they illustrate almost the full range of experiences that constitute individuation.”39 Notice, the last two “stages” refer to separation and then conjunction. Of course, conjunction echoes Jung’s mysterium coni- unctionis from the previous section and Kierkegaard’s KOF. However, here we will meditate on separation. This separation is necessary for the perfection and completion of the purification and of the appropriate transformation; however, it is also associated with “blackness,” “loneliness” and “despair.”
Ultimately, we must all face death alone. No matter who is there with you, no matter who may be holding your hand, when it is your time to die, no one can encounter your death for you.40 This separation, the way in which being- toward-death isolates an individual psychologically, reveals the horizon of what the alchemists called the “black sun,” a symbol associated with despair.41 Yet, because death must be faced alone, it is also possible to think of the alchemical stages as trials on a quest to find the spiritual gold of the mysterious conjunction with a higher spiritual being. Thus, “Mediaeval tales and legends often refer ... most frequently of all to a black knight.”42 Further regarding the significance of colors in alchemy, recall how the infamous blue meth leads to both money and Heisenberg, so that “it can be said that the descending scale would be from blue to green. These two colors stand for the celestial, and the natural or terrestrial factors. Furthermore, black is associated with sin, penitence, the withdrawal of the recluse, the hidden.”43 It is as if the elements of Walt’s psychological constellation have “changed their energy levels” and “changed their bonds,” and, yet, alchemically speaking and as emphasized by the clear association of the color black with Heisenberg, Walt’s transformation to Heisenberg forestalls the purification and completion of Jung’s mysterium coniunctionis or the absolute relation of Kierkegaard’s KOF.
In fact, Kierkegaard’s discussion of the Knight of Infinite Resignation and the Knight of Faith also emphasizes the connection with isolation, despair and darkness. According to Kierkegaard,
It is possible to become lost in possibility in all sorts of ways, but primarily in two. The one takes the form of desiring, craving; the other takes the form of the melancholy-imaginary (hope/fear or anxiety). Legends and fairy tales tell of the knight who suddenly sees a rare bird and chases after it ... and when night comes, he finds himselfseparated from his companions and lost in the wilderness. Instead of taking the possibility back into necessity, he chases after possibility - and at last cannot find his way back to himself [emphases added].44
Kierkegaard’s second way of “becoming lost” entails an individual being “melan- cholically enamored,” who, therefore, “pursues one of anxiety’s possibilities.” (Ibid.). In Walt’s case, his diagnosis represents his finding himself separated. Just as the bewilderment of being lost is associated with this stage alchemically, Walt becomes “melancholically enamored” with his ego’s new darkened vision. Seeing himself in the darkness of his own Shadow, he transforms into Heisenberg. For Kierkegaard, Jung and in the terminology of philosophical alchemy, had Walt taken “the possibility [of Heisenberg] back into necessity,” that is, the necessity of his own finality as a mortal being, he could have turned to the golden light in the darkness and completed the mysterious conjunction with what the KOF understands as a higher “celestial” dimension of being.
From Love in Despair to the Love of