Walter, You Can’t Take It with You
In the first episode of Breaking Bad, we are told that Walter White has been given two years to live from doctors who have diagnosed him with Stage III cancer. These are two years in his immediate temporal horizon.
Why is this important? Heidegger’s thesis in Being and Time is that we must understand “the interpretation of Dasein in terms of temporality, and the explication of time as the transcendental horizon for the question of being.”14 What Dasein does with its time is an important consideration for the understanding of being itself. We all will die. We just do not know when. What if we knew a fairly good date certain we would die, not at the firing squad tomorrow, but with a horizon that Walter White has of two years? What the story of Breaking Bad does is provide us with insight as to what Walter White sees and experiences as he progresses ever closer to a death date certain. The story isn’t only about his descent into criminality, but it is also about the way he begins to evolve and how he views the world and his own self in relationship to others. If the story is well told and adequately detailed, it may provide us with a better phenomenological insight of the being toward death.
Walter White is but one character in the drama of Breaking Bad. But the story of Walter White is important, not only because he represents an attempt to portray what the author hoped would be a believable character but also because he attempts to influence the being of others in the world after the end of his experience, the end of Dasein. How he does this is the central theme of the entire story. The composition of the “after-Dasein” is not Dasein but the objects and people once experienced by Dasein which have been left for survivors to deal with. Just as important is what Walt hypothesizes about the world after Dasein, beyond experience, because it shows some meaning he ascribes to Dasein’s existence before he faces inevitable death. While Walt, our fictional Dasein, may derive meaning from preparing the world for the after-Dasein, Dasein must do so, Heidegger says, through processes associated with practical considerations of being-in-the-world.
At the moment of his cancer diagnosis, Walt becomes the poster child for the life insurance industry. Even the best savers, the best retirement planners cannot complete their plan for leaving a legacy if they do not have time. The life insurance policy replaces time with a lump sum of money to complete the saver’s plan. Unfortunately, Walter White has neither saved for retirement nor purchased insurance. To add to this fiscal scenario, his cancer treatments will likely take whatever savings he has accumulated...but toward what end? He believes he will die in two years regardless of the treatments he receives. Barring some miracle remission, he is doomed and his family will be destitute. However, Walter has time to do something to resolve the dilemma of a penniless family after he is gone. He has a skill: chemistry. He determines that the quickest way to riches through chemistry is to use this skill to cook and then sell meth.
Of course, quick riches, whether through speculation or illicit activities, involve more risk than the methodical accumulation of wealth. Meth trafficking is especially dangerous because of the volatility of chemicals. The trafficker’s life in the drug business is typically “solitary, poor nasty, brutish and short,” as Thomas Hobbes might have said.15 Meth cooks and innocent bystanders including children and law enforcement have been injured in volatile explosions of labs.16 Some jurisdictions consider meth dealers to be the primary source of all drug problems, and a recent study in Mexico noted that the life expectancy of men in Mexico is on the decline due to drug wars.17 Alone, and without experience, Walter White would likely not make it in this business, but he chooses a partner, Jesse, who has networks and some insight into how the business operates. Walter White is an excellent meth cook, becomes as ruthless as his peers and survives to amass a sum of money that far exceeds the amount he needed to meet his original goals.