Breaking Bonds: White Lines of Love and Hate

Sara Waller

Television and films are full of partners and the tension between them. Famous pairs include Mulder and Scully of the X-Files, and Nick and Nora Charles of the Thin Man. Walt and Jesse make a powerful team, taunting and insulting each other as they produce the finest product and commit some big-time crimes. Like many other oddball-team dramedies, I argue that Walt and Jesse do not start out as friends, and while they approach friendship, ultimately the differences in their ethical principles tear them apart. Specifically, Walt portrays himself as a family man, as conscientiously providing for his loved ones and as willing to commit crimes to keep his family housed, fed and educated. Meanwhile, Jesse identifies himself as a partier and drug dealer, a criminal estranged from his family and a free spirit living out a very late adolescence without deep attachments or responsibilities. However, as the course of the Breaking Bad series reveals, Walt is “in the empire business” more than he is a family protector, and Jesse is devastated when he is unable to create a family with Jane, and later with Andrea and Brock. The line that is cut between them is a line of care: Walt ultimately locks himself into rigid and uncaring roles, disregards intimacy in the name of paternalism and, while he enjoys power and control, realizes too late that he is also a poor ethical egoist.1 Jesse discovers that he has close bonds with friends, is hurt by his rejection by his family and enjoys being a parent and a reliable and caring lover. The trajectories of our two protagonists cross as the series develops, and care-based ethics helps us to understand what lines are crossed. I use Held’s notion of care ethics as a centerpiece. “We want what will be good for both or all of us together. We want our children and others we care for, and those who care for us, to do well along

S. Waller (H)

Montana State University, Bozeman, MT, USA © The Author(s) 2017

K.S. Decker et al. (eds.), Philosophy and Breaking Bad, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-40343-4_13

with ourselves, and for the relations between us to be good ones.”2 This is the standard of care Walt fails to achieve.

I begin with Aristotle’s definition of friendship: mutual well-wishing among equals, haplos. For Aristotle, “Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue...,”3 and I argue that what friendship they build is based on Jesse’s mistaken interpretation of Walt’s moral commitments.

Walt and Jesse do not start as friends, not even as friends out of utility. In the pilot, they do not wish each other well. Walt threatens to turn Jesse in to the DEA if he refuses to partner with Walt, and upon that premise, the partnership is built. Jesse is equally difficult, happily taking Walt’s life savings in “Mas” and partying it away, narrowly gaining, through unscrupulous bargaining, the RV that Walt’s money was intended to buy. Second, Walt and Jesse are not equals. Different in age, education and social status, Walt and Jesse do not easily relate to one another; Walt doesn’t whoop it up and has a bit of disdain for the culture of his current and former students; Jesse finds Walt stodgy and dull—not enticing as a friend. They do not find each other wise at first. Jesse doubts Walt really has a deep commitment to becoming a criminal; Walt thinks Jesse is an aimless addict. Third, their entire relationship is based on business success, and is clearly not “without qualification” or contingency.

Worse, neither Walt nor Jesse seems to have many characterologically redeeming features at first. As much as we empathize with Walt’s financial and family struggles and work frustrations, Walt presents as something of a wimp and a loser (in contrast to both Jesse and Hank), and Jesse, though sexy, charming and rebellious, appears to be nothing more than an impulsive, trivial hedonist. Walt’s lack of initiative, self-doubt and low self-esteem has left him without a research career, working in a car-wash, old and overweight. Jesse’s lack of ambition has left him estranged from his parents and younger brother, and without any job skills that might employ him in a respectable position. So the audience is presented with a rather pathetic pair of somewhat unlikeable people who have little reason to bond with each other. And bonds are necessary for a care ethic to emerge and be enacted and for characters to reveal how uncaring they might be.

Through hardship, they bond, with each one at times playing both mentor and mentee to the other, and at times playing family member-like roles for each other. Walt sees potential in Jesse—Walt is the teacher who once encouraged the student to “apply himself,” and Walt still cares to educate and assist. While Walt already has a son, Flynn’s disability causes Walt worry, anxiety and sadness—Walt feels unable to help improve Flynn’s physical situation. Jesse, in contrast, has simply failed to achieve things in life, and sees his parents pouring their attention and care on his younger brother while shutting him out of the family. Walt finds in Jesse the benefits of a second son—an older, more conveniently corrupt son who does not need to be protected from the world or from Walt’s criminal endeavors. Walt can fulfill his urge to teach and guide Jesse, because Jesse could do better. Walt feels both effective and not responsible for Jesse’s failures or bad behaviors.

Jesse, in turn, finds a father figure who is willing to work with him—a father figure who does not condemn him for cooking meth, and Walt becomes someone from whom Jesse wants to learn more. Walt is someone safe for Jesse, because he is not his real father; Walt will help him solve the problems of leading a criminal life—he will protect him from the police and from competing meth sellers, he will help him cover up the meth lab in his basement and he will help Jesse in spite of (and perhaps because of) Jesse’s illegal inclinations.

These tenuous reasons for our two men to bond with each other are strengthened by circumstance—in the pilot, they have crashed in the desert with an RV full of injured and dead bodies. Any mutual dislike must be overlooked until their immediate problems are solved. While they vow to part ways again and again (in “Pilot,” “Cat’s in the Bag,” and“ Full Measures,” to name just a few), circumstances continue to keep them together (someone’s life is nearly always in danger, or there is a pressing problem to be solved) and the constant contact allows a respect to form.

That mutual respect is fueled in part by the human predisposition to judge others to be similar to ourselves. Walt and Jesse mistake each other’s moral values. Walt takes Jesse to be uncaring in that he is a criminal, with seedy friends like Brandon “Badger” Mayhew, Combo and Skinny Pete. Walt will not let Jesse use his cell phone to call Jane in “Four Days Out” because he believes Skylar will think he has been calling “some stripper,” and continuously accuses Jesse of being willing and able to smoke everything they cook; Jesse appears to Walt as someone who is unable to have true, caring friendships, or keep business agreements. By Season 3, Walt’s distrust of Jesse is so great that he bugs his car in “Bug.” But as the series unfolds, we realize Walt is far more self-serving than Jesse.

Jesse, in contrast, admires Walt, calling him an “iron chef” and an “artist” when they cook together. While he expects Walt to give him “ballwinding” speeches about not using, being careful and doing things more conservatively, Jesse always lets his irritation pass and continues to work with, and learn from, Walt. Jesse seemingly mistakes Walt for a loving, caring father who just needs money for his family. Jesse perhaps remembers the end of his aunt’s life all too well, and projects onto Walt the features of his caring aunt who gave him a house to live in at the end of her illness. Thus, being a caring person himself, one who wants to know his younger brother and wants to protect his friends, it is easy for Jesse to ascribe to Walt an ethic of care.

And Walt is not uncaring to Jesse. As much as Walt berates and expresses disgust for Jesse’s choices, Walt saves Jesse on numerous occasions—placing a gas mask on Jesse in the pilot, pulling Jesse out of the crack/heroin house after Jane’s death and bringing him to rehab, running down and shooting Gus’s drug dealers at the end of Season 3 and finally saving Jesse at the conclusion of the series. Walt does defend Jesse and risk his life and living to protect Jesse— the caring bond is not merely in Jesse’s imagination. In “Four Days Out,” Walt even eats a Funyun.

Ethics of care has been characterized by a number of authors, including Held, Noddings, Gilligan and Fisher, and can be summed up, more or less, as a moral practice based on nurturing relationships, and being loving to others and self, in order to make life and world good, healthy and enriching for all. Quality of life is fundamentally determined by quality of relationships, and so maintaining relationships and the emotional and physical well-being of individuals that comprise them is paramount. Walt at first appears to be a sympathetic character, for Jesse, and for all viewers, because his plight can be easily understood, prima facie, through an ethic of care. No caring husband would want to leave his family in debt, burden them with his care during a prolonged illness and harm his relationships by ending them as a frail, sickly shell of the person he once was. And caring for others is complex. Sometimes we lie or deceive, or commit crimes and kill, in order to be loving. This is where the plot thickens.

Practicing an ethics of care is intricate and difficult. To keep our families close, we may not always be best advised to tell them everything. Banal white lies such as “you don’t look fat in those pants” and “of course I like your mother” might be necessary to preserve and nurture some relationships. Walt, Hank, Skylar and Marie play poker together in “Krazy Handful of Nothin” and Hank successfully bluffs everyone in an exciting family game. To nurture family bonds, in some cases, playing poker is important, and poker demands some level of deception. We can sympathize with why Walt lies to his family about his meth cooking, and waits so long to tell them about his cancer.

At first, it seems that he lies because he values his loved ones so much— he does not want them to suffer the ugly truths of his illness or his criminal endeavors. Hank is a DEA agent, and knowing the truth would cause family strife as well as imprison Walt. He lies because his family’s value system would condemn his actions. In Walt’s words, “people sometimes do things for their families” (“A No Rough-Stuff Type Deal”) but, in response, Skylar tells Walt that he doesn’t want to find out what she would think or do if she discovered that Walt was immersed in illegal/immoral actions like Marie’s thievery. Prima facie, Walt lies to his family because he knows they would be offended by his new endeavors, and he wants to protect and love them.

But Walt’s lies and other actions can be explained by another, less care- based interpretation. When Jesse watches him collapse during a cook in “Krazy Handful of Nothin,” and sees his radiation target, Jesse admonishes him, revealing his underlying ethics of care ideology—“I’m your partner man, you should have told me.” No real reason is given as to why Walt didn’t tell Jesse of his illness (if he had confessed, it would have explained Walt’s erratic and questionable partnership with Jesse in the first place), and if we press further, Walt has no real reason to not tell his family his diagnosis either. Yes, they are a bit controlling, and the family meeting is unpleasant, if not combative, but his family, ultimately, wants Walt to live because they care about him (even if this results in them wanting to control his actions and press him to seek treatment against his will). I suggest that Walt is caught in rigid notions of appropriate roles for people, and his rigid roles erode the care he has for those close to him.

“In care ethics, people are not demarcated selves with clear responsibilities.”4 One should genuinely care for others and their well-being, though not at the expense of oneself, and respond to the needs of others in a fluid, nonrole-based way. But Walt is governed by notions of what it is to be a “man”—a man must provide for his family, be strong and not show weakness, always have enough money, never take charity, etc. In “End Times,” Walt isolates himself from family as well as criminal collaborators when he says “I alone should suffer the consequences of those {his} choices.” These boundaries cause him to lie and pull away from his family, to not achieve the caring and being cared for ideal of ethic of care.

Indeed, Walt seems to subscribe to the notion of liberal individualism as critiqued by Kittay and Held. He cannot bear to accept charity from his friends—he must be the one who supports everyone, and it horrifies him to think of others having to support him in return. For him, a loving relationship is bound up in roles and role-playing—a man provides for his family. The family is provided for, and loving toward the man (perhaps as a result of the money provided). Only this structure of the universe allows Walt to feel relaxed and loved—this is why he initially does not want treatment—he can’t bear to think of his family as burdened with his care, and of himself as not strong and capable. For Held, our interests are “intertwined” with people for whom we care—an action based in care is both not selfish and not unselfish. It is not individualistic—to care for and maintain relationships, the individual members must be maintained as well.

But Walt can’t separate himself from his individualistic ideals and his roles. He must make the money, Skylar must make the home and his son must look up to him and not help him by building a website asking for money for his operation. Walt’s rigid role-playing is exemplified in many ways. He constantly competes with Hank, twice buys sports cars for his son, is offended when Flynn receives driving lessons from a friend and not his dad, needs to be “the brains” in his operation with Jesse and gets an immense amount of pleasure from controlling Tuco by blowing up his office (As do we all. Control is sometimes appropriate under an ethic of care, and the Tuco-inspired explosion was enacted specifically in defense of Jesse). Walt’s lust for control exceeds the boundaries set by a care ethic. Walt says to a fellow cancer patient in “Hermanos” “Never give up control. Live life on your own terms,” which might at first seem inspiring, but when Walt stays in the house after Skylar tells him she is waiting for his cancer to come back, he’s definitely not exhibiting loving behavior. He’s in the empire business, and his family has become part of the empire.

Virginia Held might agree that the private home life of Walt and family is structured by male political power. Walt takes on the male responsibility of being the primary earner (he is upset when Skylar goes back to work, even though there are medical bills surrounding their other debt). More darkly, Walt does want to control his family. He moves back in to his house in “Hazard Pay” because he knows he can pressure Skylar into allowing it, and not because he is wanted; this results in his “beloved” wife walking into the pool in “Fifty-One.”

Earlier, at the end of Season 2, when Walt stands over the choking Jane, we recognize both his urge to protect Jesse from a heroin-laced and uncertain future, and his urge to control Jesse and keep the partnership in tact for the sake of the business. Much later in the series, when Walt enjoys a few moments comparable to a restored family harmony, he continues to hide his cancer and chemotherapy from his family in “Blood Money,” a secret that is now overwhelmingly unnecessary given that Skylar knows he cooks meth, and their money has been explained to Hank and Marie as gambling winnings. Walt lies, covers up and continues to distance himself from his family in order to control and maintain his idea of the perfect family, one that gets along, with a strong man at the helm, a man who has overcome cancer and who has provided for all. Walt fulfills his imagined “roles” using actions in stark contrast to an ethic of care, in which “At the foundation of moral behavior „.is feeling or sentiment.” Walt’s emotions are connected to his imagined roles and not to real people. Walt loves the idea of his family, but is constantly put out by the real family members.

If Walt is so locked into these rigid roles, how is it then that he can kill as many people as he does? Playing the role of a loving father seems incompatible with being a murderer—how can Walt reconcile the two? Perhaps surprisingly, scholarship in care-based ethics has confronted murder on more than one occasion, allowing us to think that Walt might participate in care ethics after all. Noddings considers murder quite extensively, saying “To remain one-caring, I might have to kill.”5 Noddings goes on to describe that unpleasant situation as one in which a cornered person finds herself without any better choices—the most loving and protective choice is to kill a threat or aggressor. Noddings admits that this situation is horrible, and that it ultimately compromises the deep principle of being caring, and she asks her readers to judge the murder according to the intentions of the agent. If greed or personal interest motivated the murder, then it was not an act of care. But if the murderer was pressed into that position “by unscrupulous others who made caring impossible to sustain?” then this is a sad case of compromised, but still loving, care.

Walt does not diverge far from Noddings’ description of the murderous caring one. In “And the Bag’s in the River” Walt agonizes over the killing of Krazy-8 in a way much more reflective than his self-defense-based gas attack on Krazy-8 and Emilio in the previous episode. Confronted with a real person, not much older than his son, a member of the community and child of the local furniture store owner, Walt has a couple of beers with Domingo and searches long and hard for a reason to just let him go. Ethicist of care, Haydon argues that occasionally murderers in one context can become heroes in the next, and suggests that a care-based ethics would allow those who attained power through violence to, in some cases, stay in power if a peaceful and loving society would be the result.

Sadly, Walt’s ethical considerations are not so sophisticated. Instead, Walt scrawls “Judeo-Christian values,” “post-traumatic stress” and “murder is wrong” on a piece of paper, only to abandon these thoughts when it occurs to him that Krazy-8 may murder his entire family (something Jesse suggested to him earlier). So, Walt does not think of care or love or community building. Rather, he appeals to religious principles (a religion he probably feels little connection to as a practicing scientist), a simplistic, ungrounded (for Walt) notion that murder is an immoral and a selfish reason—that Walt doesn’t want to be traumatized by recalling the murder later. His other reasons repeat these reasons: “won’t be able to live with yourself’ “you are not a murderer” and “sanctity of life.” Walt hasn’t studied philosophy, and is caught between accepted societal values and his own urges toward self-protection.

However, Walt really is protecting his family by killing Krazy-8. Is this Noddings’ condoned version of murder, in which the unscrupulous Krazy-8 makes caring impossible to sustain? Perhaps yes. Krazy-8 is, after all, going to stab Walt with that broken piece of plate.

But after Krazy-8, Walt’s kill count continues to rise. And while arguably the people who he kills are bad people, few of them are a direct threat to his wife and children, or to Jesse. Tuco’s thug companions who suffered in the explosion had no clear or direct connection to anyone in Walt’s life; while they would kill anyone if hired to do so, the threat was not proximate, especially given Walt’s intent to supply Tuco with lots of product. And Brock’s illness, while strategic, was probably not the only method Walt could have used to protect himself, Jesse and his family from Gus’ wrath. Walt wanted to control Jesse and Gus, to ensure Gus would appear at the hospital to talk with Jesse, to keep Jesse from doing violence on his own and to prevent Jesse from cooking without him. Making Brock sick was an easy way to accomplish those things. We must convict Walter White of acting, as Noddings would say, out of greed and personal interest. “Unless he is an immediate threat to you or someone else, you must meet him, too, as one-caring.”6

I offer a small footnote before closing. One might argue that Walt acted out of greed and personal interest because he recognized that the family he wanted to provide for, and the relationships he wanted to preserve, were gone. In the episode “Fly,” a heavily drugged Walt confesses that he should have died much sooner, that he wishes Skylar had never learned the truth and that he wishes he had not seen Jane’s death or its impact on Jesse. Walt reflects he has lived too long, and seems to regret many of his actions beginning with the death of Jane. The viewer is left to ponder what Walter will do with the rest of his life—a life without his loved ones, and without his idea of family. Perhaps the only thing left for him is the empire business. But in the end, even that fails for Walt. He comes to get Jesse, too late, because he does care for him. He comes to apologize to Skylar, too late, because he does care for her. But two years of uncaring actions cannot be healed in a few days. Walter dies too soon to reconstruct the relationships he has destroyed, and lives long enough to destroy them. He tries to be fully selfish, and fails, just as he tries to be caring, but is too locked into rigid roles and poorly thought-out ethical principles to truly nurture those around him.


  • 1. The claim that Walt is a failed ethical egoist is courtesy of Dr. George Sieg at University of New Mexico West. I thank him for his excellent comments.
  • 2. Virginia Held, “The Ethics of Care as Normative Guidance: Comment on Gilligan,” Journal of Social Philosophy 45, no. 1 (2014): 112.
  • 3. Aristotle, The NicomacheanEthics. Translated by W. D. Ross. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925, Book 1, Ch. 3.
  • 4. Van der Heijdena, Karin, Merel Visseb, Gerty Lensvelt-Muldersb, and Guy Widdershovenc, “To Care or Not to Care: A Narrative on Experiencing Caring Responsibilities,” Ethics and Social Welfare 10, no. 1 (2016): 55.
  • 5. Nell Noddings, An ethic of caring, 711.
  • 6. Noddings, “An Ethic of Caring,” 706.
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >