Gray Matter

The other main objects of Walt’s hatred are his former partners, Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz. Walt was dating Gretchen when the three of them founded Gray Matter. After Walt and Gretchen broke up—under circumstances that are never explained—Walt sold his share of the business for $5000. The principles of the company were later awarded the Nobel Prize. At the time of our story, Gretchen and Elliot are married and the company is valued at $2.16 billion. I mentioned earlier that Walt has a plaque commemorating his role as project leader on the Nobel Prize winning discovery. It is on the wall next to an Award of Merit from the public school system. Oh how the mighty have fallen! Both are in front of Walt’s stepper so he can stare at them each morning while he exercises. In leaving Gray Matter, he made a decision with terrible consequences and he is not happy with his life. Those negative feelings are misdirected at the Schwartzes.

Walt’s contributions were crucial, and he missed out on a huge reward. His envy is natural.22 However, there is absolutely no indication that Elliot cheated Walt, or that Gretchen had something to apologize for after their breakup. Both are eager to help Walt when he is diagnosed. They seem motivated by kindness, not guilt. The insult Walt feels is just not real. Walt has missed out on a tremendous benefit, but he was not wronged by the Schwartzes. Walt is finally pushed over the edge when he sees Gretchen on TV distance herself and the company from Walt, and announce a large donation to charity for meth- amphetamine treatment. This public relations stunt is insulting to Walt, but by any reasonable standard, he deserves it.23 The Schwartzes are not the proper object of Walt’s hatred.

Walt’s unvirtuous hatred of the Schwartzes turns him into Nietzsche’s scorpion stinging himself to death. In “Buy Out,” Walt has the chance to walk away with $5 million but he refuses to sell the meth business. Jesse reminds him that initially he claimed he only needed $700,000. He tells Walt he can enjoy life, spend time with his family, and “no one else needs to die.” Jesse brings Walt an excellent offer. Walt, in turn, tells Jesse about Gray Matter. He admits that he looks up the valuation of Gray Matter every week. He confesses his sin against himself, that he “sold his potential, and his children’s birthright, for a few month’s rent.” In that too-brief moment, Walt may be aware that he should hate himself. Since we don’t know what precipitated the sale of Gray Matter, we really can’t say whether this self-hatred would be justified.24 He may have undervalued himself. The sale may have been the only way out of a situation he created but is rightly embarrassed by. Alternately, the self-hatred may be unjustified. He may have made the best decision he could have at the time and was just unlucky. Either way, Walt’s moment of self-reflection passes.

Walt’s hatred blinds him to his present opportunity. To restore his sense of self-esteem Walt needs to lord his superiority over the world. Walt is “not in the drug business, or the money business, [he is] in the empire business.” The fame, publicity, and wealth surrounding Gray Matter represents, for Walt, the whole world rubbing his degradation in his face. While self-esteem is a subjective good and the actions needed to assert one’s value will differ from person to person, Walt’s needs are contrary to the flourishing and happiness of himself and others. This is excessive.

His revenge against the Schwartzes is for them to deliver $9.72 million in cash with the instructions that they are to give it to Walt Jr. in an irrevocable trust. Any fees are to be paid from Walt’s money. The Schwartzes are not to contribute a penny. Walt believes that they have cheated him, but he is using his power to prevent the Schwartzes from rectifying their wrongs. Walt’s revenge doesn’t reinforce his appropriate self-esteem, or assert his proper place in the moral community. It doesn’t reinforce social norms. Instead, it shows that Walt has the power over the Schwartzes; he can reject their atonement. Walt tells them he has hired assassins. The scene ends with Walt standing behind the couple, the red dot of a laser on their chests. Walt explains:

Whatever happens to me tomorrow [the assassins] will still be out there keeping tabs, and if, for any reason, my children do not get this money, a kind of countdown will begin. Maybe a day. Maybe a week, a year. When you were going for a walk in Santa Fe, or Manhattan, maybe Prague, wherever, and you're talking about your stock prices without a worry in the world, suddenly you hear the scrape of footsteps behind you. But before you can even turn around: POP. (Walt jabs his index fingers into the back of their heads. They scream.) Cheer up beautiful people this is where you get to make it right. (“Felina”)

Walt’s revenge fantasy gives the Schwartzes a choice: give Walt Jr. the money, or live the rest of their lives in constant fear. His resentment has eaten at him for years. Walt has not allowed himself a moment’s happiness since the Schwartzes “robbed” him. They will now do what he wants or suffer equally, unable to enjoy any happiness for thinking of Walt. He has rationalized that it is just to inflict equal suffering on those he judges responsible for his own. This is brilliant revenge fantasy, but it is not virtuous.

 
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