“We Are Responsible to All for All”: An Intersubjective Analysis of Breaking Bad

Sheridan Hough

Walter White is dying.

It is tempting to start the story here, since the series thus begins: except that the imminent death of Walter is not how the initial episode opens. The first filmic moment is desert glare, and a pair of twisted, legless chinos falling from a blazing sky.

So, Walter White is dying of inoperable lung cancer, and that’s where we wish to begin the tale, since his illness is the engine that drives his choices and their consequences. In remembering the 2008 season opener, perhaps the sequence in the oncologist’s office comes to mind: Walt, unable to hear the words being spoken to him, the death sentence uttered as he hears murmured sounds, seeing only a mustard stain on the oncologist’s white coat. The face of Walter White, while hearing but not hearing that he must die, is one we will see again and again in the series on many different characters: Hank the DEA officer, knowing that Jack is about to execute him; Gus Fring, finally realizing why Hector Salamanca has called him to his nursing home; Lydia, in bed with “flu-like symptoms,” hearing Walt’s voice explain that there was ricin in her green tea; Gale Boetticher, opening the door to Jesse, and seeing the end of his life in Jesse’s outstretched, shaking hand, clutching a gun.

Of course, this is also the face that every one of us sees, every day, in the morning mirror (to brush, shave), or the passing glance on the way to work (adjust hair, or tie), at night, preparing to let go of all of this grooming and tending, and simply curl up as a simulacrum of fetal breath and being. Each human face is (when we wish to so consider it) the imprimatur of its mortality; hence, the familiar keening pang of seeing a portrait—the Renaissance

S. Hough (H)

College of Charleston, Charleston, SC, USA © The Author(s) 2017

K.S. Decker et al. (eds.), Philosophy and Breaking Bad, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-40343-4_15

grandee, how ruddy and robust of flesh! Heroic nose, vivid eyes, yet all of it so much dust, so long ago. As such, “facing death”—that close-up of Walter White, hearing what he cannot bear to hear—is neither unique nor instructive.

Walter’s face in close-up captures our attention because it vividly depicts the face each one of us wears. That face, however, is not—and cannot be, in the moment of self-dissolution’s knowledge—looking in the direction of its own origin. We need to know how this person came to be.

Who is Walter White? Discovering who Walter is will require the camera to pan out considerably. It will, to use Walter’s own words from the pilot episode, require chemistry—as he puts it, “the study of change...solution, dissolution, just over and over and over—growth, decay and transformation.”

Again: who is Walter White? We viewers think we know the answer: Walt is highly intelligent (the plaque we glimpse commemorating his membership on a Nobel prize-winning chemistry team), initially browbeaten by life (mocked by his feckless high school students, berated by his overlord at the car wash, Bogdan), enamored of his wife and dedicated to his family, both his children and his in-laws (a “fact” about Walt that becomes mantra-shaped in its repetition, and one to which we will return). No, Walt’s character seems clear, and his increasingly feral and murderous choices flow directly from his skillful determination to succeed in “providing for his family.”

Ah, those choices, those depraved actions. What about them? Surely our interest here should be directed to some kind of ethical evaluation—after all, how far can thoughts about Walter’s character take us? As Aristotle gamely points out in the Poetics, “Character gives us qualities, but it is in our actions— what we do—that we are happy or the reverse.the first essential, the life and soul, so to speak, of tragedy is the plot; and that the characters come second.”1 Walter’s choices to act, or not to act, are center-stage. Series creator Vince Gilligan apparently agrees: “If there’s a larger lesson to Breaking Bad, it’s that actions have consequences.I like to believe.that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen.”2

Gilligan’s appeal to “karma” is of interest, because that notion (the Sanskrit word simply means “action”) is an ontological claim. The “karmic world” is, and indeed operates, by means of causal laws: every action has a consequence, and each consequence is bound up with a dynamic nexus of other conditions and subsequent causes. This account of the absolute connection between cause, its conditions, and effect also necessarily denies the discrete or independent reality of the objects and persons within the causal structure: every thing—a rock, a cat, an airplane, a human being—is what it is because of the conditions that have created it; of course, each material state of affairs is constantly changing (in much the way that Walter White pictures our chemical reality). Hence, the Buddhist philosophical notion of “dependent arising”: all things depend upon, and are the product of, a previous set of conditions; all things are aggregates only temporarily assembled, and constantly shifting in their construction. (Alteration can, of course, be brutally swift, and the Breaking Bad series has some breathtakingly gruesome illustrations of this principle: Victor, at one moment Gus Fring’s assistant and henchman, the next a garroted corpse, the next—dissolved matter in a barrel of hydrofluoric acid; Gus, in his turn, adjusts his tie after Hector’s suicide bomb, not yet aware that half of his face is now missing.) No thing, no person, has a stable identity, and the aggregate reality is always on the move.

To return to Gilligan’s remark about the “larger lesson” of Breaking Bad: in adopting the concept of karma, Gilligan is asserting that his storyline reflects the way that things actually are. This point is important: storytellers reliably pander to our craving for comeuppance, and few moments of a filmed narrative are more visually satisfying than when the villain is caught, or destroyed, especially when that destruction is partly of their own making. Sure, it feels good to see the bad guy get what’s coming: but just who is that bad guy, and are we entirely sure about what’s coming? The thrills of justice and vengeance do not bespeak the deep truth of the karmic picture, and Gilligan seems to be pressing for a depiction with a greater kind of ontological heft.

The very notion of karma, however, depends on a more fundamental claim about the nature of reality, one that is a feature of thinking in both Eastern and Western philosophical traditions: the truth of intersubjectivity. Given what it means, the term intersubjectivity is itself problematic: an intersubjective ontology argues that persons are properly understood as social creations emerging from a shared linguistic, economic, and cultural terrain: we, as “subjects,” are not (as the term suggests) discrete entities; instead, we are who we are because of others. The ontological claim of intersubjective reality thus points again to the question of Walt’s identity, a question that will now take a different form: how does Walter understand his location in his human community?

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