Theater of the Absurd: Breaking Bad as Edifying Philosophy

Kevin S. Decker

In his eponymous 1960 essay, critic Martin Esslin coined the term “Theater of the Absurd” to describe the drama of Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov, and Eugene Ionesco, among others. In attempting to put his finger on the trigger of the mental anguish at the heart of these playwrights’ postwar work, Esslin declared:

Ours being, more than most others, an age of transition, it displays a bewilderingly stratified picture: medieval beliefs still held and overlaid by eighteenth- century rationalism and mid-nineteenth-century Marxism, rocked by sudden volcanic eruptions of prehistoric fanaticisms and primitive tribal cults. Each of these components of the cultural pattern of the age finds its own artistic expression. The Theatre of the Absurd, however, can be seen as the reflection of what seems to be the attitude most genuinely representative of our own time. The hallmark of this attitude is its sense that the certitudes and unshakable basic assumptions of former ages have been swept away, that they have been tested and found wanting, that they have been discredited as cheap and somewhat childish illusions. The decline of religious faith was masked until the end of the Second World War by the substitute religions of faith in progress, nationalism, and various totalitarian fallacies. All this was shattered by the war. By 1942, Albert Camus was calmly putting the question why, since life had lost all meaning, man should not seek escape in suicide.1

While Camus is the great poet of absurdity in works such as The Stranger and “The Myth of Sisyphus,” his equation of absurdity with meaninglessness can be philosophically deepened by adding to it insights from fellow existentialists

K.S. Decker (H)

Eastern Washington University, Cheney, WA, USA © The Author(s) 2017

K.S. Decker et al. (eds.), Philosophy and Breaking Bad, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-40343-4_16

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, as the first part of this chapter will show. In all three thinkers, absurdity can be understood in terms of the acknowledgment of contingency in human relationships to the natural and social worlds. Inauthenticity, then, becomes the lack of acknowledgment of contingency and the ignorance of absurdity.

Contingency is brought to the fore in the work of Richard Rorty in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, and a number of essays. Rorty gives us a new vocabulary for coping with the absurd, a vocabulary tied to treating the recognition of contingency as the primary reason for the “loss of all meaning in life” that Esslin offers.

In his work, Rorty offers novel and controversial interpretations of three thinkers who he sees as the most important philosophers of the twentieth century. Rorty writes of John Dewey (1859-1952), Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976):

All three make it as difficult as possible to take their thought as expressing views on traditional philosophical problems, or as making constructive proposals for philosophy as a cooperative and progressive discipline. They make fun of the classic picture of man, the picture which contains systematic philosophy, the search for universal commensuration in a final vocabulary. They hammer away at the holistic point that words take their meanings from other words rather than by virtue of their representative character, and the corollary that vocabularies acquire their privileges from the men who use them rather than from their transparency to the real.2

Rorty’s view of the significance of contingency is informed by his post-linguistic turn in the understanding of how words, sentences, and vocabularies are used to constitute a social reality. According to Rorty, the recognition of contingency as pervasive in the world is the central insight of naturalism, “the view that anything might have been otherwise, that there can be no conditionless conditions.”3 Through a look at Rorty’s interpretation of certain absurd implications of these “thinkers of contingency” in the third part of this chapter, we’ll see how the linguistic dimension of contingent relations calls for a rethinking of traditional philosophical concerns. In addition, we’ll have framed a new understanding of the value of freedom in an absurd and contingent universe, an understanding that draws from the tradition of existentialism.

Breaking Bad adopts a darkly, playful attitude toward our comfort level with contingency, which is typically quite low. There are several senses of the term “contingency,” but only two that concern us here. First, Rorty’s understanding of contingency encompasses the idea that there is no certainty in events, while at the same time asserting that “we are nothing save the words we use,”4 and the words we use are themselves contingent upon a mixture of history and relatively free choices of individuals. The other philosophically interesting sense of “contingency” is less philosophically weighty but closer to common sense: that all future events are possible but cannot be anticipated except with varying degrees of certainty, not certainty itself.

This becomes important in the second season of Breaking Bad, for example, when episodes such as “Seven Thirty-Seven” and “Down” begin with flash- forwards of the infamous pink teddy bear, workers in hazmat suits, and body bags—all of which, as it turns out, are recovered from the White’s pool and property. As the main plots of Season Two converge with the flash-forwards of the aftermath of the crash of Wayfarer Flight 515 with a charter plane, the unpredictable series of causes and effects that led to the crash are slowly revealed. The failure of air traffic controller whose distracted depression caused the crash, Donald Margolis, can be traced back to Walt’s decision not to save Margolis’ daughter, Jane, as she chokes on vomit during a drug overdose. We, the audience, are clearly supposed to consider the tragedy in the air yet one more episode of violence to be laid at Walt’s feet. In the third part of this chapter, I use Sartre’s phenomenological analysis of human action to illustrate why we might want to question this conclusion and what that tells us about contingency and the absurd.

In the fourth and final part, I return to Breaking Bad as a latter-day Theater of the Absurd, overshadowed as it is by Walter White’s ongoing confrontation with his obsessions and his own mortality. Walt’s absurd, five-season journey begins with him understanding the resonances of the thought that everything one is and everything one has accomplished must finally be negated by death. But how do we spend the time between now and then? The eternally rockrolling protagonist of Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus” provides a metaphor for Walt’s career as a methamphetamine cook and drug kingpin who acknowledges the absurdity of both the form of, and the manner in which he sets out to leave a legacy for his family.

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