The Elusiveness of Facticity

However, this discussion about contingency and freedom may appear to be farfetched when we apply it to the universe of Breaking Bad. Even if we ignored the fact that what occurs on our screens is fully determined by the writers, actors, and production team, and tried to wholly immerse ourselves in the lives and events of Walt, Jesse, Skyler, and Hank, it may seem as if they inhabit a universe in which subtle and not-so-subtle forces are constantly at work, allowing the appearance but not the substance of freedom. Or perhaps we believe—along the lines of the doctrine of original sin—that the free choices of those who came before us doom us to suffering “the sins of the father.” Pat Robertson, an evangelical Christian and host of The 700 Club, infamously invoked this kind of reasoning when he blamed American iniquity (specifically, homosexual behavior and abortions) for the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. “[H]ave we found we are unable somehow to defend ourselves against some of the attacks that are coming against us, either by terrorists or now by natural disaster?” Robertson asked his television audience. “Could they be connected in some way?”32 And even with all the possibilities discussed by creator Vince Gilligan with the writers for the Breaking Bad finale in 2013, it seemed clear that an ending to the show that did not in some way engage with Walt’s choices, offering up some form of redemption, salvation, or damnation, was going to be unsatisfactory to the audience.

Consider this crucial series of events from Breaking Bad, most of which happen in the episodes “Phoenix,” “ABQ,” and “No Mas”: [1]

  • 8. Walt breaks into Jesse’s apartment, finds Jesse and Jane strung out, and while shaking Jesse to wake him, Jane flips on her back.
  • 9. Jane begins to asphyxiate on her own vomit from an overdose.
  • 10. Walt thinks about saving Jane, but ultimately withholds action.
  • 11. Jane dies of asphyxiation.
  • 12. Jane’s father, Donald, becomes depressed because of her death.
  • 13. While at his job as a flight traffic controller, Donald’s mind wanders to Jesse and he fails to notice two intersecting flight paths.
  • 14. Wayfarer Flight 515 collides with a charter plane, killing 167 people.

Although many fans on Breaking Bad discussion boards point to Walt’s decision in (10) as being the moment at which they stopped sympathizing with him, and while the audience in general was clearly supposed to reflect on the causal connection between (10) and (14), the moral responsibility that accrues to Walt for the air collision is far from beyond doubt. The set of circumstances in (1-14) above is but one contingent way of describing these events, and the interpretation of Walt’s character that casts aspersions on his decision to let an innocent person die to “free” Jesse from her grasp is but one contingent description of Walt’s self.

The language of freedom and responsibility granted to us by the materialist, Christian, liberal democratic society that is America in the twenty-first century is not particularly helpful in evaluating these last few claims. In The Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir provides a different language:

Every man is originally free, in the sense that he spontaneously casts himself into the world. But if we consider this spontaneity in its facticity, it appears to us only as a pure contingency, an upsurging as stupid as the clinamen of the Epicurean atom which turned up at any moment whatsoever from any direction whatsoever. And it was quite necessary for the atom to arrive somewhere. But its movement was not justified by this result which had not been chosen. It remained absurd. Thus, human spontaneity always projects itself toward something.33

Since in the last section we identified the objects of Walt’s spontaneous choices in terms of his “fundamental project”—money for his family and power and control for himself—we can make sense of his decision not to save Jane within this context. On the other hand, as observers of Jane’s death, we see Walt vacillate for minutes, turning slightly toward the bed and then away from it, again and again. Given this, when was it Walt’s spontaneous choice to withhold action? As observers, the fact that Walt finally lands on allowing her to die is absurd—a “swerve” (clinamen) of his original intention in coming to talk sense into Jesse—and, as such, is fundamentally inexplicable. What happens to Donald Margolis afterward is equally absurd: while we could have anticipated (12) above as a plausible reaction by Donald to his daughter’s death, we could not have predicted it—and certainly not (13). Sartre’s phrase for the unpredictability of human choices is “what comes from the brute being of the for-itself.”34

The conversation between two strangers, Jane’s father, Donald Margolis, and Walter White in the bar before this scene reveals how the contingency of language produces a tragic, if darkly ironic result:

Walt: So, any advice? Having a daughter. Any advice?

Donald: (shaking head) No, not really. Just love them. Just—Yeah. I mean, they are who they are.

Walt: Yeah. I’ve got this nephew. This nephew who is—I mean, he’s an adult. But you can’t infantilize them, you can’t live their life for them. But still, I mean, there is that frustration. You know, that, God, that frustration that goes along with, you know: “Yes, as a matter of fact, I do know what is best for you, so listen.” But of course, they don’t. I mean, what do you do with someone like that?

Donald: Family?

Walt: (hesitates) Yeah. Family.

Donald: You can’t give up on them. Never. I mean, what else is there?

Donald’s “you can’t give up on them” sums up his troubled relationship with Jane, but at the same time suggests a valid interpretation of Walt’s physical reaction: he thinks he must treat Jesse as a member of his own family and do what it takes to convince him that Walt knows what’s best for him. The fact that Donald and Walt are ignorant of their hidden connection means that this instance of the contingency of language will pit their intentions directly against one another, with Jane caught in between.

In a sense, then, Donald’s advice was a condition for Jane’s death. Sartre was a pioneer in insisting that moral evaluations of free agents can neither be actualized or understood without grasping the “situation,” or framing conditions of choice and action. “,..[T]he situation, the common product of the contingency of the in-itself and of freedom, is an ambiguous phenomenon in which it is impossible for the for-itself to distinguish the contribution of freedom from that of the brute existent.”35 Impossible to distinguish, but not to describe, as individuals from Pat Robertson to fans on discussion boards distressed with Walt in “Phoenix,” have discovered.

In the chronological list of events above, I deliberately included (1-7) as background to Jane’s death and the mid-air collision. These events—some of which are choices made by Jesse and Jane and some of which, like the minor deviations in the flight paths of Wayfarer 515 and the charter plane, can only be put down to facticity—form the situation for Walt’s choice to let Jane die and all the consequences that are conditioned by that event.

.. .[T]he fact of not being able not to be free is the facticity of freedom, and the fact of not being able not to exist is its contingency. Contingency and facticity are really one; there is a being which freedom has to be in the form of non-being (that is, of nihilation). To exist as the fact of freedom or to have to be a being in the midst of the world are one and the same thing, and this means that freedom is originally a relation to the given?6

Without a given situation, Sartre insists, there is neither opportunity nor reason to exercise one’s freedom. Walt did so in letting Jane die, and must accept responsibility for that—Sartre and Beauvoir will not allow us to separate our intention from our action in every case of free choice. But Walt is not morally responsible, on the existentialists’ view, for the mid-air crash, and although other acts of violence in the show, including the deaths of Gale Boetticher, Hank Schrader, and Steve Gomez have been rather carelessly argued to be Walt’s fault, the conditions for their deaths are as much down to the “given” of the factical situations as they are to the free choices of the Breaking Bad characters. An absurd conclusion, but that’s rather the point.

  • [1] Jesse Pinkman rents an apartment from Jane Margolis. 2. Jesse and Jane become an “item.” 3. Jesse and Jane enjoy crystal meth, pot and heroin speedballs together. 4. Because he’s high, Jesse causes Walt to nearly miss a big meth deal with Fringand to miss the birth of Walt’s daughter. 5. Walt withholds Jesse’s share of the profits from the big meth deal. 6. Jane blackmails Walt into turning over Jesse’s share. 7. Jesse and Jane enjoy heroin speedballs together.
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