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October 1, 2013 at 11:59 AMComments: 2 Faves: 0

Opting for Tumors: The Strange and Bumpy Road to "Felina"

By Kyle McCarthy from SLN More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the Culturology Blog Series

"May his death satisfy you." -Gus Fring

Walter White has cancer. Walter White is cancer. Walter White is spreading.


You've got to hand it to him, Walter White doesn't half-ass anything. Thanks to his carcinogenic urge to spread his fatal venom to meth enthusiasts around the globe, marriages are destroyed and families are annihilated. Some children are murdered, others merely poisoned. Trains are robbed, junkies overdose, hospitals explode, and planes collide in mid-air. Copious amounts of crystal meth are cooked, likewise copious amounts of money are collected, and no one is ever able to convince the man known in certain circles as Heisenberg that enough is enough. No one ever succeeds in telling him "no." And those who are too persistent in their efforts to do so usually wake up one morning sans pulse.

From the first scenes we spend with the Walter White and his quite nuclear family, the presence of death hovers like noxious methylamine. Over the course of five toxic seasons, this fatal presence continues to hover, clouding judgment and progressively ratcheting more and more tension while indiscriminately strafing poisonous ammunition (not unlike a certain M-60 in a certain car trunk) on the righteous, the unrepentant, and the innocent in equal measure.


Because of Walt's Icarusian insistence of his invincibility and his naively perceived benevolence, we always knew the end without having to be told. We simply had to wait and watch as the the cancer that was Walter White ran its inevitable course. It did, sure enough, finally resulting in the death of the most calculated anti-hero in the history of television, but the contagion he created on his path to that great Bunsen burner below the ground will stick with the survivors for the rest of our lives.


Cancer is a singularly resilient disease. Even when we think we have destroyed it with medication or surgery or radiation or some combination of treatement, it often returns with even greater ferocity. In the same way that cancer has a nasty habit of continually revisiting us sans invitation, so too do the choices we make. We mask our lies and our sin by layering more and more lies and sin onto a heap that eventually coalesces to form a mountain of shit resting like a house of cards on a perpetually receding tide. Eventually, feces mountain becomes unscaleable and simultaneously begins to lose buoyancy and sink under the relentlessness of its own weight.

Of course, what we usually tend to do when this happens - and what Walter White attempted to do with varying results over the course of 62 episodes of Breaking Bad - is to continue precariously building our prideful towers to the very end, no matter how far we've sunk. In other words, to ignore the writing on the wall as we spit carefree into the wind, knowing all the while that we are the causes of our own malignancy.


Fundamentally, Breaking Bad is an entertaining exercise in which creator Vince Gilligan has been able to frame a series of moral questions. It's not so much a referendum on the the larger cultural landscape as much as it is an open investigation of that forum. It lends itself well to these discussions, but it makes no specific political, ethical, or moral statement on the rights and wrongs of Walt's actions - or any other character's for that matter. In fact, just as often as we're exposed to some especially delicious deviancy carried out by gang members, Nazis, or fast-food franchisers, federal officers are confusing their badges for absolute righteousness.


The questions here concern character (as they always do with Breaking Bad), not policy. Policy being someone else's decision about the way the world should operate and character being a matter of deciding whether or not that picture aligns with an individual's worldview. Breaking Bad consistently poked the bear by asking questions in this vain, and we should probably begin asking them more often in the real world. When they're left in the closet, they have the tendency to mutate and metastasize, and at some point, they demand to be released and spread, crawling through the uncomfortable spaces that we'd rather not think about, much less mention out loud.


Breaking Bad is a study in addiction and in choice - both for the principle characters and the audience alike. More specifically, it's a study in how our choices have the terrifying ability to act as ignored cancerous growth, how they can affect every aspect of our health and livelihood when they metastasize. It's a visceral, raw investigation into the inception of cancer, its potential for rapid growth, and its unparallelled ability to spread when left unchecked.

Much like Walt's cancer treatment, individuals respond to various stimuli differently on a person-to-person and case-by-case basis, and although we may construct arguments based on these responses in the real world, it's impossible to truly empathize with fictional characters living out extreme circumstances. While it's tempting for viewers to paint some characters in darker shades (Walter), some characters in lighter shades (Hank Schrader), some characters in grey shades (Skylar), and some characters in purple shades (Marie), this is a flawed exercise. Along with the rest of us, every primary character on Breaking Bad possesses myriad flaws, but these flaws are augmented to extreme degrees, which makes it impossible to make value judgments on the marrow of their being. We can't accurately discern motivation and action in a sphere that is proportionately familiar to the viewer only to the extent with which said viewer happens to ingest fictional media. In other words, our affinity for television doesn't give us ultimate authority to judge character's actions, because the world they navigate is so vastly different than reality. Of course, neither does this relieve us of our responsibility as viewers, which is to attempt to make sense of the hypotheticals with which we are presented.


The key here is entering into subjective debate no matter how disorienting, not lazily declaring objective ownership of perceived truths. Crawling through the dense moral morass is a phenomenon that makes many of us who prefer to think in terms of black and white extremely uncomfortable. Then again, so did watching Jesse inject heroin into his veins, but that didn't stop us from watching, did it?


Walter White is a seemingly ordinary man. He's a man who contracts cancer and, through a series of major miscalculations based on his massive ego, manages to kill (in some form or another) everyone around him as a result. As the show progressed over a brief 18-month period and as Walter White's cancer continued to retreat further and further, the more the malignancy that was Heisenberg spread throughout the picturesque desolation of the Southwest and the mountain ranges of Central Europe, polluting various littered streets and claustrophobic alleys with a strangely inviting blue-hued plague. Not only that, but as his real disease, the truly lethal carcinogen of hubris within Walter White, became an epidemic, insidiously and systematically corrupting and rotting his family from the inside out, we were forced to examine ourselves as voyeurs and wonder just what exactly we were getting from all this death and decay. Is Breaking Bad simply an excuse to purge our more primal instincts, or are we actually attempting to understand the more complex aspects of our society? Are we proud of Walt for snickering at the absurdity of social norms, or should we be disgusted by the results? Are these emotions mutually exclusive? The answers to these questions are not concrete, but can be framed within the context of those closest to Walt.


There's no denying that Walt cared deeply for his wife Skylar and his two children, as well as his in-laws. But you know what they say about the ones we love. Ever the over-achiever, Walter just had to go and one-up the idiom. He didn't just hurt them; he killed them. They may still be breathing - most of them anyway - but he mortgaged their lives in the name of vanity. And while questions regarding the morally ambiguous nature of the Whites, Schraders, and Pinkmans will live on as the show's legacy, if Walter White himself weren't resting uncomfortably in a perpetual heat exchange, he would tell you that there are many forms of death and that being unburdened of one's breath means being unburdened of choice and consequences. He would likewise tell you that this is a relief, that it is a fair trade for his current state. No longer does he have to worry himself with Skylar's sanity, his son's handicap, or his daughter's future. No longer does he have to play a part he was never even meant to audition for. He's done enough.

Walt's most criminal mistake was buying into the misguided belief that he was, in fact, a criminal. A frustrated chemistry teacher in love with science, or perhaps more accurately, in love with "transformation," Walt was always convinced that he was the smartest guy in the room, which, most of the time he was. But his intelligence didn't make him a criminal mastermind; it made him a science geek - a role stolen from him too early in life by his former colleagues at Grey Matter. This early exposure to the cruelty of the world, broke Walter White and provided the original catalyst for the rise of Heisenberg. It was the pack a day habit, the tanning booth in the basement, the daily trip to McDonald's. It was the carcinogen that caused the cancer that killed Walter White and produced Heisengberg.

Although it often lays dormant for years, given enough time, no one is immune from the effects of cancer. Breaking Bad proved that when the disease is left to its own devices, it will always spread, and then all that's left is just decay and sickness.

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  • I have yet to watch the show, but do you believe that Gilligan, by showing White/Heisenberg's relentless imperial expansion, was attempting to create a virtual shadow of the American empire and its relentless attempt at growth?

  • I think that would be a fair critical reading of the show, but I doubt Gilligan was consciously attempting to insert any personal warnings about globalization. I think BB is really just a deep, thorough character study about the consequences of pride.

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