Walter White vs. Walt Whitman

by: Michael Shields

To supplement our weekly Breaking Bad recaps we take an exhaustive look into the ever present connection between Walt Whitman and Walter White….

It is impossible to ignore the many mentions of Walt Whitman that one encounters on Breaking Bad. This, to many, may be dismissed as a mere reference to the initials they both share, but that gives little credit to the brilliance of the writers who have gifted us with this cunning tale. In order to dissect and put into proper perspective the meaning of the references to one of America’s greatest and most influential poets, it is important to first recount those instances we come upon them.

The first such mention occurs in the Episode entitled “Sunset,” which is the episode where we first encounter Walt’s new lab partner imposed upon him by Gus, Gale Boetticher. Walt and Gale begin to speak on their beginnings, and why they are now in the business of producing crystal meth. Gale thinks back to graduate school and explains, “I was on my way—jumping through hoops, kissing the proper behinds, attending to all the non-chemistry that one finds oneself occupied with. You know that world. That is not what I signed on for. I love the lab—because it’s all still magic, you know? Chemistry? I mean, once you lose that….”

Walt agrees. “It is. It is magic,” he says. “It still is.”

“And all the while,” he tells Walt, “I kept thinking about that great old Whitman poem1.”  Gale2 goes on to recite Whitman’s ‘When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer’ to an impressed Walt.

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer, When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me, When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them, When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

In that very same episode we see Walt in his bachelor pad with a copy of ‘Leaves of Grass’ on his lap reading silently.

In the episode “Bullet Points” Hank turns to Walt for help in the meth lab investigation. Upon seeing the lab notes, Walt is petrified. When an homage to a “W.W.” appears amongst Gale’s drawing, poems, and recipes, Walt quickly attributes it to Walt Whitman which appeases Hank at the time.

And recently, in the episode entitled “Hazard Pay” we find Walt unpacking in his bedroom as he is moving back home3. While shifting things around, he comes upon Walt Whitman’s legendary collection of poems, the aforementioned ‘Leaves of Grass.’ He smiles briefly and leaves it out to read later4. One may contend this is merely a simple encounter with a favorite book….I, however, see this moment as symbolism of the highest order, a sign of what is to come.

‘Leaves of Grass’ is well known as a celebration of the senses during a time when such candid displays were considered immoral, and the possibility that its appearance in last weeks episode has to do with the fact that Walt’s senses are peaking with confidence and arrogance as he bathes in a tub full of power – that he is drunk of his new-found sovereignty and fully alive in a way he never thought possible, cannot be ignored. He is full of an immeasurable amount of pride much like Whitman expresses in the acclaimed section of ‘Leaves of Grass’ entitled ‘Song of Myself’:

“I celebrate myself, and sing myself/ and what I shall assume you shall assume/ for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

‘Leaves of Grass’ was Whitman’s seminal work. He agonized over it, making edits and additions his ENTIRE life. He revised it over and over throughout his life5 and was continuing to work on making it perfect right up until his dying breath. This was his baby, so to speak. This was his blue meth – the chemical compound that Walter White perfected which gave meaning to his world. The item that Walter worked meticulously on creating and then re-creating until it was the most superior product on the market. The product that was looked up to by both Jesse and Gale due to its purity. This blue gold was the thing that kept him alive so often, as those who wanted him dead agonized over not being able to kill him because he could produce it. The item that turned him from an ordinary high-school teacher to an all-mighty drug king-pin. Their life’s work, the thing that made them both who they are. Their legacy.

As the poems progress, Whitman’s tone seems to become more downcast as he struggles with the onslaught of war and the state of the nation. Book XXII of ‘Leaves of Grass’ has particular significance in both this discussion and in terms of understanding the importance of Whitman’s masterpiece. Here is where we find ‘Memories of President Lincoln,’ which includes two unforgettable pieces – ‘When Lilacs last in Dooryard Bloom’d,’ and the incomparable ‘O Captain! My Captain!.’  These were a series of poems written in 1865 after Lincoln was assassinated, as Whitman, who had a strong affinity for the president, mourned deeply. ‘Lilacs’ follows Lincoln’s coffin on its way to the president’s burial and then looks at the president’s death as a smaller piece of a much larger tragedy in a world of confusion, pain, and sadness. Where Whitman’s poem goes to a dark place with the death of the president, Breaking Bad would go to an even darker place with the loss (assassination of??) the recently crowd king – Walter White. Speculation for certain – but there are few coincidences in scripts written so well .

There is a storm coming, this much is certain. At the end of every season excepting the initial we have seen life lost. Season 2 concluded in dramatic fashion with an airplane explosion. In season 3 Gale looked down the barrel of a gun as Jesse introduced him to his maker. Season 4 saw Gus lose a battle of wits with Walt. In season 5 who is it that will lost?  Who is the one that will be mourned…?

When lilacs in the door- yard bloom’d

And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night

I mourned – and yet shall mourn with every returning spring6.

  1. Possibly as justification for taking his craft in a different direction – Gale needs to be in the lab where the magic happens, akin to “Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars,” rather than brown-nosing his way up the scholastic ladder []
  2. “Yes, I am a nerd” []
  3. Because “It’s time” as he simply tells Skyler []
  4. It is worth noting that seeing this book did not make Walt mourn for the loss of Gale or even think of him, not even for a second – and it is easy to see that this book’s presence could have substantial significance moving forward. []
  5. There have been held to be either six or nine editions of Leaves of Grass, the count depending on how a given scholar distinguishes between issues and editions. Scholars who hold that an edition is an entirely new set of type will count the 1855, 1856, 1860, 1867, 1871–72, and 1881. Others add in the 1876, 1888–89, and 1891-92 (the “deathbed edition”) []
  6. I would like to take a moment and thank Herbert Stern for discussing poetry and it’s possible relation to a television show with me, at length []

29 Comments

  • Reply August 16, 2012

    erik

    good work thanks for the insight in to the connection between Walt and Walter.

  • Reply August 28, 2012

    Hassus

    Guess what. Episode 508 is titled “Gliding over all” which is a Whitman poem:

    “Gliding o’er all, through all,
    Through Nature, Time, and Space,
    As a ship on the waters advancing,
    The voyage of the soul–not life alone,
    Death, many deaths I’ll sing.”

  • Reply August 29, 2012

    acro0390

    Hassus…..well done!! hadn’t seen the episode title yet. That’s mind-blowing. The connection continues!

    Thank you for that comment. Made my day.

  • Reply September 3, 2012

    jim

    wow, nailed it great insight

  • Reply September 3, 2012

    N8

    You were spot on!

  • Reply September 3, 2012

    Bucketheadsdad

    Bravo….

    Very impressed with your insights here.

  • Reply September 3, 2012

    Eric

    “While shifting things around, he comes upon Walt Whitman’s legendary collection of poems, the aforementioned ‘Leaves of Grass’. … I see this moment as symbolism of the highest order, a sign of what is to come.”

    So impressed! Who’da thunk that book would be the beginning of Walt’s downfall when Hank gets his hands on it?!?!?!? ;)

  • Reply September 3, 2012

    Leo

    Okay so now what?? The season finale is over now and I want to know what you have to say about it now? come on I like this entry…please review!!!

  • Reply September 3, 2012

    Kkinnevy

    This is really great insight. I am not a Walt Whitman scholar so I am interested in understanding your (and critics) interpretation of this poem referenced in the season finale episode, Gliding O’er All. I take it as an introspective reflection of one’s life, looking down over your life and the many changes in one’s soul (character/world view?). The ‘many deaths I’ll sing’ is ambiguous to me. Does this refer to an immortality of soul and afterlife?

  • [...] hasta visionar Scarface pasando por las Hojas de hierba de Walt Whitman (el último episodio roba el título de un poema del bardo barbudo). Demasiadas señales para ignorar que Ícaro se ha acercado [...]

  • Reply September 4, 2012

    Snapple90

    First of all great insight!! Second, I’m curious to know if you picked up on the page Hank turned to before looking at the front page (pages 30-31). Page 31 of Leaves of Grass is approximately Section 37 of “Song of Myself.”

    Not a mutineer walks handcuffed to the jail, but I am handcuffed to him and walk by his side, I am less the jolly one there, and more the silent one with sweat on my twitching lips.
    Not a youngster is taken for larceny, but I go up too and am tried and sentenced.
    Not a cholera patient lies at the last gasp, but I also lie at the last gasp, My face is ash-colored, my sinews gnarl . . . . away from me people retreat.

  • Reply September 4, 2012

    acro0390

    Snapple 90, I did not….I am now curious to go back and look. That is incredibly strategic and telling if he flipped to ‘Song of Myself’ first. Again….wow.

  • Reply September 4, 2012

    acro0390

    Leo / Kkinery: The recap of thios week’s episode is up and hopefully it offers some of the insight you are looking for!

  • Reply September 4, 2012

    Adam

    You also forgot to mention a scene in which Walter and Walter Jr are watching Jeopardy, and the answer was something along the lines of “This famous transcendental poet is known for his yawp.” And Walt responds “Walt Whitman.”

    But “O, Captain! My Captain!” incomparable? If by that you mean it’s unmatched in quality, I hope you’re kidding. It’s one of Whitman’s weakest poems, and one he severely regretting having ever written.

  • Reply September 5, 2012

    acro0390

    True Adam…..forgot to mention the Jeopardy reference. Seemed pretty minor in the scheme of things but should have in an effort for thoroughness. And I believe all the pieces matter so I should have mentioned the reference to the yawp.

    Incomparable can mean many things in this case. You assume too much. Many do hold it in high regard however, and the reason he severely regretted writing it had little do with quality – but rather because its acclaim was at the expense of his other poems.

  • Reply September 10, 2012

    julia windsor

    I can’t remember how the book connects Walt to anything shady. Does anyone remember?
    I know Walt’s downfall is his hubris, but his deciding to break the law, his whole journey into this world has let him feel so alive.Do we have to go to such extremes to feel alive? He’s not a henpecked,responsible, mortgaged, housebroken citizen anymore. He’s alive for the first time in his life. Again, does anyone have to break all the rules to feel alive?

  • Reply September 10, 2012

    acro0390

    Julie,

    Inscribed within the first couple pics of the book is a note from Gale to Walt. It is some damning evidence that connects the two of them.

    I appreciate the comments you made about the lengths some people will go to feel alive, to feel that blood pumped through their normally dormant veins. I think of thrill-seekers who put it all on the line for that rush. The extremes are something I don’t understand but I believe in both cases their is some arrogance mixed in there as the person believes ‘I won’t get caught’ or ‘that won’t happen to me’. I think that Walt thinks he is way to smart to get caught……but really….is this what it takes to feel good about yourself? Such a fair question.

  • Reply September 22, 2012

    ItsJesseBtch

    This is a helpful and interesting post, especially the biographical comparison of Whitman’s opus vs. Walt’s opus. However, your interpretation of Song of Myself is off. You quote a line to exemplify what you call the writer/narrator’s immeasurable pride — “I celebrate myself, and sing myself/ and what I shall assume you shall assume …” — but this interpretation ignores the last line you include: “… for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” This line is essential and ties in with Snapple90′s comment about pages 30-31. Without context the first part of your quote sounds like pure pride, but in full this is not so much about pride as saying that you and I (and all others) are connected, we are made of the same material. Thus, as ‘every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,’ when I celebrate myself I celebrate you, I sing you (and all humanity), thus what I become so you become too and vice versa. This is well beyond Walter White’s comprehension of himself (until possibly he has some transformation that may have been hinted at at the very end of season 5 this year, it’s too soon to say). The portion of Song of Myself that Snapple90 found on the pages glimpsed in episode 8 are exactly this: Whatever individual is confined or suffers, so too I am confined and suffer just the same. Why is this? Because “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

    Connecting these poems to Walter White and Breaking Bad must move well beyond the character flaws and plot points of the antihero, even as he is written so specifically as an individual. If we apply Whitman’s work to this show and attempt to overlay the symbolism, we have to see universal human truths in the show and find an Everyman in Walter White. That is where these portions of Song of Myself come in, for ‘every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.’

  • Reply September 22, 2012

    acro0390

    ItsJesseBitch,

    As insightful as a comment we have received. Thank you!

    The connectivity you speak of, and I agree with almost every point you speak of, can be looked at in comparison to Walter White and those in his web in many ways. Like poetry so much of this can be internalized and decoded different (and you gave me very much to chew on with the line you quoted from pgs. 30-31 – I think that says so very much). I would love one day to hear Vince Gilligan speak on the subject of Walt Whitman and his use of his poems in the show and, specifically, the symbolism he himself was trying to convey. I am sure he would have much to say. Maybe nobody has had the correct knowledge of the subject to simply….ask.

  • Reply October 1, 2012

    Lindsay Hanners

    FYI – RJ Mitte (Walt Jr.) gave an interview on a Louisiana public station the other day, and that interview is on youtube, and he mentioned that they are now planning on doing 9 or 10 episodes for next summer instead of just 8.

    • Reply October 2, 2012

      acro0390

      It has been some time since I have heard better news.

  • Reply February 3, 2013

    Dawn Turner

    I enjoyed this article and the following comments immensely. I just knew there was more to the Whitman references than a similarity of names.

    I may add this observation to the discussion. The hat that Whitman is wearing in the image, above, is quite similar to the hat that Walter White starts wearing in the show, no?

    Thanks so much for this post!

  • Reply July 30, 2013

    Jenda

    To add to the (fantastic) discussion, the new trailer for the last episodes of season five, and of the programme, is up now, and is of interest!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3dpghfRBHE

    The thematic resonance is obvious, but I love that Gilligan has kept the poetic references right at the heart of the series even as it’s ending. This is a perfect way to underline the theme of the last few episodes without giving anything away, and I love it.

    • Reply July 30, 2013

      acro0390

      Jenda – Thank you so much for the comment. I have been watching this trailer time and again. It’s amazing. I’m with you – I love the continuity of poetic references. Ozymandias’s theme is pretty straight forward – the inevitable fall of empires, however mighty they are……so it appears we are in for a wild wide down the stretch. Cannot wait!

  • Reply August 30, 2013

    Bill Weldon

    This whole show is about dualities, namely good and evil. Walter White keeps talking about going to hell and “not lying down” not the way there. Walt Whitman is Walter White’s antithesis: he celebrates life. Breaking Bad is all about contrasts and sharp reliefs, like the deep shadows on people’s faces.

  • Reply August 31, 2013

    acro0390

    Bill – That is incredibly well put. Thank you.

  • Reply October 1, 2013

    Robert Bells

    Br Ba: One of the most amazing TV shows because of the creativity & imagination of its producer, Gilligan, and his brilliant writers.

    @Snapple90. Great observation of the poem that Hank turned to, “Songs of Myself.”

    @JesseBtch. Excellent observation that since we are all connected by atoms, all that is Walter White and all that he did could be found in all of us.

    But here’s another observation, I’ve made. The writers specifically made Hank turn to that song because the song describes in detail how all along that path to ruin that Walter White took, he had an unknowing partner that mirrored and shadowed his journey. And that poor unfortunate partner was Hank. It was from Hank that Walt learned about the money that could be made from meth. It was from talking to Hank that Walt was able to find out about all the ongoing DEA investigations and how he undermined or sabotaged them, thus helping himself, Gus, Jesse, and others from being caught.

    So at the very moment that Hank turns to the poem, “Songs of Myself” and discovers the tru identity of W.W. as Walter White, he also discovers himself as the quintessentially connected “good-man” paired with Walt’s “bad man” throughout the full arc of Walt’s 2 year transformation from HS teacher to meth drug lord.
    Some of the lines are so apropos for Hank and his frustrations:
    ” … but I am handcuffed to him and walk by his side, I am less the jolly one there, and more the silent one with sweat on my twitching lips.”
    ” Not a youngster is taken for larceny, but I go up too and am tried and sentenced.
    Not a cholera patient lies at the last gasp, but I also lie at the last gasp, My face is ash-colored, my sinews gnarl . . . . away from me people retreat.”
    This is why Hank could not initially inform the DEA of his investigation, he looked like he was involved, if not totally complicit.
    In fact, when Marie finally tell him that she took $177,000 from Walt and Skyler to help Hank in his physical therapy, Hank’s face was ash-colored and he said, “This is the final nail in the coffin.”

    Hank and Walt – partners in the whole arc of Breaking Bad.

  • Reply October 2, 2013

    Across the Margin

    Robert, Incredibly interesting and apropos. Thank you.

  • Reply November 27, 2013

    jerry

    there are a lot of subtle comparisons as well. Walt and Walter were both teachers before beginning their life’s work. Both Heizenberg and Walt wear the same hat. They both wanted to support their families. Whitman’s relationship with Peter O’Doyle is comparable to Jesse’s and Walt’s. I had much more but I’m drawing a blank right now.

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