To Thine Own Self Be True: Breaking Bad and Character Disincorporation

By W.F. Paden

On the cusp of the Breaking Bad series finale, a guest contributor examines the moral failings and loss of self that its characters experience…

As Walter White’s journey of personal annihilation reaches its end, the adult members of his family are linked, to varying degrees, by their loss of self. They proceed to fill this void by adopting redefined personas, however, these transfigurations of identity prove, in the end, short-lived and unconvincing. The first season of Breaking Bad provides a flashback to Walter’s college days with Gretchen. They list and quantify the percentages of every chemical element in a human being but the numbers only add up to 99.88804%. “Doesn’t it seems like something’s missing”, asks Walter. Gretchen replies, “What about the soul?”

Aside from Walt Jr., every family member experiences a loss of control in terms of their ability to self-identify, a loss which is consistently accompanied by a significant moral failure. Walt Jr. is the only character to avoid this failing because his does not allow Walter to dictate his actions and undermine his values. This strength in character is exhibited through the tremendous personal agency he employs renaming himself in lieu of the namesake of his father. His adoption of the name Flynn was a consequence of Walter’s actions, yet it was also a mark of independent, strong-willed character. The key contrast between Walt Jr.’s loss of identity and the other members of the White/Schrader (Jesse is included in this group, after all he is “like family.”) family is that his is self-imposed and deliberate; conceived as a means of achieving greater control over his own identity. In contrast to the rest of his family, he redefines himself to maintain his pre-existing set of values. As a result, he loses his name but retains his sense of self. Marie’s loss of self in the first season is likewise self-imposed, however, unlike Walt Jr. her alternate selves are created as a means of avoiding reality and abdicating responsibility.

Marie is the first supporting character to experience the loss of her identity, albeit for short periods of time, as she visits open houses under false identities and steals various small items from the residences. The consequences of her kleptomania reach its zenith when Skyler is nearly arrested returning a tiara Marie stole from a high-end jewelry store. While these scenes tend to fall flat due to their seeming lack of connection to the rest of the show, it establishes that Marie’s demons manifest themselves as an alternate, dishonest identity. This weakness is emphasized by her refusal to admit any wrongdoing despite the overwhelming evidence against her. This denial of truth is a denial of her true self and proves particularly disturbing to Skyler.

Marie redeems herself in stellar form, however, when she confronts her sister about Walt after being told by Hank that he is in custody. She reaffirms Skyler’s identity, as good friends or family members do in moments of crisis, when Marie tells her that despite her recently acquired criminality and loss of firm moral footing, she can still, barely, remember who she really is. “All I know is you are my sister and so I’m here…I will support you through this but I have conditions. I want you to give me every single copy of that obscenity that the two of you made to discredit Hank….Dry your eyes and get Flynn in here because you’re going to tell him everything (about his father).” Marie becomes the stronger sister, expounding and demanding truth in fact and identity.

Jesse’s downfall is precipitated by Walt directing him to become a more serious, ever-expanding meth dealer despite his own reservations and strong insistence that, “I ain’t no Tuco.” Walt encourages him to forego his moral compass in order to be the man Walt needs him to be. That man would be a replacement for Tuco, an altered version of Tuco whom Walt can command and direct. Not surprisingly, he gets in over his head and eventually his friend Combo is shot and killed while selling drugs for Jesse and Walt.

Jesse continues his fall from relative innocence (relative, that is, to where he ends up) and desperately decides to sell meth to drug addicts attempting to get sober at a swanky rehabilitation center. He seemingly becomes a stronger, and less likable, character when he announces to Walter that he’s finally come to terms with who he is. Rather than truly forgiving himself for past misdeeds, Jesse opts to accept his new persona: “I’m the bad guy.” This is a turning point for Jesse, however, given his sensitive nature it is no surprise that Walter’s pawn is unable, however hard he may try, to leave his conscience and values behind. He ain’t no Tuco and he ain’t ever gonna be, Bitch.

Until the final season of Breaking Bad, Hank Schrader could be likened to a schrader valve (also called an American valve): a solid object of utility designed to serve a greater purpose, devoid of emotional intelligence. As he discovers Walt’s secrets, he becomes undone; bypassing the DEA and circumventing protocol in order to serve his own purposes. This go-at-it-alone attitude is spurred by his state of extreme anger, which serves him poorly, as Hank finds himself and Gomie outgunned by a white power prison gang, unable, for whatever reason, to produce his badge; a badge which would affirm his identity and possibly save his life. Walt pleads with Jack not to kill him, identifying him as “Hank” rather than “Fed.” Hank wrests control of his identity back from Walt, when he tells Jack, “My name is ASAC Schrader and you can go fuck yourself.” Hank reclaims himself, and this strong assertion of self-identification offers him some measure of personal salvation and solace, moments before death.

Upon first learning of Walt’s new occupation, Skyler’s response is unequivocally oppositional. She kicks Walt out of the house and, following his uninvited return, eventually moves her children to the Schrader’s home. Soon afterwards, Skyler comes to accept Walt’s job and her role as not only an enabler but, furthermore, her role as an active participant, or co-conspirator, in his crimes. While hosting Hank and Marie one evening, she engages in the unexpected and highly dramatic act of slowly walking into her swimming pool, fully clothed, until she is finally drowning. This scene conjures images of baptism and rebirth, as if Skyler is to be reborn into the Church of Walt. Note the use of color in this scene. Walt is literally taking her from the green (Skyler’s color) to the light blue (Walt’s color). It stands to reason that this scene serves as an allusion to Virginia Woolf’s suicide and, quite possibly, her novel The Waves. In The Waves, Woolf explores the nature of consciousness and how it can become a shared and interwoven, rather than merely individual, experience. It begins:

“The sun had not yet risen. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it. Gradually as the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually.”

Skyler’s absolute opposition to Walt turns to acceptance as the perception of opposition between sky and water fades into the night. Their identities now conflated, Skyler is doomed…

One reply on “To Thine Own Self Be True: Breaking Bad and Character Disincorporation”
  1. says: Adrienne Lieberman

    As a diehard fan of Breaking Bad, I devoured Mr. Paden’s article with relish. I agree with his perceptive analyses of the various characters’ loss of self and was especially impressed with his treatment of Walt Jr/Flynn. I wonder what he thought of Walt’s final scene with Skyler, in which the anti-hero acknowledges that, in fact, he did NOT do it all “for his family,” but rather for himself: that acting so powerfully, albeit immorally, made him feel uniquely alive. This, to me, was the dark obverse of his son’s self actualization. Great, provocative reading of the series, Mr. P.

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