To supplement our comprehensive Breaking Bad coverage, Across The Margin an exhaustive look into the ever present connection between Walt Whitman and Walter White….
by: Michael Shields
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.”
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.
Recently, in the episode entitled “Hazard Pay” viewers 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 be 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.
- 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 [↩]
- “Yes, I am a nerd” [↩]
- Because “It’s time” as he simply tells Skyler [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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”) [↩]
- I would like to take a moment and thank Herbert Stern for discussing poetry and its possible relation to a television show with me, at length [↩]