3 Books for the Walter White in All of Us

Bryan Cranston published a portion of his memoir this week in Vanity Fair, about building the character of Walter White. Not surprisingly, it’s quite insightful not only into the psychology of the character but into why the show was such a success.

One thing Cranston doesn’t explore (at least in this fragment) is why the show was made when  it was, how its preoccupations fit with those of late 2000s/early 2010s America. My guess is that one of the recompenses of a society which is unusually attuned to the moral failings of men, particularly white, middle-class men, is that we get good drama about those men’s moral choices, just as 19th century novelists were unusually attuned to the potential moral failures of women, and so were particularly good at writing fiction about those failures. Not just Walter White, but Jesse and Hank (and to a lesser degree Saul) are put under a moral microscope over the course of the six seasons, and the central tension within the show, to me, is a question about whether the Bourgeois life that Walter claims to want to provide for his family is still compatible with our moral sense as a society and our conception of the Good. This tension arises not just because the show is ambivalent about whether we should side with him as he descends into crime, but because the show is quite unambivalent about showing him as an emasculated loser when the show begins.  It’s not just that Crime seems to pay, but that Righteousness seems to suck.

Anyway,  I’ll use Cranston’s memoir as an excuse to post something I wrote a few years ago about the show.  NPR has a series called “Three Books” which asks listeners to submit three books that relate to current events, holidays or seasons of the year, and so on. I submitted this one to NPR a few years back, before the “Breaking Bad” finale, and never heard back from them, but ha ha ha I may not have a mobile meth lab but I’ve got my own WordPress now.

3 Books for the Walter White in All of Us.

If you have faithfully followed AMC’s television series “Breaking Bad,” waiting for the last half-dozen episodes (to be released next summer) can seem interminable.  The five-season saga, about an overqualified high school chemistry teacher “breaking bad” after a cancer diagnosis and becoming a methamphetamine manufacturer and drug kingpin,  can feel as addictive as the blue crystals the central character cooks up in his improvised chemistry labs.   Even if you aren’t, like this viewer, a former high school science teacher yourself, you find yourself asking if, under the right circumstances, you would make the same series of destructive choices as Walter White: There but for the grace of God and my insufficient knowledge of organic stereochemistry go I.

So while we’re contemplating the tenuousness of morality’s hold on our everyday lives, and twitching in anticipation of those last few hits off the Breaking Bad pipe, here are three books based on real events for the Walter White in all of us.

1. Richard Feynmann, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman
Part of the fun of Breaking Bad’s is watching Walter and his sidekick Jesse use common household (and high school chemistry-lab) objects to break into warehouses, destroy police evidence rooms, and of course make illegal drugs.  It’s like if MacGyver were on the side of evil.  For this same playful sense of the possibilities of science (though put to better service for humanity) you can’t beat Richard Feynman’s first memoir, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman.”  Even while he’s helping invent the first atomic bomb and develop the theory of quantum electrodynamics, Feynman is busy cracking safes, fixing radios, and playing drums in a Brazilian samba band.   There are some other connections with the show: Feynman spent most of his career teaching at Walter White’s alma mater of Caltech, and sections of the book are set, like Breaking Bad, in New Mexico.  It’s not hard to imagine that Walter would read the book and think that Feynman’s larger-than-life accomplishments are exactly what has been unfairly denied to Walter all of these years, even while he writes down a few of the book’s ideas for cracking into safes.

2. Michael Frayn, Copenhagen
But when it comes time for Walter to choose a pseudonym for his meth-making alter ego, he settles on a different scientist: he calls himself “Heisenberg,” after German physicist Werner Heisenberg, who led Hitler’s failed attempt to build an atomic bomb.  To find out the reason for Walter (and creator Vince Gilligan’s) choice, read Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen, which uses Heisenberg’s meeting with fellow physicist Neils Bohr to meditate on the moral valence of science and the unknowability of human motivation, both present and past.  Like the position and velocity of an electron—which Heisenberg’s famous Uncertainty Principle said could never be measured precisely at the same time– the motivations of Frayn’s characters are unknowable to one another and even to themselves, just as we as viewers are often stymied to explain Walter White’s progressively darker and more brutal acts as the show’s storylines progress.

3. Truman Capote, In Cold Blood
As television viewers, though, we are in some ways let off the hook: we see Walter and his crimes from the outside, through the distancing medium of the camera. No such distance is present in the last of my recommended books for Breaking Bad fans, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which transports us into the mind of two true-life killers and doesn’t let go.  Capote spent years interviewing the subjects of the book while they sat on Death Row and researching the Kansas quadruple homicide that forms the story’s core.  While watching Breaking Bad can get under your skin, no episode has ever made me feel like a guilty criminal the way reading In Cold Blood did.  And maybe that’s a good thing—like a dangerous chemistry experiment, some stories should be labeled, “Don’t Try This at Home.”

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