Breaking Bad During a Time of Global Memento Mori

By Guido Mina di Sospiro (June 2020)

Pygmalion, Walter Kuhlman, 1966



“How many funerals pass our houses? Yet we do not think of death. How many untimely deaths?” Thus wrote Seneca two thousand years ago. Well before him, Plato, discussing Socrates’s death in Phaedo, stated that “the true philosophers are always occupied in the practice of dying.”


Death has been at the core of western philosophy, and of all religions and mythologies. We are all burdened with the memento mori, but most of us tend or try to forget it, until we are faced, directly or indirectly, with the inevitability of death. During a time of pandemic, the memento mori, having assumed the form of a virus, becomes acute, as we are all anxious about our wellbeing and that of our loved ones. Since the pandemic has also come with a lockdown, we have found ourselves with a lot of time on our hands. In addition to reading, writing, listening to music and cooking unusual recipes, I have been binging on a few TV series. Breaking Bad, which has won more awards than any other production ever, and which has been immensely popular, seemed like a good starting point. I can now argue that it can be viewed as a representation of western culture at the dawn of the 21st century.


Various are the themes in it that I find emblematic. The memento mori suddenly becomes very pressing in the mind of Walt, the high school chemistry teacher, as he is diagnosed with stage 3, inoperable lung cancer. About a hundred years before, Thomas Mann treated the problem of illness and impending death in Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) in philosophical and metaphysical fashion, with each main character in the sanatorium impersonating a different philosophical strain. Early on in the 21st century, Vince Gilligan and the other creators of Breaking Bad handle the same theme of illness and impeding death with the resolve, on the side of Walt, of becoming a maker of methamphetamine.


American pragmatism—as the impecunious Walt intends to leave behind funds for his wife and two children—in lieu of ontological and eschatological reflections. To a lifelong student of comparative religion, mythology and philosophy, such a choice seems astonishing. But then, is it fair to compare Thomas Mann to Vince Gillian and his associates? The milieu of post WWI Europe to that of the US in the early 21st century? Is it even fair to compare a literary magnum opus of immense breadth to a TV series? Judging from what critics have written about the latter, I suppose it is, as they took Breaking Bad very seriously. Presumably also because there are elements in it of what nowadays is understood as “literary fiction” (my views on this subject are delineated in the essay The Decline and Fall of Literary Fiction”). The time dedicated to the methamphetamine motif—its production and distribution and all the unsavory yet colorful characters that such activities entail—is more or less equal to the time devoted to the dynamics of Walt’s family: his wife, two children, brother-in-law and sister-in-law. And such dynamics are developed in the style of what nowadays passes for literary fiction: plenty of angst and complications that aspire to the universality of Shakespeare or Cervantes, but rest on very inadequate shoulders. Walt and Hank, his brother-in-law, are no Hamlet or Don Quixote. Ordinary people cannot deal with philosophical problems simply because, well, they are unaware that philosophy exists, as the vast majority of Americans.




In a story whose raison d’être is the imminence of death and what Walt can do in response to it, there is no God, no praying, no religion. In a context ripe for ontological and eschatological probing, there is absolutely nothing of the sort. As an unwitting, belated appendage to existentialism, man is portrayed in his helplessness in a chaotic and meaningless universe. Descartes, the Enlightenment, Marx, Darwin, Wittgenstein and finally the Vienna Circle worked alacritously at the annihilation of metaphysics—with Rudolf Carnap who formally rejected them as meaningless because metaphysical statements, he stated, could not be proved or disproved by experience—and succeeded triumphantly. While science, inter alios with Heisenberg—ironically, since that is Walt’s nom de guerre in the series—who gave the world his uncertainty principle, has shown that things are not so fixed in nature and that there is much more than meets the eye (which, incidentally, the coronavirus has brought home very vividly with all our frantic handwashing), mainstream culture continues to hang on to secular if not outright atheistic principles based on arbitrary western constructs postulated by philosophers of an Aristotelian slant. To this day, in the western world a contradiction is perceived as a grave faux pas in just about any context. That is because of the law of non-contradiction, or the second traditional law, defined by Aristotle in his Metaphysics as, “One cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time.” While such an “axiom” is useful in a court of law and in many other such pedestrian implementations, it should never have been misconstrued for a law governing the universe. In fact, nature is full of contradictions, and the most relevant events in one’s life are the anti-statistical ones.


I came away from Breaking Bad grateful to Apple TV for its fast-forward feature, and sensing that its authors are culturally underprovided and metaphysically bankrupt.


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