Wednesday, October 02, 2013

The Love Song of Walter Hartwell White

(Caution: There will be spoilers)

Walter White was never a man of the wide and pitiless outdoors.

No, Walter White, Man of Science, was made for careful, synthetic living.  For methodical work done in air-conditioning, preferably with a commanding view of the roasting desert outside.  A man for life in environmentally-controlled comfort -- floating amid the furious struggles of the desert's predators and prey as one in diving bell -- observing the lizards and spiders and junkies and hookers and cacti and meth-heads, but never a part of it.

A man for cool comforts, good whiskey and poolside dinners with family and friends.  A man who might dare to eat a peach, but only if rigorous laboratory protocols are observed.

Walter White was a man raised in the faith of our fathers:  a belief in an orderly society, quietly ruled by the indomitable, bourgeois axioms of the American Dream. And, just like Science, the American Dream promised Walter that the closer he got to a state of perfect understanding and harmony with those axioms, the more respected and prosperous and happy he would be.

Walter White and David Brooks 

would have gotten along famously.

There is no real place for something as hit-or-miss as God in this equation: just chemistry.  Life as a foreseeable, controllable series of orderly, predictable interactions -- white, male, well-educated, urbane, polite plus the right school, the right career, the right marriage, the right family -- that lead to orderly, predictable results.  Work hard enough, and you will do well.  Work hard and be brilliant and the world will shower you with treasure.

And best of all, you are well and truly free to savor your luxuries without a dram of regret or pang of conscience because your faith informs you that you and you alone -- your will, your genius, your superiority -- made all of it manifest.  Your faith makes plain that everyone earns what they get in this life, and gets what they earn, which not only makes material wealth the incontrovertible outward measure of every man's intrinsic value, but also means that charity in any form is the worst and most damnable of all humiliations -- something tainted to be tossed out the back door to life's losers and moochers.

With the rules of the world put in harness to his ambitions, his family would want for nothing.

And the world would remember his name.

Walter White, in other words, was a terribly fragile artifact of our collapsing civilization -- a man not built to withstand the day when all the rules fail him.

And fail him they did.  Spectacularly.  For all his ambition, he ended up in a starter home with a special-needs son and a family he could not support.  For all of his genius, he ended up teaching high school dead-enders and washing cars for an immigrant.  For all of his mastery of science, what he got for his 50th birthday was a telegram from his own body telling him that it was eating itself alive.

And just like that -- bang, bang, bang -- the values Walter's father's generation bequeathed to him turned out to be a scam run by the actual masters of the world:

For the next five seasons, as Walter wanders ever deeper into the wasteland he flings the the same accusation at the Creator of all things over and over again:  "It can't all be for nothing."

Walter White, imploring and wheedling and demanding that a vast, capricious, indifferent Universe of lizards and spiders and junkies and hookers and cacti and meth-heads -- a Universe from which he is no longer partitioned by his status and genius -- better shape the fuck up and get back to exhibiting a moral order that rewards people like Walter White.

But that was never going to happen.

So, like Job, once disaster arrives, Walter White's frame of existential reference as the dutiful servant of the American Dream strands him with no explanation for why the Universe seems to be going out of its way to screw him, while allocating material success to those who are obviously so much less worthy than Walter White.

The Joker didn't create Walter White's world,
but he was right there, whispering in Walter's ear when it came apart.
Joker : You have all these rules, and you think they'll save you.

Batman : I have one rule.

Joker : Oh. Then that's the rule you'll have to break to know the truth.

Batman : Which is?

Joker : The only sensible way to live is without rules. And tonight you're gonna break your one rule.

Batman : I'm considering it.
And so, abandoned for no reason in what he believes must surely be Hell -- slowing dying in front of his family, an impotent failure and bankrupt charity-case -- like Lucifer, Walter decides that if no sensible moral order to the Universe exists, he'll damn well create one.  One in which Walter White is the undisputed sovereign.  One mixed and heated and catalyzed into existence by dint of sheer will and the power of his own mind:
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n.
This is the merry chase we follow for the next five seasons:  Walter White's quest to extort from the Universe into a moral order which justifies all he has gone through and restores all he has lost.

But what Walter keeps failing to notice is that he is not on quest at all, but a slow descent into a genuine Hell.  A Hell of his own making.  

Walter White, Man of Science, repeatedly failing to notice that the expedients he is using to coerce the Universe into make sense and giving him what he believes he deserves are not the passive tools of his enterprise -- his beakers and burners -- but are the basic ingredients themselves.

In the end, Walter/Heisenberg has failed to learn the basic lesson of Werner Heisenberg: that the idea of a passive observer who can operate outside of the experiment he is conducting without affecting the outcome is an illusion.  And thus is Walter White's experiment in carving out a comprehensible moral order using toxic tools is doomed from the start because no amount of willpower or genius or chem lab discipline can hold him aloof from the chaos his alter ego is unleashing.

Instead Walter find ourselves at the wrong end of a modern variation of Faust -- the brilliant man who makes a pact with the devil thinking that he can use the instruments the devil provides to create a back door in the deal though which he and his family can escape.  And because he has read a book or two, series creator Vince Gilligan knows that all pacts with the devil are cursed. Sure, Walter will be given wealth.  Staggering wealth.  And power. And fame. And even a moral order of his own design.

But it will be wealth he cannot spend.

Fame he cannot claim.

Power which, when exercised, brings only misery to the ones he loves.

And only near the end -- dying alone in a frozen cabin -- will Walter finally realize that he has also succeed at his larger, existential enterprise.  Lie by lie, death by death, Walter White's genius and willpower did indeed impose a kind of moral order on his corner of the Universe: a moral order where his family loathes him and where Nazis can murder his brother in law, steal his fortune and walk away clean.

Walter White, former resident of 308 Negra Arroyo Lane, Albuquerque, New Mexico, now entombed in the ice of Judecca at the bottom of Hades along with all the other betrayers of their lords and benefactors in Dante's Inferno:
‘Vexilla Regis prodeunt inferni, the banners of the King of Hell advance towards us: so look in front of you to see if you discern him,’ said my Master. I seemed to see a tall structure, as a mill, that the wind turns, seems from a distance, when a dense mist breathes, or when night falls in our hemisphere, and I shrank back behind my guide, because of the wind, since there was no other shelter.

I had already come, and with fear I put it into words, where the souls were completely enclosed, and shone through like straw in glass. Some are lying down, some stand upright, one on its head, another on the soles of its feet, another bent head to foot, like a bow.
But Vince Gilligan is a man of mercy and (if the numerous references to them throughout the series are any indication) a believer in 12 Step programs.  So, instead of an eternity of misery frozen into a Hell of his own creation, the moment Walter White finally gives up trying to outwit the Universe and cries out to God to help him make right all that he has ruined, God answers and the keys to Walter's final acts of atonement literally fall into his lap.  

And yes, it is a very strange 12 Step indeed that includes wasting Nazis, poisoning corporate killers and threatening billionaires as part of the program. But in the moral universe Vince Gilligan and his gang of genius writers have created for our entertainment, it all makes perfect sense and a perfect final act to the Tragedy of Walter Hartwell White.


OBS said...

I watched the very first episode and said to myself "Self, don't start, you'll be sucked in and be trapped waiting for every episode like a junking jonesing for his next hit." and so I didn't watch.

After reading this I feel like need to sit down and watch all of them in one long meth-fueled (not really) binge.

Shorter me: Awesome, as usual DG.

Anonymous said...

Good afternoon, Mr. Glass.

"...and that's why David Sirota..."

Sorry. My mind was on autopilot while reading this piece. I didn't expect the road to keep going in a straight line. :)

Oh, and quick Grammar Nazi...

"telegram from own body telling"

Enjoy your day.

---Kevin Holsinger

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

Watch 'em. OBS. I envy you the ability to watch 'em fresh.

I'll re-watch,definitely, but never again for the first time.

D. said...

I read this in Rod Serling's voice, which added an extra chilling shudder.

Anonymous said...

The show struck me as that old SF trope, the substance only attainable in one place, the spice of Arrakis, the stroon of Norstrilla, more recently the unobtanium of Avatar. Different in that the blue meth was illegal but still requiring a kind of self discipline the farmers of Norstrilla might recognize

bluepillnation said...

I actually read the "keys" scene differently. If you'll forgive a little cross-post:

Walt's plans usually went awry when he was under pressure, and being a character very assured of his own intellect he tended to over-think things and make his schemes excessively elaborate to stroke his own ego, even when his back was to the wall. As Walt sits in the car in the opening scene, he searches the glovebox, finds a screwdriver and makes preparations to hotwire the ignition and make his getaway. Then you see him pause for a second and use the screwdriver to pull down the sun visor - and the keys drop into his lap.

I don't see his success as a result of generosity from the writers [or deus ex machina], I see it as a result of Walt finally understanding that simple solutions are often the best.

wiley said...

Beautiful analysis!The Walter White/David Brooks morph is art.

So the world did not open wide for Walter White--- the white, educated man--- so he took it by hook, by crook, and by force, then didn't understand why everyone he deceived, used, and hurt didn't appreciate his efforts. He might as well have been a child abusing, wife-beating, mechanic as far as "nobility" goes.

Walter had to die because the reign of the white man and all it's entitlement needs to die so we can stop being robbed of our dignity, time, energy, and heart. The world is a much safer place without Walter White and his rivals.

Anonymous said...

This is amazing.
Why isn't it on the cover of Vanity Fair?