Breaking Bad as a Fairy Tale

The hit television series Breaking Bad begins its celebrated five-year run with a crossing of the threshold between this world and the other. This is no ordinary crossing. Like any truly initiatory experience, it is catastrophic. It takes the lead character and anti-hero, Walt, and ruptures the tender web of his human reality. This web normally protects us from confronting the primitive forces that live in the underworld. That we also want to contact these forces explains the show’s popularity.

When he breaks bad by turning from milque-toast chemistry teacher to crystal meth manufacturer, killer, and drug lord, Walt suffers an initiation. Faced as he is with a likely terminal cancer diagnosis, a son with a disability, a seemingly banal wife, a humiliating failure to live his full potential as a chemist, and the old heartbreak of a woman leaving him for his best friend, what’s to lose by turning to crime and profiting by it and becoming powerful instead of weak? Like Nietzsche he peers into a realm beyond good and evil. He sees the will to power, Machiavellian machinations, and the psychopathic failure of empathy as fundamental constituents of the world. Why then should he keep playing by civilized rules? Why be so nice? Why not break bad and enter the world that is already there just under the surface of the civilized? Seize riches. Take control. Demand compensation from the cold world that deals us afflictions without cause.

By crossing this threshold, Walt and the show itself enter the underworld. This is the same underworld as that induced by the classic fairy tales, which von Franz considers the purest literary expression of the unconscious psyche. As in fairy tales, so in Breaking Bad: the normal rules don’t apply, and certain horrible, unspeakable things happen. A man’s severed head rides across the desert on a turtle and explodes, killing and maiming DEA agents. The psychopath Tuco beats his bodyguard and friend to death just for the rush of it. In the classic fairy tale Fitcher’s Bird, a nobleman imprisons, murders, and dismembers a series of brides, and is later burned to death in his castle as punishment. Our dreams also act this bloody way sometimes, and the effect on us can be similar to the effect of watching a show like Breaking Bad, or of reading a fairy tale. Something in us breaks, and we see more, or we see differently. We see more clearly when we peer into dark places. We begin to notice, for example, the hidden ways that nice people aren’t so nice after all. We begin to understand that the cover story is not the real story. Even our best motivations are mixed up with shadowy parts of the psyche.

Initiation costs something. Or put another way, it wounds. Walt for a long time carries his breakage alone. No one else in his family is to know. It’s a heavy burden for the post-christian pilgrim to bear as he navigates his new world. He has to maintain the split and keep his day world friends and family away from his night world associates and activities. Eventually his wife joins him there in the underworld and crosses into her own badness. There is a certain intimacy then in their encounters with each other, since the illusions have been broken like false idols. On the other hand, relationship no longer even pretends to be based in empathic connection, and there is profound disillusionment and loneliness as characters face each other like Machiavellian princes vying to secure their own aims.

As the show progresses, Walt descends further and further down a spiral that recollects Dante’s infernal descent. Killing out of self-defense becomes premeditated murder in time. At one point, the viewer realizes, with nausea, that it was Walt who poisoned a young boy as part of a devilish plot to win the game of life and death. He has crossed still further, deeper, even demonic. We see that Walt vitiates all limits on the sins he will commit in order to survive. There is no higher principle than survival and dominance worth sacrificing oneself for in this world he’s entered. He is both more free and more caught as the show moves on. Each choice entangles him more deeply and forces him to even more destructive acts of violence and manipulation. We watch as he lets business partner Jesse’s girlfriend die, choking on her own vomit in a drugged out state, choosing her death over risking her bad influence on Jessie’s reliability as his dealer. This is the decision of a man who sees an individual human life as having a calculable value relative to his own aims.

Disgust is a natural reaction to some of these scenes. What else, I wonder? Does it secretly make us envious to witness someone able to act without remorse? I’ve read that we envy the psychopath even as we hate him and do not want to become him. Walt is not a pure psychopath, but in his empathy-free moments of psychopathy he acts with a calculating coldness that embodies an apparent freedom from conscience, which after all does bind us. Most of us go around much of the time full of various neurotic conflicts inside surrounding decisions, even minor ones, for which we feel guilty or conflicted. As everyone can see, the socially adjusted psychopath is often eminently successful in the business world or any world where ruthlessness and being an excellent bullshit artist go a long way. He has the advantage. He’s not bound by the usual rules and will not allow himself to be limited by feeling for the other. As a result, he lacks the neuroticism of the civilized individual.

He suffers, however, in even more awful ways, whether he knows it or not, and Walt suffers more and more too, though he is all too aware of his brokenness, at times. Freud somewhere speaks of unconscious suffering. Maybe the psychopath suffers in this way–in a sense, an inability to suffer is his problem. Unable to make contact with his own wound, he is an empty soul, to use Guggenbuhl-Craig’s term for him. In any case, the show exerts its fascination on viewers by functioning as a fairy tale and giving us glimpses of what lies below. It feeds our paradoxical appetite for what we hate to see about the world’s ugliness. It’s a work of the imagination, and I think more a fairy tale than a morality story, or a work of social commentary. Its success cannot be explained in day world terms, because it is a night world event–a true liminal space.