Breaking Bad and the duality of nature

Breaking Bad is a brilliant philosophical exploration of the duality of good and evil that exists inside each person and the world at large. We are introduced to Walter White, and Jesse Pinkman, at different stages of their lives who become unlikely allies and partners as they go through a transformative journey. On the surface, it appears that Walter White has transformed from a timid meek high school chemistry teacher into a ruthless wealthy drug kingpin while Jesse Pinkman has transformed from a junkie drug dealer into a sensitive caring individual who wants to do good by society and those he loves.

I argue that neither individual underwent a transformation as is commonly believed, but rather through their environments and their experiences, their true natures were unleashed. Inside every person exists the duality of good and evil, vying for control of the person. I believe every person has the capacity to be both good and evil, however we are naturally inclined (skewed) to one or the other. Often the side we embody outwardly is a result of environmental influences that force us to confront the realities of our nature and our lives and unleash who we really are.

Walter White was a brilliant, highly motivated chemist with a bright future. He started a highly profitable and successful company with his colleagues and was on the fast track to professional and personal success. Due to reasons that were not explained, he had to sell off his share of the company he cofounded (based on his research) for a mere $5000 during the early days. I believe this event was the trigger for him; it made him resentful and bitter towards the world. He spent the next few decades as a lowly high school chemistry teacher, clearly living and operating far below his potential, likely counting down the days until retirement. He took refuge in his family, doted on his wife and teenage son, likely justifying his decision to himself on that basis every day. But its obvious as the series progresses, that it is something that bothered him day in and day out

His resentment towards missing out on a career and life that could have been his is also very likely a big reason for turning down Elliot Schwartz’s money for his cancer treatment. He initially started cooking meth in order to pay for his cancer treatment and having a nest egg for his family setting a very modest target of $737,000. However, once his cancer went into remission, and he had no further reason to continue his meth operation, and upon returning to his post as a high school chemistry teacher, he quickly confronted the stark reality that his life lacked meaning. He realized this deep down but was too afraid to admit it to himself that cooking meth and engaging in all the adjacent criminal activities up to and including murder gave his life meaning.

Recognizing his abilities and by formulating the highly purified blue meth, he quickly realized that this was his way of overcoming that resentment and bitterness he had felt for most of his life. Becoming a drug kingpin, and rising to the top of the game became an obsession for him. Even though he had a good and steady operation going with Gustavo Fring, it was ultimately doomed to fail because of Walter White’s obsession with control and desire to be the best. This is exemplified by him saying to Jesse: “I am not in the money business, I am not in the meth business, I am in the empire business” in season 5 episode 6. He did ultimately rise to the top and build an empire even though it was short lived. He achieved everything he had desired deep down, amassing over $80 million through his independent operation of the business.

Ultimately, I believe the evil always existed inside Walter White, and he had always skewed towards that evil but it was latent for most of his life being hidden behind his resentment and bitterness. He needed an outlet, which was the meth production, to truly unleash who he really was, who he always was. Walter White was always a power hungry, evil man who needed the environment and the trigger of meth production to fully unleash his true nature. He admitted it to himself and to his wife in the final episode when he said: “I did everything for myself. I liked it, I was good at it, I was alive”. Walter White was always this man, and his foray into the meth production business simply allowed him to self actualize and become who he really is, outwardly.

We are introduced to Jesse Pinkman as a junkie drug dealer who was cooking meth and cavorting with women when he wasn’t using drugs himself. He was presented as a classic “bad kid”, someone to point to your kids as an example of who not to become. This was evident in his dealings with his family and his younger brother. However, as the show progresses, we glean greater insights into Jesse’s character. We get to see that Jesse in truth also has the duality of good and evil inside him but counter to his early portrayal, he naturally skews more towards the good. In short, Jesse Pinkman is a good person, who lacked the sufficient environmental influences and triggers to really come into his own.

The trigger for Jesse Pinkman to realize who he really was occurred when he had to murder Gale Boetticher. That moment changed him for good or rather unleashed who he really was. It forced him to confront the realities of his nature, and those hard lessons into who he was, caused him to start using drugs again. His nature was clearly at odds with his actions up to and including that point in time. Jesse realized deep down that he was a good person, and that he behaved in a manner completely counter to his nature. This cognitive dissonance created significant conflict in him and in order to deal with the conflict he started abusing drugs. Further to this point, I find that it is the main reason he felt uncomfortable accepting Walter’s money ($5 million) as he knew that money was tainted with blood and was against his fundamental nature. 

Ultimately the show makes a great argument for examining the duality of good and evil that exists in every person. It’s the environment that causes us to unleash who we really are if the environmental trigger is of sufficient strength. It is entirely possible that one could go their entire lives without ever truly realizing or accepting who they are; self actualization is after all the highest tier on Maslow’s hierarchy.  The fundamental nature of a person does not change but rather the way an individual portrays themselves and the level to which an individual is willing to accept themselves changes which results in seemingly varying manifestations.