I’ve been watching Breaking Bad, a show about a high school chemistry teacher who gets lung cancer at age 50 and decides to cook methamphetamine, one of the worst drugs in existence, so he can make money to pay for his cancer treatments and leave a nest egg for his family. Actually, aside from the practical reasons, his ego was at stake because he was a brilliant chemist, but got pushed out of the field by so-called friends, and had to spend his professional career teaching teenagers who, for the most part, could care less about chemistry. Now, he had a chance to really shine and use his expertise to make the best product on the market. He was revered as something of a legend.
When the show first came out, friends told me to watch it. I would not watch it, mainly out of principal, because I think it is reprehensible that an intelligent person of integrity would do such a thing. Having cancer did not exonerate him. Still, I watched several episodes to appease my friends, but didn’t make it past the first season.
This time, the man I love asked me to watch it. He, and numerous other people, loved the show and convinced me to try it again. I am giving it a second go-round and having quite a different opinion than the first time. Plus, it really helps to watch it with someone. It’s more fun to watch certain shows with another person, or at least, in the same time frame, so you can discuss it. Otherwise, all the ideas just roll around in your own head with nowhere to go. It’s like having a book club. Being able to talk about the details and make the connections to your own life, or to the world. Just today, I was explaining to my own students the reasons for reading books and looking for connections, and then talking about them in a literature circle. Making connections helps you understand yourself, and better understand the world around you, and empathize with others. This is one reason we read, or watch shows and movies, not just for entertainment value, but to recognize that we are a human family and we are not alone.
Back to Breaking Bad. Watching it with Michael is quite interesting, because when he was first watching the show, he had just gone through cancer treatment. We stopped the video several times to discuss the scenes. Michael completely empathized with Walter White’s (the protagonist, but really, an anti-hero) plight of feeling emasculated, hopeless, and angry. Walter’s mind was no longer rational. He had nothing left to lose. The anger was natural – why me? I didn’t even smoke (maybe from all the chemicals in the lab, since he was a chemist – but then again, with cancer – who really knows). Disbelief. Am I really going to die soon? The sense of urgency. I must take care of my family. I’m the breadwinner, the provider, the one everyone counts on, but now I’m a useless pile of mush in a bed. What the mind must go through!!
And then, the lies Walter White had to tell, to his wife, whom he had not lied to before on any regular basis. To his son, who idolized him. To everyone he knew. And the lies just compounded upon themselves and grew into a monster. There was literally no way out once he was in.
There is no way that I could know what Walter White was living through, but as I watched and discussed, I began to drop my judgment about his actions, seeing them as what a desperate man might do.
But then, Walter became full of his ego. He was transformed. He was no longer the person he was before the cancer, before the manufacture of meth, before the lies, before killing someone. It becomes clear to him when he speaks with Pollo / Gus, the man who runs the operation in New Mexico, who provides Walter with a high-tech laboratory. Gus says, “What does a man do for his family? A man provides. And he does it, even when he’s not appreciated, or respected, or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it. Because he’s a man.”
Now, part of me was thinking, well, women have been doing that for a long time now, going out to work, single moms, or the new arrangement, like the one my son has, or the one my friend’s daughter has, where the woman is the breadwinner and the man stays home with the children. So I’m thinking Walter is being gaslighted, and strong armed. But really, it doesn’t matter what gender you are.
When you are a parent, if you are a mensch, which is Yiddish for ‘a person of integrity and honor’ then you provide, you protect, you put your family first at all costs. It is the ultimate sacrifice. The Judeo-Christians speak of Abraham and the sacrifice to some invisible god that he was willing to make with his own child. Personally, I think Abraham had eaten some rye ergot and was delusional. But the sacrifice is in almost every culture. The Christians have taken it to a new level with the Jesus story. Joseph Campbell, famous historian, remarked in his research, “In the Hunting cultures, when a sacrifice is made, it is, as it were, a gift of a bribe to the deity that is being invited to do something for us or to give us something. But when a figure is sacrificed in the Planting cultures, the figure itself is a god. The person who dies is buried and becomes the food.” The Christ figure in Christianity is symbolic of the ultimate sacrifice, which the patrons believe that Jesus made for them. I believe that sacrifice is something we do as parents, as lovers, and in many ways as humans. The parent makes the ultimate sacrifice to the children and to the family. The parent would lay down his/her own life for the child, without question or hesitation. The parent will do whatever he/she needs to do to provide for and protect the child. And, ego aside, that is what Walter White was doing. He was doing what had to be done in the best way that he knew how to do it.