Walter White, Heisenberg, and Time Out of Mind: The Legacy of ‘Breaking Bad’

An examination of how AMC's Breaking Bad played with the conventions of time, character, and attitude.

What most of us remember about the brilliant Vince Gilligan AMC crime drama Breaking Bad (2008-2013) is probably contained in images. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is standing in the middle of a desert, somewhere in New Mexico. This cancer-riddled high school chemistry teacher has turned to a life of producing and selling crystallized methamphetamine as a way to fund his chemo treatment. The life he’s facing has dwindled down to a desperate sentence, and in the image we remember he’s standing defiantly, covered sometimes just in tight white underwear and his science teacher glasses. He’s clutching a gun in his right hand, and though he still has a head of thick hair, we know it’s not for long. We know that whatever Walter is seeing in the distance will eventually take his life.

The other image we remember of Walter White is as Heisenberg, his alter-ego, dark fedora perched on his shaved head and mirrored sunglasses covering his eyes. He will not allow us to see his eyes. The meek milquetoast that was Walter White the high school chemistry teacher had no need to hide in his persona as Heisenberg did. Koch’s very brief (less than 100 pages) examination of Breaking Bad is very slim in content but rich in meaning. For Koch, the images are intrinsically linked with the importance of narrative form. Where most crime-centered episodic television dramas began with a “cold” open before the credits that put the viewer “in media res” and followed with a story that explained what we’d seen and culminated in a variation of it, Breaking Bad shattered that convention.

“The pilot episode begins with a proleptic story [presenting a future act as if its already happened]… other episodes… draw on this… form of storytelling. This is the context in which the mysterious figure of the charred teddy bear appears… a harbinger of disaster… as mysterious as the trousers coming down from the sky.”

Koch effectively connects the teddy bear (after effects of a mid-air plane crash tragedy where the people and artifacts fell to the ground and landed in White’s pool) with the trousers we see in the pilot episode. What’s happening? Who is missing their pants? How have things come to such desperate conditions? The images of persona Walter chooses to present to the world are linked with the images of the flat, endless landscape where this tragic story plays itself out over the course of 62 episodes. Koch manages to successfully argue that if the program was anything (crime drama, noir, mainstream suspense thriller) it was the darkest of comedies, more noir than anything else, but pure and consistent in its allegiance to the pitch-perfect comedy from Cranston

In the chapter “Chain Reactions”, Koch notes the importance of causal reactions primarily through observing nature’s laws in physics and chemistry. Basically, it’s all about what comes up must come down. On the other hand, that’s not necessarily always the case with human activity and social context, where many variable factors are always in place to upset expectations. An air traffic controller father is grieving the drug overdose death of his daughter, girlfriend of White’s young partner Jesse. The father’s grief allows for the plane crash, and a charred teddy bear surfaces to haunt everybody. We watch and absorb and try to position these events in some sort of understandable sense, and convention steers us to believe this is simply a maudlin story of a man who chose extreme measures to guarantee the future of his wife, teenaged son, and new baby. On the other hand, though, Koch posits this argument about the series and the legacy of Walter White:

“At the end… stands the character of an egocentric, who did everything for himself… He is the goal and the reason for his own actions, the perfect bourgeois subject in the age of neo-liberalism.”

For Koch, Walter White is not a tragic hero. He’s not a subject for whom we should feel extra compassion and offer any degree of forgiveness. Instead, he’s a noir hero, an independent agent, a man who knew exactly where he was going and the consequences of his actions. The fact that he dies from the results of his swimming in the cesspool of crime bosses and drug lords his meth producing and distributing world created, rather than from the cancer that was supposed to bring him down, is in keeping with the fatalistic nature of noir. Don’t shed any tears for Walter White because this is the way he chose to lead the final days of his life.

Breaking Bad, Breaking Out, Breaking Even is presented in six chapters. Koch ends with a separate section, a brief paragraph-length commentary on “Five Iconic Scenes”. In the first chapter, “It’s a Trip”, whose title is borrowed from the New Mexico state motto, Koch argues that one of the qualities that helped the series attain its status was “…the new temporality of a very long narrative…” In other words, the “binge watching” habit so popular to so many viewers, through physical DVD watching or streaming services, was perhaps as addictive as the meth Walter White was peddling — the fact that we could easily have more meant that we would not hesitate to want more.

The chapter “In 62 Episodes to Death”, Koch carefully spells out the inevitable. None of this was going to end conveniently. “The series begins in the form of a cascade,” she writes. Later, Koch notes that the intricate time span is presented within the first five minutes of this pilot episode. There’s now (in the motor home, naked save for a pair of white briefs, running around the desert waving a gun.) There’s “The next few days”, in which the teen son will learn some dark truths about his father, and then there’s a flashback from three weeks earlier.

The binge-watching addictiveness of this structure is what separated Breaking Bad from standard episodic television. With the routine episodic crime drama, there was usually no need to commit to a character’s back story. Whatever sort of incidental triviality happened in episode three of season one didn’t necessarily spill into the same episode in the next season. In the old days, as well, there were approximately two dozen episodes per season. By condensing a season to half that amount, the creators of Breaking Bad and other shows of the past ten years (or so) have a greater opportunity to work with such a manageable time frame.

The chapter “Time Going Backward, Time Going Forward” also plays with the concept of narrative. What happens when traditions and conventions are broken? If Breaking Bad is, in fact, the jewel in the crown of “Quality TV”, an argument shared by many, then the form itself has now become “…an artisanal style that covers up its lowly origins with abundant effects… the hybridization of cinema with TV gives rise to completely independent forms.” Viewers recognize the tight constraints of what had once been conventional television on broadcast TV, the self-proclaimed liberty of pay services like HBO, but Breaking Bad and AMC, even more so than Mad Men on the same network, broke all the rules.

If Breaking Bad, Breaking Out, Breaking Even has faults, they rest in the actual physical presence of the book itself. It’s a rich study of a brilliant television program whose strengths Koch clearly understands. At less than100 pages, though, with only two-thirds actually containing content, the pages might eventually fall out, especially as the studious reader annotates and dog-ears them for future reference.

Koch, a Berlin Film Studies Professor (the book is translated from the German by Daniel Hendrickson) wisely references the February 2015 premiere of Better Call Saul, the equally brilliant Breaking Bad prequel from Vince Gilligan that deals with the early career of Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk.) Fans of Better Call Saul know that it deals with the transformation of Jimmy McGill to Saul Goodman. It gives us Saul, Mike (Jonathan Banks), and Gustavo “Gus” Fring (Giancarlo Esposito.) Perhaps at some point in the distant future the full text of Breaking Bad, Breaking Out, Breaking Even can be incorporated within a deeper, comprehensive study of Better Call Saul. After all, the shared DNA of the creative team behind each program makes them tantamount to separated conjoined twins.

Until that time, this is a fine primer, a welcome examination of the world created in Breaking Bad. It’s not meant for the uninitiated, but even those of us well acquainted with the sad downward spiral of Walter White will absorb this rich, astute, clear examination and go back — again and again — to the source material.