The Message of Breaking Bad: Live a Creative Life, not a Fantasy

Breaking Bad ChemistryWalter White, the hero and villain of Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, begins the series by living out the everyman fantasy: he tells off his boss, defends his son from bullies, tells his nagging wife to climb out of his ass, and blows up the car of an entitled douchebag whose license plate is “KenWins.” Who’s not on board? Walter’s been diagnosed with lung cancer, so he gets a pass from the audience for bad behavior as he accesses a more potent part of himself.

Like Walter, I’m a teacher, so I find lessons in everything. Why not from my favorite TV show? I’ve spent many hours with these characters, and I’ve learned a lot from them about how I define freedom, heroism, family, masculinity, redemption. Right from the start, I knew breaking bad wouldn’t work for Walter, because it was his fantasy, and therefore a road to nowhere. But Jesse’s journey is different. He’s the student, the one who learns, and therefore can educate. From the moment Jesse appears on screen and escapes a police raid by jumping out a second story window, I knew he’d be the one to break free at the end. His story sends a clear message: Live a creative life, not a fantasy life. Here’s how:

A creative life is hopeful.

Walter summarizes his life like this: “my wife is seven months pregnant with a baby we didn’t intend, my son has cerebral palsy, I am an extremely overqualified high school chemistry teacher who makes $43,700 a year, I have watched all of my colleagues and friends surpass me in every imaginable way, and in 18 months, I’ll be dead.” Come on, Walt! Who doesn’t have a sad version of their life? He could also tell the story another way: he’s a master of crystallography, he contributed to Nobel Prize winning research, he’s got a supportive, loving family.

For five seasons, I thought about one thing: If the guy can make 99% pure crystal meth, surely he could succeed at some other chemical endeavor. There’s only one problem. He doesn’t believe it’s possible. The key to his trouble is revealed in the middle of season five when he claims to be building an empire of his own. He tells Jesse that Gray Matter Technologies (the company he left behind years ago) is now worth 2.16 billion dollars. How does he know? He looks it up every week. Walter is obsessed with regret. He looks back rather than looking forward. “I sold my kid’s birthright for a few months’ rent,” he confesses. This is what seals his fate. He’s too scared to take a real risk, so he seeks control instead.

Walter tells a fellow cancer patient that fear is the real enemy. No Walter, really it’s not. Fear is a normal, human emotion and something we all must confront if we are going to fulfill our potential in this lifetime.

Jesse, on the other hand, is hopeful. When he gives money to recovering addict Andrea, he presents her with a choice: “you can get out of the neighborhood or go spend it on glass, but I gotta believe you won’t do that.” He believes a better life is possible for her and therefore eventually for himself as well.

A creative life is connected.

Walter spins selfies, or stories that cast himself as the main and only character. “Say my name,” he says to the other drug dealers. He wants to be feared and admired, and loves it when Jesse calls him the Iron Chef of meth. He’s desperate for recognition, just like Gus, who up until his own last breath, wants his archenemy Hector to look him in the eye and acknowledge his power.

Walt struggles with his first murder, and at least his list of why he should (or should not) kill the guy includes the fact that it’s morally wrong. But somehow I could accept his decision, because it was the necessary byproduct of joining the drug brotherhood. He felt threatened and had to deal with it. What bothered me even more was Walt’s dismissal of the most genuine kindness shown in the entire series. Hugo, the high school janitor, watches as Walt vomits after chemotherapy, cleans up after him, and offers him gum. Hugo witnesses Walt’s pain and responds with compassion and care. But after Hugo ends up getting unjustly fired, Walt doesn’t speak up for him—and worse, at the PTA meeting, when everyone is discussing Hugo, Walt gets off by fondling his wife’s thigh under the table. This one choice to detach from Hugo’s fate makes the next detachment easier, until detachment turns into dishonesty and disregard, and eventually deliberate spite, like when he tells Jesse he saw Jane die. Even though Walt keeps claiming he’s acting on behalf of his family, we know it’s not true, because he builds walls around himself and disconnects from the people who love him.

Jesse, on the other hand, cries and suffers—a lot—because he cares, because he is connected to other people, because he doesn’t want to kill off witnesses. He wants to be seen. He knows that we need others to see us in order to be whole, unlike Mike Ehrmantraut who thinks he can make his guys “whole” by giving them money.

The women in the show are witnesses, not players. Even the infant, Holly, acts as a silent witness to remind Walt that only in our fantasies can we operate entirely alone. There’s no such thing as a life without witnesses or actions without consequences. That teddybear eyeball floating around from season to season triggers the memory of 167 people who died after an airplane crash that could be traced back to Walt. Every choice we make marks a trajectory that leads to the next choice, and extends our web of connections.

After Todd shoots Drew, the accidental witness of the train robbery, and they all dispose of his young body, Walt returns to work and whistles while he does it. His complete detachment helps Jesse turn a corner and just go home. Jesse sees that Walt’s fantasy has become frightening, and he returns to the reality that we need to feel connected in order to create a cohesive life.

A creative life is painful.

There’s just no way around it, and no way to break down the bad, bitch. It will happen. A creative life is restless, even agonizing at times. Like Walt says in chemistry class, growth and decay are necessary for transformation. The people who try to deny half that equation and make the good feelings last forever end up like Tucker and his deranged methhead friend with a shotgun.

Only in our fantasies are things easy. A fantasy life is usually simple and singular: it’s about getting immediate pleasure or control. Only in our fantasies can we force circumstances to follow our will. Jesse even says to Badger and Skinny Pete that it’ll be easy to sell meth to the recovering addicts they met in rehab—until he sees the reality that his target, Andrea, has a child, an adorable child who Jesse comes to love. Then it’s not so easy and he must face the painful reality of who he has become. A creative life is full, complex, and cycles like the seasons. Creative desires respond to environment and might even reshape it, but don’t ignore reality.

Jesse is in much more apparent distress than any other character, but he still represents hope, because at least he expresses his pain. He’s affected by everything that happens, whereas Walt steels himself from reacting. Walt becomes a better and better liar, and he likes it. When he dies in the last episode, we are ready for it. We’ve already witnessed the death of his soul, so his body must follow.

A creative life is honest.

Walt might have high standards for cooking meth, but he’s got weak principles, if any, when it comes to human beings. Jesse’s got higher human standards. “My word is my bond,” he promises, and then makes good on his debts after breaking a gate and destroying property at an impound yard.

Walt is a hypocrite, another form of dishonesty. He tells his students to apply themselves, but he won’t even try working at Gray Matter Technologies when he’s offered a job. Who cares if it was an offer based on “charity” or even pity? He could have at least given it a shot. Skyler, too, is a hypocrite. She’s self-righteous with Ted Beneke about cooking his books, but then launders money for Walt. She also lies to herself. She says she can’t stop laundering the money, she can’t go to the police—all she can do is wait for his cancer to come back. She’s spinning her own sad selfie; she most certainly can go to the police, and should have a long time ago.

Walter cannot even admit that what he’s doing is dangerous, whereas Jesse, once again, is painfully honest. He tells the rehab group that he came there to sell them meth and that they’re nothing but customers to him. He’s suffering, but he’s honest, and that’s what will set him free in the end. Walt’s ending is satisfying for us because he finally says one true thing: I did it all for me. We knew it! We wanted to hear it. We understand that secrets don’t protect us; they keep us trapped. Truth-tellers have true power.

A creative life is rebellious.

Jesse is the only character who stands up to everyone else. He defies Walt, confronts Gus about killing children, questions rehab-speak, challenges the cartel’s chemists, punches Todd, and even interrogates his own ideas. The guy is actively searching for power, and because he is willing to protest, we know he’ll find it eventually. Walt tells other men to grow a pair, but while his own ego grows, he loses muscle—and control.

Todd functions as Jesse’s chiral image: a nonidentical mirror. He’s so scary because he questions nothing. He’s a blank, “dead-eyed,” unthinking, yes-man, and therefore without meaningful potential. A true artist in any field understands the value of inquiry and dissent.

Hank usually works within the confines of the law, but he favors his own instincts over following rules. His stubborn persistence serves him well as an investigator. He turns out to be right more than wrong, and he stands his ground even when faced with the barrel of a gun. I rooted for Hank throughout the entire series because he worked so hard to put all the pieces together. He accepted the consequences of his actions, and this brought him closer to his wife and to his goal. He dies, but thanks to him, so does Walt’s delusional world.

A creative life is responsible.

We all tell our own stories. Who are the villains and who are the heroes? If we don’t decide for ourselves, someone else will do it for us. Spinning unsustainable fantasies is also a way to avoid crafting our own life story—and taking full responsibility for it.

Walt was wretched long before his cancer diagnosis, which is why he’s upset when he gets the good news that 80% of his tumor is gone. He used his illness as an excuse to break bad, and he knows that if he’s in remission, he’ll have to start being responsible. “I’m done explaining myself,” he says to Hank. This is why he must die. There’s no other ending for his twisted story, because life requires accountability. We all owe each other an explanation, and nobody gets to do whatever the hell they want without consequence.

Jesse craves consequences. He’s desperate for boundaries. He provokes his rehab group when he says he killed an innocent dog (aka Gale Boetticher), and when the whole group tries to excuse his behavior and spin it into some other kind of story, he pushes them to make a damn judgment and stop denying the darkness. “If you just do stuff and nothing happens, what does it all mean?” Jesse urges them to awaken their conviction and moral clarity. Sometimes being responsible means telling other people that their behavior is just not ok.

We will all experience pain, and if we do not find a creative way to confront it, endure it, express it, learn from it, acknowledge it—then it will find a dark expression: addiction, abuse, isolation, suicide, homicide…or even living an unfulfilling life. Many characters find some way to be creative. Hank collects minerals and brews his own beer, Walter Jr. experiments with his identity when he changes his name to Flynn, even Skyler turns out to be a great storyteller. Maybe she should have kept writing, even though, as Marie points out, none of her work made any money. So what? Why is that the only important criterion?

Jane understood this better than anyone else, so it’s even more tragic that she succumbed to her own empty fantasy. When she gets her hands on a big bag of money, she exclaims, This is freedom! This means we can be whatever we want! Guess what, Jane? You can be whatever you want without the big bag of money.

Jane is an artist who does understand how to live a creative life. When she and Jesse visit the Georgia O’Keefe Museum, Jesse wonders why the heck someone would paint a picture of a door over and over again. Jane explains: “it’s the same subject, but it was different every time. The light, her mood…she saw something new every time she painted it….why should we do anything more than once? Should I just smoke this one cigarette? Maybe we should only have sex once? Should we just watch one sunset or live just one day? It’s new every time….” Jane understands the creative value of imagination, and why it’s more powerful than mere fantasy.

I cheered out loud when Jesse drove away from the madness at the end of the series. He’s still searching, but no longer for approval. His apprenticeship is over.

Thank you Jesse, thank you Jane, for reminding me to love while I can, create the life I imagine is possible, connect with other people, and see the beauty in ordinary things, like a door, a sunset, or a bad-ass television show. I’m a mad superfan, yo. Thanks Vince Gilligan and the entire Crew for a damn amazing, inspiring, wild ride.