Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Breaking Bad and Thelema

Now that the epic television series Breaking Bad has finally concluded, I thought this would be a good chance to post a few reflections on the series from a Thelemic viewpoint, including a reading of Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” a poem used in the promotional material for the final season.
I’ll be discussing “spoilers” in this post, so if you haven’t seen all of the episodes (and if you intend to at some point) then don’t read any further.

Article continues below.

Breaking Bad is often discussed in terms of existentialism: when Walter White learns in episode one that he is going to die, he is forced to confront his mortality and, for the first time in his life, begins to live authentically. He directs his life by making choices that aren’t dictated by others and their expectations. As he puts it in the pilot episode, his diagnosis has awakened him. He later tells Hank that after his diagnosis, he never again experiences the kind of sleeplessness that we see at the beginning of the pilot. He no longer is consumed by the disturbing thoughts of what might or might not happen to him in the future. And, as he finally admits in the finale, he enjoyed the life of crime upon which he embarked.
“Chemistry is the study of change,” he famously announces to his class in the pilot. And we observe him change over the course of five seasons. Even by the end of the first episode, he’s more confrontational (knocking over one of the bullies who tease his crippled son), more forceful (“Buy the RV,” he commands his partner), and more virile (in a contrast to receiving the hilarious emasculating half-hearted birthday handjob, Walter ends the episode by becoming sexually aggressive with his wife).

We might say, in Thelemic terms, that the diagnosis triggers a change in Walter that allows him to see through many of the obstacles that have been thwarting his True Will (his authentic inclinations) all his life. This is not to say that he perfectly manifests his will for the entire series, but the series documents a time when he is closer to that will than he has ever been in his life: unfettered by a fear of consequences, Walter is able to focus on what he wants to do in a given situation, rather than constantly checking his desires by the standards of what others will think or whether acting on these desires would be wise from a pragmatic standpoint. Understanding himself as a dead man walking, Walter sees these phantom fears evaporate and sees his will manifest more fully.
And here begins the paradox: everything changes, but it also stays the same. The process of beginning to discover the will changes a person, but it’s a change that aligns that person more with who he really is. Nothing ultimately changes.

There’s an argument often made about this series that Walter always was “Heisenberg,” his drug-dealing, murder-planning alter ego, but that Heisenberg was constrained by the various restrictions under which Walter was forced to live his life. Under this reading, the cancer diagnosis allows Walter to act as he always wished he could.
I agree with that argument only to an extent. While some of post-diagnosis Walter’s behavior may be an instance of him doing things he always wished he could do – for instance, the “fuck you” he hisses at both his boss and his former lover Gretchen – many of his activities during the series aren’t things he’s always fantasized about. Many actions are a product of his doing the best he can in situations that are incredibly new to him. Further, much of his behavior seems not to be a manifestation of his authentic inclinations so much as a continuation of the problems inflicted upon him by his ego.

For as much as it’s possible to read Breaking Bad as the tale of a man who is finally freed from one form of restriction, it’s also necessary to temper this view with the fact that Walter remains throughout the series – as he did throughout his life before his diagnosis – the victim of the stories his mind tells him about himself, egoic restrictions that persist and prevent him from fully manifesting his true will.
Perhaps the best example of this restriction rearing its head is in season four, when Hank is ready to write off Gale as Heisenberg and call his investigation a day. Walter’s ego cannot have it – he cannot stand that someone else will get credit for his work or that the inferior Gale will be remembered by history as the great Heisenberg. So he tells Hank – his tongue loosened by steady drinking – how Gale’s notes look like those of a student. The police had found the apprentice, not the master. In a flash, he thus reignites Hank’s desire to find Heisenberg, and he ultimately dooms Hank and himself with only a few words.

And why? Because his mind couldn’t rest comfortably with that particular end to the story. It’s not enough for Walter to make millions of dollars. He needs to be recognized as the smartest guy in the room…or, at the very least, he can’t stand idly by while someone else is recognized as his superior.
We can go through the whole series and trace instances of Walter’s ego in competition with his authentic inclinations. Arguably, even his warped surrogate father/son relationship with Jesse Pinkman is shot through with these tensions, as Walter frequently acts to save Jesse to prove himself to be a good teacher or father (or at the very least not such a bad guy after all). But these stories in his mind are positioned in conflict with what appears to be an actual affection for the young man, perhaps a bond created by shared experiences that few people have been through.

When Walter gives the well-known “Say My Name” speech, he’s putting on a show for potential criminal employees, but there’s also a level in which he is very invested in the story – and the name – he’s creating. He is the One Who Knocks – or at least he styles himself that way in his internal stories about who he is – and people ought to fear that name/reputation, even if they can’t identify it exactly with Walter White.
And that brings us to Ozymandias, the name of the third to last episode – in which Walter’s achievements crumble – and the name of a sonnet by Percy Shelley about the broken statue of Ramses II:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Listen to Bryan Cranston reading the poem in the season five trailer here.

Obviously, this is a poem about the fleetingness of power, but it’s also a poem about egotism. It’s Ozymandias’ great ego – the story he believed about himself, that he was so great that the mighty would despair to see his empire – that is deflated in that fabulous line “Nothing beside remains” (a line that is, itself, broken in half by a full stop).

Even more than this: structurally, the speaker of Shelley’s poem has no agency or permanence of his own. The poem is mostly the reported speech of someone else (a traveler from an antique land). Ozymandias’ quote isn’t spoken and isn’t experienced by readers directly: the quote was first written down on his statue, read by the traveler, and reported to the speaker of this poem, whose words (reporting the traveler’s words) are now only visible written down as the text we read.
The whole poem is empty of agency and presence: it underlines the fact that the only thing that’s real are the words of the poem itself. In just the same way that the broken statue is all that is left of Ozymandias’ great empire, so too all that’s left of all the “selves” in this poem are the words of Shelley’s text.

The message is clear: only art endures. The self – and any of its power and stories – is fleeting. It’s what it leaves behind that is only thing that has (relative) permanence.
In this context, Breaking Bad as a work of art and cultural artifact takes on new importance, as does the sentiment behind the promotional poster that implores us to “Remember my name.”

The name of Heisenberg is all that Walter has left at the end of the series.
Yet no one in that fictional world will know his story. The name will live on – in infamy – but no one will know why he returned, why he saved Jesse, that he managed to provide for his family. His greatest achievements go without recognition or understanding. Walter finally gives up his attachment to the stories by the end: it’s unimportant to him how he’s remembered. All that matters is the action, and he is lost in the dance by the end of it all.

As he wanders dying through the lab at the very end, stroking those instruments that have brought so much death and suffering – but that have also in a sense freed him from some of the restrictions that bound him for so much of his life – he leaves a symbolic bloody mark on the shiny exterior of one machine. That’s the mark he’s made: a legacy of blood that is nevertheless his life – the vital force within him that is about to expire once and for all, leaving behind only an ambiguous trace.
The camera pulls back in a manner reminiscent of the ending of season four’s “Crawl Space” – which framed Walter as if he were already in his coffin – and this tableaux (and yes, the series itself) is in a sense Walter’s broken statue alone in the desert. His words, once-powerful and ringing, are an echo in the memory of viewers, reported to us through this monumental TV series (pun intended) that gives us as much of a glimpse of relative immortality as it can. That struggle between Walter’s will and ego – so defining of much of the human experience for many people – holds a mirror up to us and to modernity.

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