I just re-watched Breaking Bad. It’s a character study of a brilliant high school chemistry teacher, Walter White, who discovers that he has lung cancer, evoking a critical reckoning. Who am I? What have I accomplished? What is my legacy? It turns out the answers to these questions respectively for Walt are: I don’t have a clue, not much, and as of this moment, non-existent. Early in his career he was in on the ground floor of a company that went on to make the other two owners billionaires. Walt took a buy out for 5000.00. Now he’s a teacher earning a 30,000.00 salary, which leaves him and his wife, Skylar, endlessly juggling the bills. Walt’s rage, resentment and hatred are simmering beneath the surface of a calm and considerate man.
Without giving away too much of the plot for those of you who haven’t seen one of the earliest and best examples of what a TV series can be, Walt decides that the best way to take care of his family is to cook crystal meth. Because he’s a genius chemist, he turns out the best “blue” stuff ever seen on the street, which naturally draws the attention of local thugs and the Mexican cartel alike.
Walt, the nice guy, turns into Walt, the monster. I take that back. Monsters and nice guys live within the same human being. We are all Walter White, in that we have within us, in equal measure, the good guy and the monster, who, given the right conditions, would cross that line to get what we really want by whatever means. Or would we? That’s what kept me hooked. How far would I go? Well, Walt went all the way. Anybody who has ended up at age 50 feeling like their life hasn’t been their own, and their strategy of playing nice and safe has utterly failed, will maybe find that Walt is acting out their own fantasy. Whether monster or saint prevails, as the old Cherokee story goes about the good wolf and the bad wolf, depends on which one we feed. Even then it’s complex. If the good wolf gets all the food, the bad wolf just gets badder. More on that below.
Walt calls his alter ego, meth-cooking, drug-dealer Heisenberg, after the brilliant quantum physicist of the early 20th century. The real Heisenberg is known for the “uncertainty principle”, which I won’t try to describe. But the real Heisenberg himself is the subject of ongoing controversy over his moral compass. Did he help the Nazis develop an atomic bomb or slow them down? History is uncertain. And just as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle points out that reality is uncertain and to a disturbing degree, whatever we make it, so the development of Walt’s character shows that you never know what lurks in the shadowy depths of the human.
The story is brilliant in its depiction of Walt’s slow, moral trajectory from loser, nice guy, to the calculating criminal who is done being at the bottom of the heap. He convinces himself that his web of lies and violence are the result of unintended consequences, necessary given the conditions, and all for the sake of the family. It’s an incremental, but steady, slide. And the art of the film is that the viewer is able to sympathize with Walt even as he descends into his own personal hell. There’s moral failure yes, but what’s a dying man to do who only wants what’s best for his family?
This willingness to give Walt the benefit of the doubt is stretched very thin in a scene in which his wife confronts him. She’s tired of running from cartel monsters, and it’s time for Walt to bring it all to an end, says she. Frustrated by her lack of support, Walt turns on her and in a moment of uncharacteristic honesty he tells her that she just doesn’t get it. He is now the monster everybody else is running from. But even by the end of the show he is not only a monster. He has tenderness for his baby daughter and love for his wife and teenage son. He cares about his brother-in-law, a DEA agent charged with making the streets safe from the likes of Heisenberg.
Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, had a name for all the unsavoury bits that lurk within but which we disown because they are socially unacceptable: the shadow. “A tree can’t grow into heaven unless its roots grow deep into hell”. Walt went all the way down. But he never resurfaced. He gave up believing anything mattered other than his personal redemption from a failed life. He stopped reaching for heaven.
And that’s the danger with the shadow archetype. You want to have a relationship with it. Not become it. And the most likely way to become your shadow is to deny it. There’s lots of life energy in the shadow. It keeps you real. There’s rage that can be recruited to establish personal boundaries or protect your family. There’s hatred which can be harnessed to help you know what injustices in the world you hate, without acting out hate. There’s resentment which can show you that you are neglecting your own desires and organizing your life around other people’s wishes. There’s arrogance which tells you that you’re compensating for feeling insignificant. But if you deny your rage, hatred, resentment and arrogance, that’s when they take over the show.
In my experience until we actually get, bone-deep, that the capacity for evil dwells within, we won’t have the necessary resolve that is born of the realization that the only thing that keeps me from going there is choice, moment-by-moment choice.
Nihilism is the breeding ground of evil. Nothing matters anymore. It’s all pointless. Morality is a silly social contract established for cowards who don’t have the courage to run the show. This is where Walt ended up I think. He tried being the good man, but he was bored. Tried being a good teacher but the students were more interested in their iPhones. Tried being a good provider, but now they are swimming in debt. And then life repays the favour with lung cancer. Enter Heisenberg, born of bottled up rage, resentment and arrogance. No more mister nice guy. No more functional poverty, while the rich give away millions to charity. No more false humility while his own genius goes unrecognized. What’s there to lose? He’s dying anyway.
This attitude of “fuck-it-I’m going-to-get-mine” drives the literary theme of making a deal with the devil. Faust’s Mephistopheles describes the nihilistic attitude well:
I am the spirit that negates.
And rightly so, for all that comes to be
Deserves to perish wretchedly;
‘Twere better nothing would begin.
Thus everything that your terms, sin,
Destruction, evil represent,
That is my proper element.
Giving in to the “spirit that negates” is all the devil wants, the big no to life. The 20th century was characterized by such a no, two world wars, Hiroshima, holocausts, the totalitarian impulse. It’s all a “no” against creation, the Creator, and the possibility of the realization of the good, the true and the beautiful by means of a patient love. I qualify love with “patient” because this is what Lucifer offers, the realization of utopia, of wealth and power, NOW. He offers shortcuts, a way to reach your shadowy dreams without the nuisance of dealing with time and space and all that suffering. Lucifer is the fallen angel of light, and it is the promise of getting what you want at the speed of light that attracts the nihilist. For Walter crystal meth was the quickest way to take care of his family. At first it was the promise of easy money, but then Lucifer went deeper. Walt could be finally recognized as the best, not some washed up chemistry teacher, but the ver best at cooking meth. And then, the deepest temptation, absolute power—the dream of all totalitarian regimes and cartel czars. Power for the sake of power, what George Orwell describes in 1984. All that the Luciferian energy asks in return is a “spirit that negates”, one that turns away from Creator and a life that matters. Tempting? You betcha.
If you want to make a ton of money in this life, own it. Figure out a way to get it ethically rather than resent being poor. Then do some work on how the meme of insufficiency got inserted into your belief system. If you want power in this life, own it. Just do it in a way that influences for good. Then do some work on your experience of powerlessness and where you were dominated. If you feel the urge to be better than anybody else at something, accept the urge. Let it help you be the best you can be, without comparing yourself to others. Then do some work on those conditions that convinced you that you’re inadequate. If you want to punch someone in the face, allow that it’s part of you. Then go to a gym, work out on the bag, and figure out the source of your rage and channel it into positive action.
This is what it means to be in relationship with your shadow, so that you can recruit its energy for good without becoming it. Life possesses absolute value. If we’ve been hurt, frustrated or simply on the receiving end of bad luck, the temptation to nihilism is strong. You’ll need all the energy you can muster to resist the spirit of negation and call upon the totality of your energy. This includes the shadow. Thanks Walt and thanks Heisenberg, for showing me just how challenging it is to be a human being.