Walter White's Chaotic Beauty

There is a swimming pool in Walter White’s backyard. In the filter of Walter White’s swimming pool is an un-blinking plastic eyeball. This floating, rolling eye was once sewn beside its partner on the face of a pink teddy bear. The bear, now short an eye and half scorched, once floated in the chemical-clear water of Walter’s pool, until it, along with two human bodies, were collected by NTSB investigators. That pink teddy bear (and presumably its young, innocent owner) had fallen from 30,000 feet, where two commercial jets slammed into one another in the skies over Albuquerque, NM. That crash occurred under the failed supervision of an air traffic control operator, who had been distracted with grief; his daughter (Jane) recently died in her bed, relapsed into heroin addiction. Beside her lay Jesse Pinkman, just as high and just as sleeping. Over them both stood Walter White, watching Jane asphyxiate on her own vomit, and deciding not to save her, deciding to protect his drug-money fortune by letting her die.

Walter White, if you somehow artfully dodged the media blitz and pop culture buzz at the time, was the central character of AMC’s 5-season triumph, Breaking Bad. Created by Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad follows how Walter reacts to a sudden and dire medical diagnosis (inoperable, advanced lung cancer) by teaming up with a former, ne’erdowell student (the aforementioned Pinkman) to manufacture what turns out to be exceptionally high-quality methamphetamine. Cooking meth and selling meth are not overlapping expertise, and so Walter and Jesse hitch their Winnebago-cum-meth-lab to a series of criminal characters, each more effective (but also more menacing) than the last. Along the way, they make a killing, in several senses.

But that is just the plot. The real drama unfolds in the soul of Walter White. Breaking Bad is a narrative of moral descent, of ethical decay. As White’s ambition grows, so too does his propensity for evil. The lies required to cover his weekend cook-sessions and new source of income tumble into violence, first defensive, then preemptive, then retributive, and culminating in murders that defend only the boundless horizon of his greed. Walter’s lies, criminality, and violence destroy his marriage, divide his family, alienate his children, and get his friends tortured, killed. Like the cancer in his lungs, Walter White becomes a cancer in Breaking Bad’s fictional Albuquerque universe.

And yet, for all that, Walter White is still Breaking Bad’s functional protagonist. We hold our breath whenever he faces capture or seemingly certain death. We laugh in delighted relief when he evades either. We know he cannot go on like this, but neither can we bear to see him stopped. Walter is that paradox of narrative: an anti-hero. Breaking Bad reveals in each of us moral thinking turned ideological: I understand (I even say) how terrible this man is, but I feel, in my very body, that I value him. And not just him, as if his ontological dignity could be plucked from history, pristine, but I value also (and here I will employ a euphemism disguised as an abstraction) his “enterprises”. Such brackish currents of feeling are the scandal of rational self-consciousness, insofar as they resist the binary fixedness of a total “yes” or total “no.” The fallen hero, the anti-hero is experienced not just in catharsis, in the purgation of pity and fear,[1] but as dramatic wahr-nehmung—an affective, a sensitive experience felt (“seen”) as true. And so a question emerges: This Wahr-nehmen, this feeling-the-truth: what, in the case of anti-heroes in general (and Walter White specifically) does it feel as the truth?

The Being and Non-Being of the Sinner (SPOILER ALERT: SPOILERS AHEAD!)

Walter White takes a nom-de-guerre to dissociate his domestic life from his criminal life; he calls himself “Heisenberg.” Borrowed from the early quantum theorist, Werner Heisenberg, Walter’s pseudonym plainly invokes that physicist’s “uncertainty principle.” Now, I will not commit the all-too-common philosophical and theological sin of pretending I understand Heisenberg’s principle, but I am not required to by the narrative purpose of this allusion. The audience is invited only to understand that Walter’s circumscribed suburban routine is now a cover for underlying indeterminacy, for a troubling erratic-ness. We might know where Walter is headed, but we are not allowed to determine, in that process, where he is at this or that moment. Is he being sincere this time? Is he scheming again? Or is he (re)acting out of pride? Selfishness? Does he enjoy all this crime and violence? Is it just the required means to an ambitious end? The momentum seems ineluctable, but the positionality remains obscure. Walter White is decaying, decompensating, decomposing.

To return to a figure and a topic I have discussed here before, St. Athanasius would have had no uncertainty with regard to Walter’s state. He could have named it easily: corruption. On his way to considering “the Word’s becoming Man,” Athanasius considers that for which the Word took on flesh: in his view, the healing of human corruption. Athanasius speaks of all of humanity in terms that might find in Walt a microcosm:

Indeed, they had in their sinning surpassed all limits; for, having invented wickedness in the beginning and so involved themselves in death and corruption, they had gone on gradually from bad to worse, not stopping at any one kind of evil, but continually, as with insatiable appetite, devising new kinds of sins.[2]

Walter White, a creature like all of us, had “come into being out of non-existence” and was now “on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again.” For Athanasius, Walt is not just “breaking bad”—he is ontologically disassembling. Moreover, Athanasius (like Augustine) could tell you why in unapologetically Platonist terms: “Inevitably, therefore, when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and anti-thesis of Good.”[3] Thus from episode one, for both Athanasius and for the audience, Walter White is doomed. Walter, his medical diagnosis aside, “had come inevitably under the law of death . . . completely under its dominion.”[4]

By metaphysical inference, then, we can know how the story ends.[5] Whether we want to treat it in terms of moral impotence with Lonergan,[6] the circumscriptions of horizontal pathos with von Balthasar,[7] or the insufficiency of the will to itself with Blondel,[8] rationality has access to the logic of action and the progressive erosion of moral being that occurs when moral reflection takes as its own-most “yes” the blunt “no” of evil. God is Being and the Good; evil is not, full stop. Doing the good is cooperation with and participation in the life of God in the world. Doing evil, in the long run, sterilizes the world, like pouring chlorine in a backyard pool (or elsewhere). Fecund possibility is traded for a clarity reducible to emptiness. And, in the poetic terminology of Catherine Keller (who I will get back to in a minute), it is a waste of water(s).

To Be and Not To Be: That . . . Is a Problem

The problem in the case of Walter White and Breaking Bad remains: we keep watching. Now we might chalk this up to perverse curiosity and the proverbial car wreck: “you just can’t look away.” This, however, seems to me a genre mistake. That kind of preoccupation I think pertains to those stories in which the villian’s triumph is inevitable, a narrative form probably most often found in horror stories. For most of the Breaking Bad (a few episodes excepted) Walter White is not, within the logic that dominates the show’s universe, the villain. For this we have Crazy 8, Tuco Salamanca, Gustavo Fring, etc.

No, as I said before, Walt is that morally difficult genre feature: the anti-hero. He is, in the heart of the viewer, often both a value and a disvalue. We feel our desire for him to succeed at the very acts we feel ourselves despise. We delight in his goodness at being bad and we want his badness to turn out for good. In the terms of Athanasius’s ontological binaries, we want quite palpably for Walter White, in all his Heisenberg-ness, to both be and not be. He makes our inner waters roil with living anger and longing and hope and laughter, makes them murky with vital complexity, but nonetheless rank with rot, odious with decay.

Even Athanasius recognizes a problematic admixture in the tidy moral reasoning he has constructed in On The Incarnation. Because of sin and evil, “Man, who was created in God’s image and, in his possession of reason, reflected the very Word Himself, (is) disappearing, and the work of God . . . being undone.”[9] Even though Athanasius would not have the scandal of a God who rescinds the wages of sin (namely, death),

It (would be) equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption. It (is) unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing… and it (is) supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear.[10]

After all, “the presence and love of the Word had called (us) into being.” Maurice Blondel makes a similar point in Action:

To be called to the life of reason and freedom is to participate in the free necessity of God, who cannot fail to will Himself . . . what we receive of being as our very own is such that it is impossible not to accept it. This gift, we cannot abuse, we cannot feign to refuse, except by already accepting it and, so to speak, using God against God . . . O’ Fearsome grandeur of man! . . . to strike at (God) with (God’s own) divine force. And why not the total annihilation of those who are separated from life (and God)? . . . (because) they keep their indelible will, they (remain) human only by being inexterminable, they have mingled with life and acted in being . . . (And so) like one living tied by both arms to a corpse, (they) remain their own dead idol.[11]

Human beings infuse the universe with the non-being of evil only by first taking up and putting to work the life of their own being. Walter White’s criminal genius, as far as it goes (and thanks to the scotoma of bias, it may not go very far), is still genius. We may distinguish two abstractive viewpoints with regard to the concreteness of doing evil: doing evil, insofar as it is evil, is decomposition of being into non-being. But doing evil, insofar as one is doing, is still to be, and so to be good, concretely, in some minimal way, in the universe.

Tehom: Our And-Yet-Being for Redemption

What our theologies and philosophies may swiftly abstract and delineate, our feelings give us all together in a swirling, tidal, chaoid depth. I would wager, by the way, that this all-together-ness is the ground of the aesthetic profundity of anti-hero narratives, of the success of Breaking Bad. Our history-bound and history-making bodies recognize in anti-heroes, in Walter White, the inexterminable being of our non-being. Anti-hero narratives sizzle and steam within us, like volcanic flow pushing into salt-water seas, destroying and creating at the same time, a lot of sound and then submarine silence. In the words of St. Augustine, all of us, like Walter White, “by our souls are a spiritual creation, [but] have turned away from [God] our Light . . . In this life we were heretofore darkness, and we labor in what is still left of our darkness until . . . we are made as the mountains of God: for [his] judgments are as a great deep.”[12]

In trying to tell you about how I feel about Walter White (and, by extension, about how it feels to be a sinner), I tire, I must admit, of speaking the paradoxical language of “is, is not.” It rankles my philosophical inclination toward precision, and it fails to communicate the fluidity of my affections. My theology here has flirted with poetry, and so now I want to borrow and adapt an idea from a self-described poetic theologian. Catherine Keller, who I mentioned before, has a book, Face of the Deep, that proposes to be a post-structuralist process theology of creation. For Keller, creatio ex nihilo is a theology of violent domination, in which God is cast as the paragon of masculine, totalizing force and so can be subsequently deployed as a theo-logical justification of human men who employ masculine, totalitarian force. Though I respect the book a great deal (I am, after all, about to borrow from it), I believe that, with regard to the traditional doctrine of creation, it fails rather terrifically.[13]

Nonetheless, I do want to borrow one rather major idea from Keller: the Tehom. Tehom, for Keller, is not a thing, nor even a process, nor a dimension. It is something like a notion. To describe it, she borrows from St. Augustine the term “a nothing something.” From one angle, it is the formless and void of Genesis 1, and from another the Ancient Near Eastern sea-and-storm goddess, Tiamat. From yet one more angle, it is Derrida’s différence and khora together, and from yet another, it is Deleuze’s “the virtual” and his “plane of immanence.” It is a metaphysical, cosmological indeterminacy that cannot be explicated of itself, but is the carrier of all the implications for determinate being. “As dimensionality rather than as a dimension,” Keller writes, “the (tehomic) depth enfolds an infinity of virtual finitudes.: the creations, the creatures. They are not (this chaos itself), but the organized explications of its dimensions . . . it [the tehom] constitutes a ‘chaosmos.’”[14] It is, in other words, a promising chaos.

With this idea of the Tehom, of an indeterminate nothing-something enfolding an inexplicable implication for new being, I want to describe, not the theology of creation, but something about Walter White, and thus anti-heroes, and thus what it is to be a sinner in hope of redemption. Rather than persisting in the binary doubling-back of rational self-consciousness, of discursive judgments of value, in order to describe what Augustine calls our “living death” in sin, here I will suggest that the sinner becomes, in the theology of feelings, tehomic. The sinner, as tehomic, is inexplicable and chaotic, failing to responsibly determine him- or herself, whether in dimensions of ontological commitment or “real actualities” of decision and action. Moreover, as Keller acknowledges of the tehom, the sinner is a source in the universe of “a lot of painful noise.” We can expect, Keller writes, to find that “the chaos waters are not always pacific.”[15] Tehomic turbulence sinks ships, as it were. Walter White’s tehomic soul destroys (and ends) a lot of lives.

And yet. And yet, Keller notes, the only way to completely excise this tehomic chaos (and thus, on the proposed metaphor, sinners) from one’s polity is via what she calls “dominology,” which is to say, through ostensibly justified violence. In the Enuma Elish, Tiamat’s oceanic anger and pride is vanquished at the edge of Marduk’s sword. What if, in Breaking Bad’s first season, the low-level drug dealer Crazy 8 had killed Walter, instead of the other way around. This would have, of course, saved everyone a lot of trouble. But we sense, against the discursive logic of ethical calculation, that this would have been a loss. Not even a tragedy, but just a bad story. We are invited to feel in Walter, in the anti-hero, a promise that is at once implied and impossible to explicate.

And so we sense the approaching topic of redemption. Within view of redemption, the sinner-as-tehom means whatever it is our sinful corruption becomes after the advent of promised-but-mysterious redemption. We are, in the face of this mystery-promise, no longer a bare nothing, but a messy, chaotic, murky nothing-something. Keller’s notion of the Tehom has the advantage of avoiding any kind of causal or inferential relationality. Our sinfulness, if it proves tehomic, is not explicable, nor does it suddenly become explicable because from it redemption emerges. No, like the waters, formless and void, our tehomic sinfulness can only bring forth being and life by condescension of the Spirit, even if in this case I would replace the primordial waters of Genesis with the baptismal waters into which the repentant descend, as though into the grave.

And yet, once redemption gives itself in our stormy story, once the Spirit comes to rest like a lily on our troubled waters, we may retrospectively re-narrate our sinfulness. More precisely, we may re-narrate it as an “implex” of God’s mercy. (Indeed, the notion of Tehom protects the potential for such narration, particularly as distinct from theodicies that would re-narrate sin and evil as explanations or conditions of possibility). And so, narratives like Breaking Bad portray in a proto-theological fashion anti-heroes with this tehomic implexity. The audience is invited to feel, to sense-as-true (wahrnehmen), the promise of a new beginning swirled together with Athanasius’ “law of death”. In Balthasarian terms, we might call this “the heightening of dramatic tension.”

In the same Spirit, Christians, after soaking in the astringent brine of Lenten repentance, sing in the Exultet of the Easter Vigil, “Oh happy fault,”. And at such a turn of phrase (“Oh happy fault”) some of us might rightly cringe, but at the same time also nod. Our feelings may not let us say purely yes or purely no. And when Walter White is granted his final (and perhaps only) prayer, to get home to mop up what tehomic mess he’d left behind (by providing financially for his family and exacting revenge on the neo-Nazis who betrayed him—all achieved through terror and murder, of course), when Walt sees this small portion of redemption, we may cringe and nod again, perhaps whispering to ourselves: “Oh happy Walt.”

[1] Aristotle’s category is a socio-ethical instrumentalization of feeling, and so not an aesthetic pattern, strictly speaking.

[2] St. Athanasius, On The Incarnation, trans. by a religious of C.S.M.V., Revised (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007), 31.

[3] St. Athanasius, On The Incarnation, 30.

[4] St. Athanasius, On The Incarnation, 29.

[5] So, we might add, Athanasius’s consideration of human corruptibility ought to come with a spoiler alert.

[6] Lonergan, Insight, XX.

[7] Balthasar, TD IV, XX.

[8] Blondel, Action, XX.

[9] Ibid., 31--32.

[10] Ibid., 32.

[11] Blondel, Action (1893), 342-344.

[12] Augustine, Confessions, XII:2.

[13] Rowan William’s essay, “On Being Creatures” in his book On Christian Theology articulates well some of the reasons for this failure.

[14] Keller, Face of the Deep, 171.

[15] Keller, Face of the Deep, 122.

Featured Image: Taken by r2hox, photo of street Walter White street art in Barcelona, taken on 17 August 2015; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.


Jonathan Heaps

Jonathan Heaps just completed a year as Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious and Theological Studies at St Edward’s University.

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