The Poetry of Breaking Bad

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Warning: If for some reason you aren’t up to date with Breaking Bad the following contents will be sure to spoil your experience of the show. Please, for the love of God, do not ruin your Breaking Bad experience by reading this post before finishing it. Reading this before finishing Breaking Bad will make you wish to turn into a meth-cooking evil-genius commanded by a psychotic alter-ego which you will conveniently name after a historic scientific figure whose significance to the end of your drug-lord journey will render the conclusion a form of poetic justice.

One of the best things about the award-winning TV show Breaking Bad is that it is replete with layers. You could seriously just enjoy yourself sitting their analysing each level of meaning as it folds in to create the well-crafted narrative that makes the show so compelling. Or you could just enjoy the show for its mere shock value and go along with the emotional ride that it provides. But that’s the beauty of the show – it can connect with people on so many different levels, making it reach out to a far wider demographic than your stock-standard drama series ever could.

How Breaking Bad adds colour to its product

A shrewd way of adding layers of meaning to a particular moment in the show comes from its use of intertextuality and allusion as a means of ingraining in people’s minds the particular idea, or purpose, that’s trying to be conveyed.

Referencing other texts and pop-cultural fads allows the viewer, who has a prior understanding of those things, to appreciate the particular connotation of the reference. It’s like an inside-joke that requires previous mutual experiences. This is the art of intertextuality and allusion in literature – the ability to connect with the audience by drawing their minds to other well-known cultural media, the meaning of which is commonly understood.

Of course only particular groups will understand some of these allusions. You have to be a massive Quentin Tarantino fan, for example, to understand the many homages to Pulp Fiction and other films of his throughout the course of the show (which is ironic considering Tarantino was the king of homages).

Take the moment when Jesse picks his weapon of choice in order to break down the door to the meth lab which Walt kicked him out of in the Fly episode in Season Three. It’s almost identical to the way Butch chooses the weapon he’s about to use to save Marcellus Wallace from being raped in Pulp Fiction:

There are other such examples which you can read on Breaking Bad forums on Reddit (see here and here) or from checking out this blog post.

The other W.W.

However, one particular form of intertextuality that constantly resurfaces throughout the show is the allusion to certain poems and poets.

One of the most memorable motifs in the show is the continual allusion to Walt Whitman, a nineteenth century American poet, and his seminal work Leaves of Grass. After the text is introduced in Season 3 through Walt’s new lab assistant, Gale Boetticher (who we discover is a massive Walt Whitman fan and can even recite his poetry off by heart), it thereon becomes one of the most important plot devices in the show.

In one of the many displays of the (rather poetic) role that pure chance plays in the unraveling of Walt’s meth empire (or is it fate?), Walt Whitman fortuitously becomes the all-important link between Gale and Walt that would ultimately lead Hank, Walt’s brother-in-law in the DRA, to realise that he is the meth cook wanted for the potent ‘blue sky’ meth.

In Season 4, Hank shows Walt the evidence garnered from Gale’s murder site, including all of the notes he took of Walt’s cooking method. In one of the notebooks, he finds a note saying, “To W.W. My Star, My Perfect Silence” – considered to be a reference to Walt Whitman.Later, in Season 5, Hank finds Gale’s copy of Leaves of Grass in Walt’s bathroom as he’s rummaging for reading material while he’s on the toilet (an interesting place to set one of the most important scenes of the show in), in which he finds a hand-written dedication saying, “To my other favorite W.W. It’s an honour working with you. Fondly, G.B.”

When He First Heard the Learn’d Astronomer… 

Yet Whitman’s poetry plays a less obvious, yet equally as symbolic, role elsewhere in the show as well.

When Gale starts cooking with Walt, Walt asks him how he became interested in getting into the meth business to begin with. He responds by saying, “I was on my way, jumping through hoops, kissing the proper behinds, attending to all the non-chemistry that one finds oneself occupied by. You know that world. That is not what I signed on for. I love the lab, because it’s all still magic, you know?” This leads him to recite a Whitman poem from Leaves of GrassWhen I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer:

The poem resembles the boredom of being contained in the classroom, in the lecture theater, dealing with all the bureaucracy involved with science, and the corresponding ‘magic’ that scientists find in actually becoming immersed in the subject matter they are learning about. It therefore represents the way both Gale as well as Walt – who himself stands there appreciative of the poem – view cooking meth: not as a crime, not as a morally questionable activity; but rather as the magical process of turning simple chemicals into pharmaceutical gold. They were the drug world’s equivalent  of alchemists, and were doing it not just out of the pursuit of money or power, but also out of the thrill they received from breaking away from the conventional practice of chemistry to leave their own sky blue mark in the field.

This adds an extra dimension to the moment when Walt orders Gale’s murder after finding out Gus Fring’s plans to kill off Walt and Jesse and install Gale as his main cook. Gale was the only other ‘alchemist’ worthy – and willing – to take over Walt’s job. He was also the only one who truly appreciated Walt’s science. This made him a threat to Walt in the cutthroat world of meth-cooking – the consequence of his dream of turning minerals into gold making ‘blue sky’ meth.

His name is Heisenberg, King of Kings

Perhaps the most obvious and important of all the allusions to poetry came in this trailer for the second half of the final season, in which Bryan Cranston recites Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous sonnet Ozymandias.

The poem relays the story of a traveller who comes across an ancient monument in a desolate desert. The legs are all that remains of the monument, which was once a statue of “Ozymandias, King of Kings”.  An inscription on the pedestal reveals that the ancient King once ruled over an empire consisting of works so awe-inspiring that they drove his enemies into despair. The absence of such a mighty civilisation, along with the destruction of his statue, symbolise the fall of the King, along with all that he had accomplished.

The trailer foreshadowed what would turn out to be the collapse of Walt’s empire. After Walt finally reached a point where he was content with his life, and had finished with the meth business, events of his past come back to haunt him like a tidal wave of moral inertia. Slowly, but surely, everything around him begins to crumble at the start of the second half of Season 5, but the beginning of Ozymandias – the episode – marks the point where his empire finally gives way and caves to all the pressure.

All in an instant, Walt’s problems have escalated to the point that now his brother-in-law has been killed because of him, his money has been stolen by a bunch of no-good criminals, he has sent Jesse – who he had tried to treat as a son – to be tortured and killed, and – worst of all – his family, who he has been trying to provide for, despise him.

As a fitting visualisation of this collapse, the scene of the crime in the middle of the Albuquerque desert doubled as the location of Walt and Jesse’s first cook site. Where it initially saw the foundation of Walt’s meth empire, which in many ways was feared and despaired by his adversaries, it ended as the burial site of Hank and Agent Gomes, one final symbol of the destruction wrought by a wrinkled-lipped and sneering Heisenberg Walt – on others and on himself.

I Heard A Fly Buzz – When I Talked About Dying

Some allusions aren’t obvious. They may instead come in the form of homages or pastiches. They could also manifest themselves as what nineteenth century poetry commentator R. F. Thomas called ‘apparent references’: an allusion “which seems clearly to recall a specific model but which on closer inspection frustrates that intention”. In other words, some allusions are hard to determine at all.

One such kind of allusion pervades the Fly episode in Season 3 of Breaking Bad. Made as a bottle episode (an episode showed with a selected amount of sets and actors, to cut back on the show’s spending costs), Fly revolves around the presence of a fly in the meth lab in which Walt and Jesse work in (check out this analysis of it). Walt, with his meticulous attention to detail, worries about the contamination threat posed by the fly, and stalls all production until it is caught and killed. As the episode progresses, it turns out to be a hugely significant experience for both characters, as it involves Walt talking to Jesse for the first time about the moment Jane died.

Rian Johnson directed only three episodes of the show: Ozymandias, Fly and Fifty One. While the first two have been discussed here for their poetic references, Fifty One also features a moment of some poetic significance. At the end of the episode, we see a close up of the watch Jesse bequeaths Walt for his 51st birthday, as its ticks get louder and more ominous. Symbolising the end may be near for Walt, the scene reminds us of this Barry Cornwall poem. It would be too long a bow to draw to call this a direct allusion, however.

But one thing that smacks you in the face as you’re watching this episode is the stark contrast between the meaningful content of the dialogue between the characters and the insignificant plot device of a fly, along with the slapstick humour involved in trying to kill it. Walt and Jesse engage in some of the deepest conversation they ever do on the show, and both are hilariously drawn to near-craziness, all in the pursuit of a fly.

At one moment, Walt discusses his feelings about death, saying that he felt the “perfect moment” for him to die had passed. It was the evening before he had left to drop Jesse’s money off to him – the night he watched on and did nothing as Jane overdosed – when he was at home watching TV and could hear Skyler singing Holly a lullaby. Perhaps this represented to Walt the moment he thought everything began to go wrong in his life. Or it may reflect his only real regret.

Whatever it symbolised, the narrative sounds like a Breaking Bad rendition of Emily Dickinson’s I Heard A Fly Buzz – When I Died. The poem uses the juxtaposition between the deep sentiments of death and mourning and the interposition of a buzzing fly to symbolise the ultimate triviality of death. Walt reduces death to a mere logistic in his ultimate plan – a strategy to provide for his family after he died and to prove to himself his ability to achieve something great. Death was to Walt a means to an end, not an end in itself. It is perhaps this lack of respect for death that allowed Walt to achieve so much, but also to wreck so much damage.

Breaking Bad as poetry

Given that the show adds layers of meaning onto the narrative through literary techniques such as intertextuality, it is like a well constructed piece of poetic prose. On a superficial level, it contains a wicked storyline with characters who develop and become increasingly complex. But if you take the time to read into the ‘lines’ carefully, it completely changes your whole perception of the show. This is essentially what makes poetry, well, poetry; the ability to write something and mean something completely different.

The beauty of poetry is that multiple people can read the same words on a page (or computer screen) and come up with different interpretations of what the words mean. The same can be said for Breaking Bad, though instead of words, it uses a whole range of cinematographic techniques. If you have another interpretation of the show’s meaning(s) (or think I haven’t delved deep enough into the significance of certain devices or themes), feel free to add it in the comments.

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