Walter White Meets Dostoevsky

(Spoilers to ensue)

Ever since this Malcolm in the Middle "Bryan Cranston" guy treacherously robbed Terry O'Quinn of his rightful Emmy in 2010, I vowed to hate him and his work. Man, was I biased! Sure, O'Quinn's John Locke is great, but if you've watched but just one episode of Breaking Bad, you can justifiably say that you've caught a glimpse of greatness. Now, don't get me wrong, this post is NOT a praise for Breaking Bad. The greatness I'm referring to is simply in Cranston's acting and portrayal of the character Walter White.

Cranston's acting rightfully enthralls our attention, but what's more is his character's gravitas. In case you might be checking out already, know one more thing - this post is NOT a praise of all things acting, Bryan Cranston, nor Walter White. Whether you're the reluctant viewer, or the ardent fan, I simply and briefly want to shed light on one connection to the tour de force that is the fictional character known as "Walter White".

If you're like I was, you might've watched an episode - or maybe an entire season - and thought "Why am I watching this train wreck?!" To that, honestly, I still don't have a full answer. There are many explanations out there, but still - after finishing the entire series - I'm left wanting an explanation to "who exactly Walter White is to the viewer?"

I've spent a couple of years now looking for this.

  • Is he the modern day Achilles?

    Showing us the folly of being infatuated with leaving behind a legacy or empire...

  • Is he the modern day Dr. Jekyll?

    Teaching us just how uncontrollable an alter ego or "false self" can be if left unchecked...

  • Is he the modern day Sauroman?

    Portraying a turn-coat who will be what he needs to be for his audience - ultimately, all out of an ulterior motive.

I'm sure there can be dozens of similarities. However, like I said, I'm not going to pretend to perfectly address and lay out all of the things that Walter White can be. But there is one striking thing that he is: alone. Enter Dostoevsky.

Mikhail Bakhtin said that within Dostoevsky's works we can be taught that,

The ideas lives not in one person's isolated individual consciousness - if it remains there only, it degenerates and dies.

Simply put, all of his works have multiple voices/characters interacting with one another for their own betterment and maturation. All but two have this literary approach. And of those two, one is the famous Crime and Punishment.

In it, Raskolnikov, the protagonist, like Walter, thinks that in all of his brilliance he capable of "executing" the perfect crime. Needing to keep the details to himself, lest someone lesser spoil the brilliance, two things quickly begin to unfold: 1) his plan proves to be a bit too much, as things start to snowball quickly, and 2) he begins to go mad with paranoia, even becoming obsessive compulsive, and lonely.

As I mentioned, this is a stark contrast to the norm of Dostoevsky's protagonists. The typical m.o. is shifted in Raskolnikov, which is where Bakhtin's theory gains much traction. Stories like these are not simply tragedies, leaving their readers to answer the question of "How do I prevent that?!" But they are lessons that teach the soul how to be nourished. Sure, I don't want to end up shot like Walter. So, what Dostoevsky's works offer is an aid to the soul to help it recognize what should be the larger desire: "What can I do instead of shooting myself like Walter had?"

His plan... his selfish, power-mongering "formula" resulted in (unintentional) suicide - and therein his story ends. This is no more coincidental than Dostoevsky's "just happening" to write Crime and Punishment differently than his other stories. What I simply want to suggest is that Walter and Raskolnikov both offer their fans the truth of how imperative fellowship is. Without it, we die... so to speak.

Alone, our soul coldly floats aimlessly in an infinite universe without any bearing. It remains dry and parched, traversing its given deserts in solitude. Alone, it has no perspective.

So, again, I don't have an exhaustive write-up on the psychological, philosophical, or aesthetic value of Breaking Bad... just an observation on the importance of allowing the soul to be in dialogue with others. Can we apply any one of our given virtue-ethic paradigms to this t.v. show? Of course. But we must be watchful, lest virtue remain an isolated vehicle for self-bolstering - like Walter's desire to "do for family". So, again yes, but we must ask ourselves if there are ways that we can more aptly use these paradigms? And I say yes only if it is anchored to our innate need for living openly with others. Virtue is a societal experience. So, while you're watching Walter White or reason about Raskolinkov, and hope to not "turn out" like them, reflect on this:

The idea begins to live, that is, to take shape, to develop, to find and renew its verbal expression, to give birth to new ideas, only when it enters into genuine dialogic relationships with other ideas, with the ideas of others. - Bakthin (Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics)