So many roads, so much at stake
So many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake
Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take
To find dignity
Every day, there is a moment in which our dignity is called into question – a boss asking us to work overtime without pay so he can go home early; a doctor forcing us to wait more than 30 minutes before we’re allowed to enter her office; a phone call to a customer service line that results in a waterfall of answering machines. I like to operate under the basic assumption that “we’re all in it together,” and in these moments when I feel more like a cow than a person, this assumption is put to the test. We want our boss to pay us, the doctor to cure us, and the customer service rep to refund us, and we understand that to get these things, we need to “play by the rules” and accept whatever cattle-like treatment that those in power decide to dish out. In today’s world, our dignity is constantly challenged by the things surrounding us. How we respond to these challenges goes a long way towards defining who we are, and our response is largely based on how we perceive the rules and obligations of the the world around us.
Our lives are governed by a complex system of rules and regulations, a system created by the evolution of rituals, traditions, and social customs. The unwritten agreement to adhere to this complex system of rules, both written and unwritten, is called the “social contract”.
Rousseau’s 1762 Treatise “The Social Contract” clarifies:
“In order to accomplish more and remove himself from the state of nature, man must enter into a Social Contract with others. In this social contract, everyone will be free because all forfeit the same amount of freedom and impose the same duties on all. Rousseau also argues that it is illogical for a man to surrender his freedom for slavery; and so, the participants must be free. Furthermore, although the contract imposes new laws, especially those safeguarding and regulating property, a person can exit it at any time (except in a time of need, for this is desertion), and is again as free as when he was born.”
Thus, we agree to forfeit some amount of freedom in order to escape the “state of nature.” By waiting patiently at a red traffic light, we are less likely to end up in a collision while crossing the intersection. Those who sign the social contract get the security of police protection, a steady paycheck, and food on the table. Those who refuse to sign are on their own — murder, robbery, and all of the things that make life “brutish, nasty, and short” are all fair game.
“Breaking Bad” is an exploration of dignity and the social contract. What is the freedom we sacrifice when we agree to play by the rules? And what do these rules actually say? In the pilot episode of the series, the hero “breaks bad” and rejects the social contract in modern America, setting off on a journey which explores the consequences of breaking the rules. Is it possible that those who break the social contract live a more dignified, more respectable existence than those who try their best to be “good citizens”?
When I was 25, I had just graduated with a Master’s Degree in Computer Science and taken a job, abandoning the Ph.D. I was pursuing when my advisor left for another university. I took my first “real” job, writing computer programs at a major hospital in Los Angeles, unaware of the bureacracy and inefficiency I would face. I became a cog in the huge wheel of a non-profit corporation through in which billions of dollars flowed, forced to take my place amongst an army of employees patiently awaiting their mortgage payments and coffee breaks. Ambition was not welcome. It seemed no matter how hard I worked or whatever brilliant idea I came up with, the machinery’s inertia gobbled up my ambition and kept on churning, unaffected by my insignificant personal contributions.
Not coincidentally, my evenings were spent searching for something where ambition and talent were rewarded. The world of gambling, where the dollar was more important than your age or your job title, promised a better reward for my efforts than my workplace. In the world of gambling, there is no bureaucracy, there are no politics. In the world of gambling, the cold, hard world of mathematics, risk, and reward are the only rules to be followed. A gambler with the courage to use knowledge and skill, as well as the heart to take calculated risks, will find this courage rewarded. Unlike the corporate world, there is no limit for the financial reward that talent and bravery can bring, and these qualities are rewarded in a way that seems just and dignified. You bet as much as you want, and if you win, you’re paid out according to the agreed-upon odds of the bet.
In a typical 9 to 5 job, no matter how much skill and courage Johnny Employee exhibits, the reward for extraordinary talent and courage is at best a pat on the back, and more frequently a collection of frowns and sighs from those trying to quiet the rocking of the boat. In the world of gambling, the house pays out the winners, and there isn’t even a boat to rock.
From 9 to 5, I would do my best impression of a cog in the machine, occasionally rising up on my hind legs to rock the boat when I felt my humanity fading away. At night, I would use my cultivated knowledge (finally a use for my 20 years of studying math and computers) in the dignified world of gambling, where bravery and talent are rewarded fairly. It took some time to get adjusted to the swings generated by the “luck factor,” but in time I was able to understand how much luck contributed to a win or loss. Eventually, when the adrenaline from the risk settled down and I was able to combine practical experience with theoretical knowledge, I earned far more per hour gambling than I did working.
When you’re earning more in a few hours by gambling than you are paid by your employer for a day’s work, you begin to change your perspective on “work”. You begin to realize that the rules and regulations created by your employer, especially the ones that make you feel less dignified, become much easier to ignore.
“Breaking Bad” is about a man who becomes a “double agent” — a loyal family man who “pretends” to be a criminal — in an attempt to live a dignified life in which his knowledge, courage, and spirit are rewarded “justly” according to his conception of the way the world “should” work. The title of the show comes from a phrase in a dialogue in which the main character, Walter White, a 50 year old high school chemistry teacher and hard-luck-everyman whose dignity has recently been crushed, is asked to explain his newfound hobby (cooking meth) by a young methamphetamines dealer and new partner:
Jesse Pinkman: “Nah come on… man, some straight like you giant stick up his ass… all of a sudden at age what, 60, he’s just going to break bad?
Jesse, someone who has no real interest in the social contract, suspects Walter as a “spy”. Why would a champion of the social contract, an honest and hard working family man, rip up the contract and ignore everything he has believed for his entire life?
The viewer’s exploration of the answer to this question guides the show. We welcome Walter’s courage to break bad and throw off the shackles that come with life under the social contract, because all of us feel the urge to do the same every time our dignity is challenged in our everyday life. Usually, paying the rent is more important to us than telling our boss that he can clean the toilet himself, but it is easy for us to live vicariously through a character who decides to “break bad” and rip up the social contract. This character archetype has always been one of my favorites: from Robin Hood to Michael Douglas in Falling Down, you can’t help cheer for the guy taking a bat to the thieves of dignity. But that’s the easy part of the story… what about the consequences? Is breaking the rules really worth it?
The most interesting aspect of the show is watching the changes in our meek everyman, Walter White, as he navigates the world outside the social contract. Once our hero “breaks bad,” he is free to stand up for himself, to defend the dignity that has been taken from him on a daily basis. After Walter discovers that he has terminal lung cancer and has only two years to live, he is “awakened,” (he will later exclaim “I am awake” when trying to explain his transformation to his partner Jesse). The awareness of that “life is short” has woken from his slumber.
The benefits of adhering to the social contract now gone, Walter chooses to become a criminal in order to provide a future for his family, accepting the “brutish, nasty, and short” life in spectacular fashion:
- He flips out on his annoying boss at his car wash job, knocking things off the shelf as he quits the job in a blaze of dignified glory
- He pins a young bully’s leg to the ground and challenges him to a fight after the bully openly mocks his handicapped son, garnering the gratitude of his son
- He gives his annoying wife “the business” after an earlier scene suggesting that Walter is sexually submissive, prompting her to spout happily “Is that really you?”
While these “heroic” defenses of dignity are clichéd, they are nonetheless entertaining to watch. The pilot ends with Walter’s manly act in the bedroom, and we are led to believe that his transformation to a dignified “real man” is complete. The social contract has been ripped up, and for now, dignity has been restored. We are left with many questions, which we assume will be addressed in the upcoming episodes. What consequences for his actions will Walter face? Is it possible to live a dignified life outside the social contract? Do we need heroes that live outside the law? Morally should we applaud him or condemn him for breaking bad? What would happen to the world if all of us broke bad?
I liked playing poker a lot. I thought about becoming a “pro,” but in the end, I couldn’t justify spending time and effort sitting at a table and hoping some rich drunk guy would give me his money. There is a reason that they call these guys “producers” — these guys (some of them anyway) are out in the real world earning money by creating something of value to people. Accountants, Stockbrokers, Poker Players… I didn’t see anything wrong with getting paid for being smarter than the guys across the table from you, but it just wasn’t for me. I wanted to use my knowledge and talent to be a part of creating something original that would “make the world a better place” somehow.
So what does this have to do with “Breaking Bad” and Walter White?
Both Walter and I are similar in that we value the social contract. We believe that we really are “all in it together,” and that agreeing to the social contract is necessary in order for us to feel good about ourselves. But sometimes, you wonder what it would be like to break the rules and get that “surrendered freedom” back. I guess I’ll always wonder what my life would have been like if I had chosen to be a professional poker player, but I don’t think I would have lasted very long. The problems and suffering that would have come with this lifestyle– earning money doing something I didn’t believe in– wouldn’t have been worth the freedom I gained. Watching Walter White made me feel like he’s in the same boat.