Walter White is the main character in Breaking Bad. We see him go through a series of transformations, starting with the protagonist to the antagonist. He’s a chemistry teacher and family man who gets diagnosed with lung cancer and decides to start manufacturing crystal meth so that he can pay for his chemotherapy and provide financial security for his family after he’s dead. Not your typical mid-life crisis. We also delve into Carl’s Jung idea of the shadow.
“That which we do not bring to consciousness appears in our lives as fate.”
- Carl Jung
Keywords: Breaking Bad, Walter White, Carl Jung, the Shadow
The character I have chosen to analyze is Walter White. He’s the main character from the hit show Breaking Bad on Netflix.
Walter grows up as an only child. His father dies when he’s very young and we never actually see his mother on screen. At the university, he excels in chemistry and his contribution to a research helps his team win a Nobel Prize. He co-founds a tech company with his then-girlfriend and research assistant Gretchen, and a school friend named Elliot. After spending July 4th weekend with Gretchen’s family, for some reason, he then sells his shares for only $5,000 and walks out of the company. Gretchen then gets married to Elliot and together they make a fortune from Walter’s research. Even though Walter is no longer a part of the company, they still remain acquaintances.
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Walter is married to a woman named Skyler. They have a teenage son (Walter Jr.) who has cerebral palsy and they’re expecting another child who enters the picture at the end of Season Two. He is a brilliant and overqualified high school chemistry teacher who doesn’t seem to be respected by his students as they hardly pay attention to him while he lectures. Unfortunately, the teaching job doesn’t pay enough, and he has to get a second job at a carwash to be able to provide for his family. His wife Skyler also, has a sister Marie, who is a kleptomaniac and Marie’s husband Hank is a DEA officer.
Skyler throws Walter a surprise 50th birthday party at their home. On tv, they see a drug bust on the news and discuss the obscene amounts of money which are confiscated. Hank offers to take Walter on a ride along for the next sting operation. The next day while Walter is working at the carwash, he faints and is taken to the hospital by ambulance. There he finds out that he has lung cancer and about 2 years left to live. With a teenage son with cerebral palsy and, another baby on the way, he is worried about his family and wants to make sure they are well taken care of financially after he dies.
He blackmails and entails the help of a former student named Jesse for a meth-making business. Walter uses his chemistry know-how to manufacture some of the purest meth made. They start manufacturing and distributing the meth all the while dodging problem after problem. Soon after they become embroiled with the drug underworld as things get complicated. After a lot of twists and turns, the show ends with Walter dying in the meth lab, ironically the same place where he once felt alive.
The Carl Jung Theory
What can cause a man to change like that? Or has Walter always been a bad guy? Can a person be evil and nice at the same time? His transformation was the main reason I decided to write about him. You see him start off as the protagonist and end up as the antagonist, all within a span of a year. The actual transformation is over the course of 5 seasons, but the actual time lapse in his lifespan, it’s about a year. We see him go from being an overqualified meek high school chemistry teacher to becoming a cold-blooded international drug lord. We witness Walter’s complete disregard for others in his pursuit of money. We take a look at Carl Jung’s ideas on the shadow (the monster that lurks deep in people’s repressed consciousness) for some analysis of Walter’s character..
Carl Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist and a pioneer of modern theories in the concept of archetypes and relationship between the conscious and unconscious. He, along with Freud, is considered to be one of the founding fathers of modern psychology. His theory of the Collective Unconscious which affects our relationships laid the groundwork for the Meyers-Briggs personality tests as well as the word association test. Jung believed that our past experiences and aspirations determine our future behavior. He also placed emphasis on the importance of the unconscious mind and the different archetypes. Carl Jung speaks of the alter ego or the enemy within, which he refers to as the shadow. The shadow is the dark side of the personality, which is similar to the concept Freud had of the “ID”. Jung termed the word shadow based on the idea that people were driven by unconscious principles. The shadow is that aspect of our psyche that we’re not very proud of. Walter White’s character is probably the best portrayal of a man who never made amends with his dark side and ended up spiraling out of control until his shadow takes over bringing him down, including those around him. Jung treated these people by paying more attention to future development than simply dealing with their pasts. He tried to figure out what the symptoms symbolized and hoped to work with them from that angle. His historical studies helped him establish the psychotherapy for the middle-age and elderly, especially those that had lost the meaning of life.
You can sense Walters view of morals is slightly skewed even from the beginning. For example, when he takes his brother in law’s offer for the ride along at a drug bust he sees a former student of his, Jesse, trying to escape but doesn’t say anything. Instead of bringing it, up with Hank, he chooses to confront student Jessie and proposes that they go into business together. Manufacturing and selling crystal meth. When he sees there’s a slight possibility that Jesse might refuse he blackmails him by threatening to turn him over to the police.
After they manufacture their first batch of meth, they get into their first altercation with rival gangsters. This is where Walter experience has his first kill. You see him struggle with the decision of murder when he makes a list of reasons of why he should or shouldn’t go through with it. But later on, when he realizes that it’s either kill or be killed, he manages to strangle the guy to death. Though in the beginning he is quite shaken up about it that feeling doesn’t last long. The experience of killing someone has sparked something inside of him and later when he goes home, he makes aggressive love to his wife. Notice this is not a typical reaction one should have. There is something to be said for his overall lack of empathy and fluid morality that keeps growing inside of him until he becomes a deadly force to reckon with.
One has to realize there is no duality here. There is no good vs. bad. People are not one dimensional. Cancer was just a ploy to unleash the beast within. After all, Walter starts off as a good guy. He’s a family man. He’s a good husband and a good father and wants to be known as a good provider for his family. Then he gets the news that he is struck by cancer. So now Walter feels like the victim and if you think about it if you feel like you’re the victim and that you got the raw end of a deal and everyone else has it better than you then it’s just easier to become a bad guy. You see, no one is inherently good or bad. We all have a shadow we keep locked within and under the right circumstances, any one of us can turn into a completely amoral person.
With death looming over him, it also makes him realize that he has no control over what happens to him. When people often feel like they have lost the ability to control their fate and outcome, they tend to become more selfish and aggressive. You turn towards anything that might be able to help you retain some form of control. He also feels like he has nothing left to lose. People who have nothing to lose tend to be more reckless and take bigger risks. I don’t know if things would have been different, had he not had cancer, but logically speaking, he would have had a lot more things to lose and probably would not have taken such high risks of manufacturing meth.
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As the series progresses Walter’s shadow keeps getting stronger and stronger. We could blame this change in personality on cancer, after all, cancer is the catalyst for him to get into the drug business, but his narcissistic tendencies were always there buried deep within. Even being a school teacher which is quite a step down from being a Nobel Prize chemist, comes with a dose of narcissism. Being a teacher puts him in a position of admiration from his students. Although when he sees that he is not being respected by his students he is just as quick to become quite rude and dismissive.
If you look at Jung’s archetype of the shadow, you can see fragments of those symptoms throughout the show and Walters personality. Walter feels like a failure and this opportunity gives him the pride, power, and respect that he so desperately wants and believes he deserves, especially since he feels that he has been screwed over, undervalued, and overlooked. He justifies all of his malevolent moves by claiming that he is doing this for his family and for their future. He uses this altruistic excuse to hide his greed for unfettered power fueled by the desire to dominate others. Knowing that he is able to make the purest meth possible has fueled has pleasure center and continues to inflate his ego.
Later on, even when he has enough money for his cancer treatment and his family, he still continues with the meth business. Only this time it’s not for the money but only to stroke his ego since being the best at something has become the highlight of his life. He makes the best damn meth anyone has ever seen and he knows it. For everything he has been cheated out of, he feels redemption.
He lacks empathy and remorse. He has an impaired ability to identify with the needs of others. He doesn’t seem to recognize or care about other people’s feelings. Even the relationship with his wife ends up with a need for personal gain as they later separate and go their own ways.
We cannot dismiss the change in Walters personality as a normal development due to a medical condition. Yes, he has cancer but not everyone who has cancer ends up as a drug baron. And you see proof of that at the end when he finally admits that he did it for himself because he liked it and because he was good at it. His has delusions of grandeur. He’s always had a rocky relationship with Jesse since the way they got into the business was through blackmail and throughout the series we can see that things don’t really change. Walter is constantly insulting and blaming Jesse for something. Any failures our mistakes that’s Walter makes are often blamed on Jessie. And even though they are partners, Walter clearly sees Jesse as inferior to him. It’s a very dysfunctional relationship where he can’t live with Jesse or without him.
It’s very clear there Walter thinks very highly of himself. After all, he is a genius who can cook mind-blowing high-grade pure meth. But beyond that, there is nothing really that special about him. Walter shows his egotistical and arrogant side when he and Skyler must buy a business to launder their drug money and he wants to buy the same car wash where he used to work just because the owner of the carwash had insulted him. His ego is also the reason he cannot accept help from anyone making him look like a charity case.
You see Walters evolve as the show goes on. Whereas in season 1 he struggles with the idea of killing someone, by the fourth season he doesn’t even give it a second thought. Not only does he lack a complete sense of remorse but the position of being a drug lord is so psychologically rewarding to him that it completely numbs any sort empathy for others.
The diagnosis of lung cancer has caused him to become anxious and adopt a string of defensive behavior types in order to protect himself and his family. You see this throughout the series when he displays perfectionist character traits of when it comes to his work. Even if there’s a slight mistake while he’s cooking the meth, he needs to start all over again.
You also see shades of Freud’s Id and Ego. The strain between Walter’s Id and Ego are so intense, that he has no choice but to create an alternate identity for himself known as Heisenberg. This persona gives him the freedom and space required to be morally corrupt without it ever having to overlap into his actual identity. At the beginning of the transformation, we are aware of the fact that he’s taking on this persona in order to keep it a secret from his family and to seem tough to the other criminals around him. In what you might call a Freudian slip, he also manages to adopt a trait from each of his victims. For example, his first victim liked his sandwiches without the crust. Later on, we see, Walter, eating sandwiches with the crust cut off. This could his subconscious making an effort to cope with the killing.
Chemistry is the study of change. In a way, his job was the center part of the narrative, both the reason he becomes a drug dealer and the type of man that would be powerful in that business. This was a man who lived by the law his entire life. He worked hard and yet barely made enough to get by. Nobody, not even his own family respected him. When he started living outside of the law, he had respect and he instilled fear into everyone he came into contact with. He felt in control and powerful. Whether Walter’s transformation is just the natural consequence of his experiences or the understanding of his real world is still one of the best surviving arguments. It’s a role whose numerous faults and strengths serve as both the cautionary tale and a testament to the way art forms our understanding of the world.
Jung explains that no one is inherently good or evil. We all have a shadow we keep locked within. Under the right circumstances, the shadow may manifest itself, clouding our judgment or perhaps guiding us down that behavioral path. Walter’s shadow was a proud, greedy and angry one from the beginning. He had put a heavy lid on his shadow or at least that’s what he thought. It took just a brush with cancer for him to discover, integrate with and fully enjoy his shadow; fully enjoy being whole again after so long.
- “Carl Jung.” Britannica, Jul. 2018, www.britannica.com/biography/Carl-Jung. Accessed 08 Dec. 2018.
- Franz, Marie-Louise von (September 1972). Patterns of Creativity Mirrored in Creation Myths (Seminar series). Spring Publications.
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