Breaking Bad and Classic Literature: Where Walter White, Anthony Burgess, and Jay Gatsby Meet

When going the indie route in publishing a book, one relies on the kindness (and critiques) of their friends.
While some works allow for a large number of beta readers, niche books are fortunate to find a few good men and women to look over their words before they’re released to the masses.
Since I wrote a final chapter for The Gospel According to Breaking Bad following the series’ conclusion, I had to find a few people that had finished the show and were interested in my take on it. I asked Aaron Wedemeyer, a former high school classmate turned high school English teacher, to take time out of his busy grading schedule to peruse my last chapter. Greedily, I also requested his take on the finale.[ref](As if he hadn’t already given me enough encouragement with his gracious review of The Gospel According to Breaking Bad).[/ref]
He provided me with his “half-baked” thoughts, which I assured him beforehand that they would be much more baked than what had already been written about Breaking Bad‘s finale.
His insights were fascinating, so much so that I came very close to including the following in the final chapter of book. Fortunately, he’s allowed me to post his thoughts here. And yes, here’s your requisite spoiler alert if you still haven’t finished the series.[ref]RYAN![/ref]

You asked for my thoughts on the finale, so here goes. 

Just yesterday, I finished my month-long journey through Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. I’d seen Kubrick’s film adaptation, but had never read the novel. You? The story was interesting, and what Burgess does with language is fairly revolutionary. But I was most intrigued by his own introduction/foreword.

If you’re not familiar with the story, it traces several years in the life of a teenage hooligan. In the first part of the novel, the hoodlum protagonist Alex and his buds are bent on performing all sorts of evil: assaulting innocent pedestrians, raping young women, even murdering an old lady while robbing her house.

Eventually, Alex is arrested and incarcerated, and after spending a couple of years in prison, he is offered release, if he will agree to undergo a new brain-washing/conditioning procedure proven to cure him of his violent proclivities.

He assents, and sure enough, the procedure works; even the thought of violence causes Alex to feel pangs of nausea. At the end of the novel, however, after Alex attempts to commit suicide by jumping from an apartment building, his doctors—at the behest of the state, which fears public backlash for championing this new procedure—re-condition Alex to, once again, lust after violence.

In the introduction, Burgess explains that, because the New York publisher in the ’60s preferred a “Nixonian book with no shred of optimism in it” over a “Kennedyan” work that “accepted the notion of moral progress,” the original American publication of A Clockwork Orange ends there, with Alex as unregenerable and depraved. The actual full version of the novel, however, which was published in Britain and elsewhere, ends with one more chapter, wherein Alex grows weary of his return to violent debauchery and comes to the realization that life might be more purposeful if aimed at creation and not destruction. (Hopefully, my ramblings, in light of the Breaking Bad finale, are finally starting to make sense to you.)

Here’s the part of Burgess’s introduction that made me think of Vince Gilligan’s goal for Walter White:

The twenty-first chapter gives the novel the quality of genuine fiction, an art founded on the principle that human beings change. There is, in fact, not much point in writing a novel unless you can show the possibility of moral transformation, or an increase in wisdom, operating in your chief character or characters. Even trashy bestsellers show people changing. When a fictional work fails to show change, when it merely indicates that human character is set, stony, unregenerable, then you are out of the field of the novel and into that of the fable or the allegory. The American or Kubrickian Orange is a fable; the British or world one is a novel.

…By definition, a human being is endowed with free will. He can use this to choose between good and evil. If he can only perform good or only perform evil, then he is a clockwork orange—meaning that he has the appearance of an organism lovely with colour and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil or (since this is increasingly replacing both) the Almighty State. It is as inhuman to be totally good as it is to be totally evil. The important thing is moral choice. Evil has to exist along with good, in order that moral choice may operate. Life is sustained by the grinding opposition of moral entities. This is what the television news is about. Unfortunately there is so much original sin in us all that we find evil rather attractive. To devastate is easier and more spectacular than to create. We like to have the pants scared off us by visions of cosmic destruction. To sit down in a dull room and compose the Missa Solemnis or The Anatomy of Melancholy does not make headlines or news flashes. Unfortunately my little squib of a book was found attractive to many because it was as odorous as a crateful of bad eggs with the miasma of original sin.

Even more than A Clockwork Orange and Burgess’s introduction, the Breaking Bad finale really reminded me, in several ways, of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. (Maybe only because every truly modern American tale finds its roots in Gatsby.)

Walter White and Tony Montana are near-dopplegangers for Jay Gatsby. All three attempt to reject the reality of their humble beginnings and are blinded by their fantasies of the American Dream. Each, it could be argued, is motivated less by money and materialism than by the need to feel significant, relevant. All three are, ultimately, discontented with their attainment of the fantasy and then disillusioned with and finally, I think, liberated from their respective dreams just prior to their deaths.

This last bit, the idea that these protagonists are freed from the burden of their dreams immediately before being shot to death (the quintessential American death, if ever there was one), is what really struck me as similar. (I’m referring mostly to the parallel between Gatsby and Walt Sr. at this point; it’s been too long since I’ve seen Scarface to know if Tony M’s pre-death moments follow this pattern. However, if you want a third American male protagonist who follows the pattern, may I submit American Beauty‘s Lester Burnham.)

As you pointed out in your chapter, Walt seems to spend the final episode shedding his fantasy and accepting his reality. Lester B., shortly before being shot in the back of the head, while gazing wistfully at a family photo, has certainly dumped his stupid fantasy and appears ready to rejoin the land of the living.

And then there’s Gatsby, who, floating in his pool moments before his demise, is described by Nick in this way:

I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe [a phone call from Daisy] would come and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about…

I believe that this “unfamiliar sky,” this “raw sunlight,” this “new world” is unencumbered reality, which Gatsby is seeing for the first time in a very, very long time.

It’s also significant where these characters die. Gatsby perishes in the symbolic fulfillment of his American Dream (his pool); Walt Sr. in the means of attaining his American Dream (a meth lab); and Lester B. in the place where his American Dream resided all along (at the kitchen table). Both Tony Montana and Gatsby die in water, perhaps baptized and absolved of, if not their sins, then at least their fantasies. Both Walter White and Lester Burnham die in pools of their own blood, which might be significant, but I’m not sure.

My point, I think, is that all four characters finally find redemption, not so much in their physical deaths as in their fantastical deaths and, ultimately, in their last moment’s peace and grace.

I told Aaron to start working on a book or two, because I could read his stuff all day long.