'Breaking Bad': Philosophers Tackle Heisenberg in Book (Q&A)

Issue 29B Emmys EP Wow Moments Pg 8 Breaking Bad - H 2013
Ursula Coyote/AMC

Issue 29B Emmys EP Wow Moments Pg 8 Breaking Bad - H 2013

Breaking Bad is full of schemers, thinkers and plenty of moral dilemmas. So it's quite appropriate that the AMC hit spawned a book looking at the philosophical implications of the show.

Breaking Bad and Philosophy: Badder Living Through Chemistry features the musings of 22 thinkers who look at the ethical issues raised by the program, and The Hollywood Reporter caught up with three of them to get their takes on the show's legacy as it continues to unveil its final eight episodes.

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Below find THR's conversation with associate professor of philosophy at the Delft University of Technology David Koepsell; Oli Mould, human geography lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London; and Sara Waller, associate professor of philosophy at Montana State University.

Breaking Bad and Philosophy is part of the long-running Popular Culture and Philosophy series and is available from Open Court.

The Hollywood Reporter: There have been additional episodes since you wrote your piece for the book. Has seeing more of Walt's journey changed what you originally wrote? 

David Koepsell: This season has especially reinforced my perceptions of Walt's and Jesse's moral statuses. Walt has shown that he has completely adopted a utilitarian perspective in which he will do anything to ensure that he and his family keep the money he made, and that anyone who gets in his way will be stopped by any means necessary. Jesse has shown he truly is haunted by his crimes, even as minimal as they are compared to Walt's. Jesse proves to be the most morally admirable of the bunch, except for maybe Hank.

THR: Is there anything else on TV that compares to Breaking Bad, as far as its philosophical implications?

Sara Waller: We live in an age in which many great writers work in television. Mad Men features characters that press us to ask questions about the relationship between social roles, rationality and emotion, as well as about race, gender and sexuality. The Newsroom presses us to re-think how we cope with our personal relationships against the backdrop of high-pressure political news. But Breaking Bad really forces us to re-construct for ourselves the lines between good and evil, need and desire, business transaction and friendship.

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THR: Why do you think Breaking Bad resonates so strongly with its audience?

Ray Bossert: We identify with Walter White's relationship with Heisenberg -- we all have a Heisenberg in us, and we all feel a desire to let it rise to the surface. But we’re also afraid that letting it out will turn us into something horrible.

Koepsell: Because Walt begins the series as a sort of everyman, someone many people can identify with, who seems to have basically played by the rules but has been cheated out of any distinction. I think this is a common self-perception, and especially, as we write, in recessionary times, his journey from nebbish to kingpin is compelling and attractive, even as we grow to loathe him for his cold-heartedness.

THR: What was the most surprising thing you learned from contributing to the book?

Mould: When I delved deeper into the show to write the chapter, I re-watched scenes multiple times to catch the nuances of the dialogue, and the cinematography. In doing so, I was increasingly impressed with how well the show is directed and scripted. No dialogue is unnecessary -- there seems to be a "less is more" attitude to the script, and this is something that was not evident upon first viewing, to me anyway. 

Koepsell: The degree to which the show has reached into the popular consciousness. When I first proposed the book, it had not yet reached the level of success it has now, though it was critically acclaimed. I have been pleasantly surprised to see it resonate so deeply with such a broad audience.

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THR: What is your favorite Breaking Bad episode or scene?

Koepsell: My favorite episode is "Face Off," where Walt triumphs over Gus, and shows at the same time just how low he can go ... though he would obviously surpass it. My favorite scene is in "Fly," where he is chasing the fly in Gus' lab. It shows an obsessive and dangerous desperation to his character.

Mould: My favorite episode has to be "Salud." The climax to the episode where the cartel are poisoned is so shocking, yet expertly directed that it is highly believable despite the rather far-fetched concept. But another reason why it is such a good episode, particularly in relation to my chapter in the book about Walter's descent into the real, is the conversation between Walt and Walt Jr. The morning after the night when Walt was crying, and lying in his underwear on the couch. He asks his son not to remember him like that. Walt Jr.'s reply is, "Why not? Last night you were real." Given that this episode aired after I wrote my chapter, this line by itself shows that perhaps I was on to something.

Waller: I agree with a lot of fans that the “Say my name” scene is one of the most powerful moments in the series. It shows Heisenberg’s dominance when he’s recognized by underworld drug lords who are otherwise anonymous to him. To be acknowledged is an almost universal desire of Western culture. To command acknowledgement is a pretty deep fantasy. But it also sneaks in a degree of vulnerability. The underworld knows Heisenberg -- not Walter White. Acknowledgement has come at the cost of self-destruction. It's a big question for an American society so steeped in celebrity culture.

E-Mail: Aaron.Couch@THR.com
Twitter: @AaronCouch