I just finished the last episode of Breaking Bad, and regardless of whether or not the ending was a letdown, I enjoyed watching the series a lot more than expected. The character arcs were some of the best I’ve ever seen from a television drama, and the unrelenting action and constant plot twists kept me watching, even if I had to limit myself on how many episodes I watched a day because of how dark the show got.
Another part of Breaking Bad that had me hooked was the constant bombardment of symbolism, lack of subtlety aside. From the color yellow in the first season to the recurring painting throughout the series, the show’s writers were more concerned with meaning than method, but did an expert job at inserting vital clues throughout Breaking Bad‘s run-through. In my opinion, the most important conceit in the entire show is Walt Whitman and his poem “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer.”
Just a warning that from here on out this post contains pretty big spoilers, so read at your own discretion.
The first and most obvious connection between the poet and Breaking Bad are their shared namesakes. Walter White, known to most characters on the show as Walt, shares his first name and initials with the famous American poet.
From their, the implications get a little denser. The first appearance Walt Whitman makes in the show is in Episode 6 in Season 3, called “Sunset.” After cooking meth together for the first time, Walt and his new lab partner Gale discuss why they ended up in a mega-lab dedicated to manufacturing drugs. Gale tells Walt that, to him, chemistry is still magic, regardless of its form or intent. Walt agrees, prompting Gale to recite Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer,” a poem about Whitman observing science first through the diagrams of an academic, then through the more organic experience of looking up at the night sky. The poem touches on the incomprehensible aspects of our natural world, ones that elude the theorems and proofs of physicians and mathematicians. These ineffable scientific mysteries attract Gale to the lab, but they also connect to an earlier scene in Breaking Bad.
In Episode 3 of Season 1, called “…and the Bag’s in the River,” Walt experiences a flashback while cleaning up the decomposed body of a drug adversary. In the flashback, Walt and his former company partner and girlfriend Gretchen discuss the composition of the human body. The obvious use of the scene is to juxtapose the scientific breakdown of the human body as Walt is physically scraping up the dissolved parts of his fallen enemy . What was once a theoretical musing becomes a menial application. It’s one thing to discuss the calcium content in our bones, it’s another to clean up a decomposed jaw off the floor.
But the flashback becomes much more than a simple visual device, especially when applied to the later seasons and Walt’s transformation as a character. At the end of the scene, once Walt and Gretchen calculate all the known elements of the body, they come up short of 100 percent. Walt is confused, claiming that “there’s got to be more to a human being than that.” Later in the episode, when Walt experiences the rest of the flashback, Gretchen offers an answer to the missing part of the body: the soul. Walt considers this, but responds that “there’s nothing but chemistry here.”
Maybe that was Walt’s past scientific reasoning denying anything that couldn’t be explained with chemistry, but he clearly changes his mind by the time him and Gale discuss the magic of the lab. And this is where Walt’s eventual character arc fits in.
By the last season of the series, no one is entirely sure why Walt keeps cooking meth. Originally, his plan was to make enough money to ensure his family had enough resources to take care of the impending mortgage and college payments after his terminal cancer killed him. In season 5, however, his cancer seems to be gone, or at least in remission. His wife, and eventually son, hate him and won’t accept his money. So why does he still cook? Can it best be described, in scientific terms, as inertia? Is he too prideful to stop?
I could be grasping at straws, but I think Walt still loves the magic of science, even if he uses it to create an illegal drug and alienate his entire family. He always seems calmer after cooking, especially in season 5. He and Jessie frequently unwind and watch TV after a batch of meth made in some strangers’ fumigated house. The lab represents a refuge away from Walt’s estranged wife Skyler, who feels trapped by her husband’s decision to cook meth under the nose of her DEA agent brother-in-law. But it also represents the incalculable attraction Walt and Gale shared about the magic of chemistry. And, possibly, that’s the part missing from Walt and Gretchen’s composition breakdown of the human body.
Another important thing to keep in mind is how physically important Walt Whitman becomes in the series. Gale gives Walt a copy of Leaves of Grass, the writer’s most notable compilation of poems, in admiration of his work in and love for the lab. When Walt’s brother-in-law DEA agent, Hank, investigates Gale’s murder, he finds a quote from “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer” in the deceased scientist’s journal, along with the initials W.W. Walt tells him the meaning behind this, implicitly connecting him to Gale. In the middle of season 5, Hank finds Walt’s gifted copy of Leaves of Grass, setting off Hank’s suspicions that eventually lead him to figuring out Walt’s secret life.
So, both physically and figuratively, Walt Whitman is the reason for Walt’s demise. If Hank hadn’t found Leaves of Grass, he never would have imagined his brother-in-law being the fabled Heisenberg. Figuratively, if Walt had been able to quit while he still had a family and future, a lot of lives would have been saved and he wouldn’t have to abandon his life. But Walt seemed to love too strongly what Gale and Whitman and Leaves of Grass and “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer” came to represent in the show: that ineffable magic of science. He had to keep coming back, especially when it became the only positive part of his life. He’d lost touch with it after leaving the company he helped create with Gretchen, the one that’s worth worth billions of dollars and won a Nobel Prize. Being a high school chemistry teacher didn’t offer nearly enough scientific gratification for a man as overqualified as Walt. So, he turned to meth, and ended up producing the purest version of the drug ever. Regardless of its outcome, it was the scientific process of creating that drew Walt in. The complicated nature of making a product so pure, of handling such sophisticated lab equipment, of the application of the chemistry he believes is magic.
In a show that became so characteristically dark and ugly, I think the presence of Whitman and his poetry reveal a lot of beauty hidden within the black heart of Breaking Bad. I picture Walt, in the process of cooking his product, stopping for a second, considering the missing components of the human body, and looking up, in perfect silence, at the magic he’s enacting. It’s a living poem worthy of any Whitman work.