If you haven’t seen Breaking Bad through Season 5 episode 8, go check out some Walt Whitman poetry.
“To my other favorite W.W.” is written in Walter White’s copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
Walt Whitman’s major work of poetry, Leaves of Grass, has come to represent the contradictory visions of freedom within America. It’s a vision of freedom through spiritual attainment, through a connection with nature, through war, and through hard work — the poems reflect these many visions of freedom. Leaves of Grass has been interpreted in so many ways that it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly he meant in these poems, but it’s clear the poems continue to influence both philosophical and spiritual views of destiny, freedom, life, and death.
AMC’s popular series Breaking Bad is willing to tackle these conflicting views of freedom. It focuses on Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher in his fifties who has lost control over his life’s destiny, as he sees it. At the beginning of the series, Walt is diagnosed with lung cancer. Knowing he might die, and knowing he does not have the money to support his family if he dies, he seeks out a new thrill: cook the best meth in Albuquerque, sell it to drug dealers, and use the money to provide for his family and pay for his cancer treatment.
By Season 5, this is no longer Walt’s motivation. Instead, his motivation is control and greed. Yet Walt operates as if he is entitled to have control, that this control will bring him some type of freedom. This is a conflicting freedom, though, as the more control he has, the more sinister he becomes. His vision of freedom is one of an emperor: freedom through control of others.
This is a major contradiction in the show, and it’s one that the writers have set up on purpose. It’s also a contradiction that frames Whitman’s poetry: freedom is both blessing and curse, and a nation that believes in liberty is also one that suppresses and controls certain parts of its population and goes to war with itself over that control.
Breaking Bad is also a show full of symbolism and poetic imagery: Walt’s copy of Leaves of Grass makes an appearance throughout Season 5 for a reason. This reason is very clearly laid out in episode 8, but even before this, it suggests the philosophical contradictions in Walt’s view of the world.
Throughout Breaking Bad, the poetry of Walt Whitman comes to frame the show’s narrative arc, and Whitman’s lifelong poetic project Leaves of Grass is full of insight into concepts of freedom and the “life” it gives us. Walter White’s belief that controlling his meth empire will bring him freedom contrasts with the idea of freedom in Leaves of Grass, yet Walt keeps trudging away at what he thinks will free him.
It’s important, I think, to take a look at why the show’s writers use Walt Whitman’s poetry, a copy of Leaves of Grass, and Gale’s naive assumptions about freedom to slowly unravel Walt’s broken concept of individuality.
Whitman’s poetry seems to bring insight into Walt’s actions in Season 5. It represents more than a book — the copy of Leaves of Grass Hank finds in the bathroom at the end of episode 8 — it sets up a philosophy and motivating force for Walt as he moves forward with his meth operation and finds that it lacks the meaning and purpose he’d hoped for.
“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”
Leaves of Grass is a long set of poems Walt Whitman revised throughout most of his adult life. Originally published in 1855, Leaves of Grass was revised and published in six editions, and the final “deathbed” edition was published in 1892 after his death that year. Whitman made Leaves of Grass his life’s work. It encompassed so much of his life and his opinions on literature and current events; the poems became his way of explaining life, death, and belief.
There are so many different topics covered in Leaves of Grass: the nature of poetry, the Civil War’s effects on America, the awareness of body, the freedom of the natural landcape, etc. Many of these concepts were established in the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which was composed primarily of his most famous poem, “Song of Myself.” In this poem, Whitman paints a cerebral portrait of America and reveals the interconnectedness of the land and the ideals of individualism. It meanders through the prairie, the mountains, and the forests of America, but always comes back to the poetic first-person narrator: all things experienced externally are also experienced internally.
Before getting into how Whitman’s poetry gets used in Breaking Bad, I think it’s important to look at some lines from Leaves of Grass, first from “Song of Myself” and then from other parts of the collection. In “Song of Myself,” two concepts of freedom emerge: an idea of awareness or transcendence, and an idea of an individualism that honors personal experience over the ideas of sacrifice for the better good of society. One of Whitman’s first lines sets up the basic premise of the poem:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
This conflict between the individual experience and a shared experience itself is unresolved throughout the poem, and later, Whitman writes:
If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of my own body
On the surface, this is a more overt call to individual experiences. In fact, Whitman makes part of the conflict between these ideas part of the poem:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself.
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
“Song of Myself” can be interpreted as a call to experience life, and that through experience, one can find fulfillment and freedom from the mundane.
Clearly, this is a goal for many of the central characters in Breaking Bad. From the very beginning, Walter White’s meth-cooking quest is about more than providing for his family after his death. It becomes a way for him to reclaim and maintain a life where he has control, where he can make decisions freely without worry about the consequences.
It’s not through Walter White that we are first introduced to Whitman’s influence on the themes in this show. Instead, the introduction to Whitman comes through Gale Boetticker in Season 3. As Walt’s presumed successor in Gus Fring’s meth empire, Gale is the perfect contradiction to shake things up in Walt’s world. He is someone who gains Walt’s trust and respect, and the two share similar hopes and dreams. But he is also an adversary, a potential threat to the small steps Walt has taken toward a mythological freedom.
At the end of Season 3, Gale becomes a threat more than a confidant to Walt, whether he know it or not. Gale’s view of freedom is one of self-sufficiency. Cooking crystal meth for a drug kingpin like Gus Fring provides a twisted sense of freedom for Gale because it allows him to do what he does best in an environment free from the constraints of a corporate or governmental organization.
As we discover in Season 4 when Hank and the DEA investigate Gale’s death, Gale’s vision of freedom comes through in a Whitman poem copied in his notebook:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
This concept of “gliding out…off by myself” fits Gale as a character because his vision of freedom is of a spiritual transcendence. Walt Whitman’s idea suggests moving beyond what the “learn’d astronomer” can teach, leaving human cares behind.
This poem suggests a couple things about Gale’s view of Walt: that he sees him as a mentor and as a guide for him to find “freedom” through chemistry. Walt, however, thinks Gale is a threat to his freedom to become self-sufficient and take over the meth operation. The two chemists are at odds with each other, contradicting each others’ visions of what it means to be free along the way.
This idea of “gliding out” also contradicts the poem that comes to represent Walt in Season Five: “Gliding O’er All.” In this poem, Whitman speaks of transcendence in a different way:
Gliding o’er all, through all,
Through Nature, Time, and Space,
As a ship on the waters advancing,
The voyage of the soul—not life alone,
Death, many deaths I’ll sing.
While Gale, symbolically, is content with “gliding out,” Walt is “Gliding o’er all, through all.” In some ways this represents Walt in Season 5: confident, arrogant, controlling, and able to take charge. He thinks he has freedom to be all and to move past any issue, but this confidence is really arrogance that leads to death.
While investigating the Gale Boetticher shooting, Hank discovers sections of this poem with a dedication to “W. W.” Hank doesn’t understand that W. W., and the selections from this poem, are supposed to represent Gale’s libertarian and romanticized visions of freedom — at least, that’s what Walt hints at when he discusses the poems in Gale’s notebook with Hank, who seeks out Walt’s advice.
But the viewer knows otherwise; W. W. can represent both Walt Whitman (literally) and Walter White (figuratively). At this point in the show, Walt has moved one step closer to what he thinks is his freedom: absolute control over his meth empire. Now that Gale — who became a pawn in this battle against Gus Fring and his meth empire — is gone, Walt is closer than ever before to wandering off into “the mystical moist night-air” of his freedom to be what he wants.
The Season 5 Walt is not a naive idealist like Gale, nor is he a calculating and careful leader like Gus. Instead, Walt is a man who thinks he’s won his freedom, as if it’s something he had to fight to attain. Freedom means the ability to control all around him, which is not the freedom Gale wanted.
Of course, this version of freedom is really dangerous hubris, and it begins Walt’s downfall. “Gliding O’er All” is the title of episode 8, and it’s in this episode that Hank finally links Walt to Gale and Gus through the pages of Leaves of Grass.
Gliding O’er All
All of the signals that Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass will reveal a major plot change happens in Season 5 episode 8. The viewer realizes that even though Walt says he’s out (and the viewer might assume he is safe), He has made a major mistake: his pride in keeping his copy of Leaves of Grass will begin Hank’s quest to bring him down and to get his Heisenberg. The viewer also discovers that this copy of Leaves of Grass was a gift to Walt from Gale. At the front of the book, Gale wrote the words “To my other favorite W.W. It’s an honour working with you. Fondly, G.B.”
How we discover this is most interesting: Hank sees the book sitting near the toilet in the Whites’ bathroom. That Walt would be this careless goes to show how far he has come. It seems he’d have noticed this oversight, remembered the conversation he had with Hank in Season 4, and thrown the book away. Instead, he keeps it as a sort of trophy that reminds him of how far he has come.
Or, Walt thinks he has outwitted Hank so well that he holds onto the book as a sense of accomplishment. Either way, the book given to him by Gale is the very thing that brings us to the final chapter in Walt’s meth cooking life.
At the beginning of Season 5, It’s clear Walt wants ultimate control over his destiny. His willingness to kill Gale at the end of Season 3 and to kill Gus at the end of Season 4 suggests that what Walt White thinks is freedom is not the view of freedom that Walt Whitman suggests. Yet Walt fights for this freedom nonetheless, taking what should have been Gale’s right to be free and becoming the very oppressor (Gus) that he fought against.
This all leads us to that pivotal moment in episode 8 when Hank finds a copy of Leaves of Grass in the Walt’s bathroom. At the front is that damning evidence that links Walt to Gale, which links to Gus and the meth empire: Walt is Heisenberg: he is now both brother-in-law and enemy #1.
Which, in a roundabout way, brings us back to Whitman. In “Drum-Taps,” Whitman makes a strong case for the fight that ensues to defend a vision of freedom. Referencing a battle in the Civil War, he writes:
Not the pilot has charged himself to bring his ship into port, though beaten back and many times baffled;
Not the pathfinder penetrating inland weary and long,
By deserts parch’d, snows chill’d, rivers wet, perseveres till he reaches his destination,
More than I have charged myself, heeded or unheeded, to compose a march for these States,
For a battle call, rousing to arms if need be, yeas, centuries hence.
In Season 5, it’s hinted that some type of battle between Walt and someone (probably Hank) will take place in the near future. But what will Walt fight for? Is it truly his freedom, or is it self-preservation? Possibly, it depends on how you envision freedom, contradictions and all.