Sometimes a TV show crawls into your bed.
Lately, I have (unfortunately) been bunking with Walter White.
In fact, Walt doesn't just stay under the covers. He's with me in the morning as I shave. He wanders in and out of my consciousness as I drive to work. He even follows me into my youngest daughter's room at night as she and I watch a rerun of The Wonder Years.
And that is creepy. I don't want Walter White anywhere near me, and I certainly don't want him and his maddeningly calm and manipulative voice in my daughter's room. I'd rather have Freddy from Nightmare on Elm Street, or even that creep with the pins in his face from Hellraiser. Those monsters I understand. But Walter White? Well, he's....he's....
He's a traffic accident.
The brilliance of Breaking Bad (and it is, arguably, the best and darkest and most uncomfortably believable story ever to be told on television) is that we can't stop watching Walt. (Spoiler Alert!) If you watched Walt's "confession" last week, then you'll understand.
Walt is a traffic accident. You just can't not look.
Once, on a cross country trip, my buddy and I got into a long conversation about why folks slow down to examine automobile carnage.
"You know how that car used to look," he noted, "And you can almost put it back together again in your head. And yet, there isn't a damn thing you can do to undo that carnage."
In our mind's eye, we instinctively merge the wreckage on the side of the road with our own thankfully functional cars, imagining and then quicky dismissing the unsettling juxtaposition.
In other words, the wrecked car, once a happy transporter of a family on vacation, up and "broke bad." There's no turning back for that car...
And that's just like Walt. He "breaks bad", and then he "breaks bad" again, and then again, and pretty soon he's that overturned minivan. It's not just that he can't turn back. It's that he somehow takes us with him. Somehow, at the end of show, I feel like Walter is asking permission to become part of me. That's why he follows me around.
As it turns out, there, is a plausible neurobiology to the kind of self-other merger that Bryan Cranston's character's creates.
"He's a sociopath," one of my friends notes. But then he leaves the table to pee, and I'm a good enough shrink to know that he's peeing away his recognition that this characterization is incomplete and unsatisfying. I don't, after all, feel Dexter knocking at the door of my own identity boundaries.
"He's caring for his family as best he can," another friend notes.
"Bullcrap," we respond, and we throw chips in his beer. You don't have to kill with impunity to care for your family.
Walter White is very smart, highly charismatic, sociopathically inclined, and amorphously bounded. He doesn't know where he begins and everyone else begins. I can't think of any other character in the history of television who provokes this kind of creepy identity confusion.
This, therefore, brings us to the crux of Walt's crisis.
Who the hell is he? What the hell is he?
I am asking this here in particularly neurobiological terms.
Neurobiologically speaking, identity is thought to reside in the intricate mechanisms of the temporal lobe. Of course, like everything else in the brain, the temporal region isn't enough to garner identity by itself. The temporal region combines with higher and lower neurological material to create a sculpture of past experiences, emotional valences, cognitive realizations, and contextual adaptations. We are who we are based on our dreams, our hopes, our intelligence, our memories, and the world into which we are thrust.
Here it is especially telling that many neuroscientists tie the neurobiology of identity to the neurobiology of antisocial behavior. In fact, there are consistently measured abnormalities in the temporal region of the brains among individuals who meet standardized criteria for psychopathy. Those who truly lack compassion or empathy seem to look at the world differently. Their brains struggle with the faulty and incomplete sense of self residing in their hyposthesized malfuntioning temporal lobes.
So, here's the best I can do with Walt.
Walt has virtually no identity. This is neatly summarized by this season's tagline: Remember My Name.
Complete that sentence. It should read "Remember my name, because I don't otherwise know what the hell I am." Am I Heisenberg? Do I own a car wash? Do I have an "A-1 Day" or do I kill children with the toxic flowers that grow in my garden? And can I be all of these things at the same time?
Sooner or later, must of us feel compelled to choose who and what we are. But Walt, lacking the capacity to choose, lacking in fact the neurobiological capacity for identify, functions almost entirely for the aching quest to define himself.
That's why I'd take Freddy or the creep with the pins in his head from Hellraiser any day. I can predict, with some confidence, what those creeps are going to do. They have cohesive goals and intact selves and therefore they "read"from scripts the make sense.
He oozes. He becomes whatever he needs to be in order to stay alive in the foul moral vapor of his increasingly horrific life. Walt won't leave me alone because he literally wants to join me, to become part of me, to become part of all of us. As I said, he can't tell where he ends and someone else begins.
In this way, Walter White is essentially a challenge. Couldn't you, he asks, just for a minute, understand that you could be just like me? Remember my name, he pleads. Remember it, because I got nothing else.
But first help me, he begs, to figure myself out.