09/25/2013 12:38 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2013

Tom Bombadil Tries to Stop Todd: A Breaking Bad Conundrum

I'm going to do something a bit awkward right now.

I am going to potentially offend fans of both J.R.R. Tolkien and Breaking Bad. I apologize in advance for the chagrin I might engender, but I am not so naïve as to think that an advanced apology is the same as an excuse. Therefore, think of the comparison I'd like to make, in fact the very thesis that I am powerless to resist, as a kind a metaphysical exercise. When John Donne rather famously albeit morbidly juxtaposed his great love for his mistress with the extent to which a flea sucks blood, I'd like to think he was doing the same thing that I'm about to do. My guess, though, is that my essay will have less staying power than Donne's famous Flea poem.

First, let me be clear about what I'm not going to do.

I'm not going to write directly about Walt. I do of course find Walt fascinating and I've written about Walt plenty. I even spoke about Walt to a bunch of medical students here at Harvard. We tried to discern the particular neurobiological properties that might characterize Walt's cerebrum.

But Walt's rage and fury make it nearly impossible and thus absolutely terrifying to confront the one truly creepy and utterly foreign character on Breaking Bad. I'm not talking about the neo-Nazi's. Sure, they scare me, but I feel like I know their script. And it's certainly not Lydia. I've seen enough femme fatales in 1940's film noir to at least see her motivations as vaguely familiar.

But what about Todd? What IS Todd?

Todd is a Stepford Psychopath. He's ironically and brilliantly the exact same character as he was on Friday Night Lights. Todd is Landry without a conscience. If Landry were Todd, he'd have killed to get on that football team.


Todd is mission driven and nothing more. He's like an ant, or a computer program, or maybe a super-powerful but utterly emotionless form of AI. Ants engage in FAPs -- "Fixed Action Patterns." They follow their mission like a computer program, purely as a function of specific neural patterns. They show little emotion, at least as we understand emotion. Pick up an ant and move it and it'll pick up where it left off. Always on task...always steadfastly pursuing its goals.

This is Todd to a tee. He's not nearly the kind of badass as Mike, and he's not nearly the kind of pathetic as Walt, and he's not nearly the kind of conflicted as Jesse (at least as Jesse once was).

Like I said, Todd is a Stepford Wife sociopath, and that makes him seem not at all of this world. He's from some other place. Except for a fleeting and intermittently barely discernable smile, or perhaps his coquettish eyeing of Lydia's lipstick-stained cup, Todd seems to be an entirely different species. He's scary as hell precisely because he doesn't even fit into the conception of Hell. Demons are supposed to take some kind of pride or even sustenance from the havoc they impose. Todd just does Todd things.

"Sorry about the noise, ma'am."

Gives me shivers.

So, what does this have to do with Lord of the Rings?

This is where being a shrink can be a wonderful kind of burden.

When I was watching Breaking Bad's most recent episode, and as I found myself literally having to turn the lights on as I contemplated Todd's benign and pleasant ruthlessness, I found, quite unconsciously, that I was thinking of Tom Bombadil.

If you only saw the Ring movies, you won't know who Tom Bombadil is. Mr. Bombadil was left off of the screen version of these stories. In fact, I will submit to you that Mr. Jackson did not include Bombadil's character precisely because in many ways Bombadil himself is less human or human-like than Hobbits or Elves or Wizards or even Orcs. Tom just isn't of the same world as the rest of the characters in Tolkien's legendarium. He was there when all the nastiness in Mordor started and it looks like he'll be there long after the outcome. He's not at all nasty himself, but there is a bit of a menacing quality to him, I think, because despite all of his power, he refuses to get involved in Frodo's plight. He "knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless -- before the Dark Lord came from the Outside." Tom doesn't concern himself with the dark. He can't be bothered.

So, yeah, I'm pretty much dorking out right now, writing about Tom Bombadil and Todd from Breaking Bad in the same sentence. Still, that's where my unconscious brain took me as I tried to make sense of Todd. Shoot, I haven't read the Fellowship of the Ring in 30 years and yet there was merry Tom, dancing around my living room as Todd tended to Jesse in that concrete pit in the desert.

I think this is because Todd and Tom are both completely beyond comprehension. Todd and Tom are specifically not the stuff of dreams because they are so utterly foreign. I'd love to dream about a character like Tom (and obviously Tolkien did) but I think it would be unlikely had I not read Tolkien's books. And I'd resent and yet relish a nightmare about Todd, in part because the nightmare itself would be so utterly unfamiliar. It would be like finding a cavern in my psyche that I didn't even know could exist.

Do you get it? I can imagine Walt. I can imagine Tuco. And I can imagine Frodo and Sauron as well. But I cannot even imagine imagining either Tom or Todd. They both sit outside of it all, unconcerned about where my psyche is willing to wander.

Scholars often suggest that Tom Bombadil's character served to remind the reader that things on the planet, in Middle Earth and elsewhere, will have constants that precede the current struggles and that will similarly outlast the coming battles. In fact, these things will be unaffected by the meanderings of more recent beings. In this sense, we can relate more to the outlandish characters -- Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves -- who nevertheless possess familiarly human desires and ambitions, precisely because we can compare these motivations to Tom's complete detachment from it all.

Frodo is humanized by Tom's benign neglect.

In the same fashion, Todd helps us to humanize Walt.
It is hardly an original notion that it is central to the success of Breaking Bad that we see Walt as human, but as Walt himself gets darker, it becomes that much more difficult, and therefore that much more crucial, that we are sympathetic to Walt's plight.

Enter Todd.

"Nothing personal" he says, in his usual polite cadence, and a silent flash of a handgun ends Andrea's life.

In Todd's mind, Andrea was already dead. He's not of the same species as Andrea...or of his uncle, or of Jesse or even Walt. He is his own being, and he knows that Andrea is dead because that is what his uncomfortably organic Stepfordian rules dictate.

Todd and Tom Bombadil.

If I were back at comic-con, I'd ask the crowd who would win that fight?

But I'd be afraid to find out the answer.