Leaves of Glass
Had Walt Whitman, an occasional proponent of Prohibition, lived today, he might have been horrified to discover that he in any way inspired a TV series about a murderous drug lord named Walter White. And stunned (though perhaps pleased) to find his magnum opus employed as the smoking gun leading to the man’s undoing. But after a smattering of Whitman references throughout its four and a half seasons, AMC’s Breaking Bad—which is wrapping up its final chapter beginning August 11—has done just that, drawing an unlikely parallel between the two men who share a monogram (W.W.) and, for all intents and purposes, a name.
So how does Walter White compare to Walt Whitman? And what cynical commentary on our times, on humanity, does series creator Vince Gilligan make with this subversive pairing?
When we first meet White, he is a dejected, emasculated high school science teacher. Over the course of the show, he transforms himself, as the show’s creator has put it, “from Mr. Chips to Scarface.” This sounds nothing like Whitman, who’s best known for his magnanimity and his embrace of sensual appetites. Though Gilligan has confessed that he hadn’t initially planned to cast Leaves of Grass or Whitman in such a prominent role, he points to the power of the great bard in season three, when we hear White’s lab assistant, Gale Boetticher, reel off the Whitman poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” to Walter.
Walter is intrigued but wary of Gale from the start. The assistant’s been foisted on him by his new boss, Gustavo Fring, the most powerful meth distributor in the region. For one thing, Gale is hardly assistant material: a brilliant chemist in his own right, he is more of a peer, if an overly solicitous one. He has set up the perfect custom, state-of-the-art industrial meth lab, anticipating Walt’s needs with a knowledge the senior chemist’s on-and-off-meth-using business partner and former student, Jesse Pinkman, seems incapable of ever possessing.
As they bond in the lab, Gale explains how an academic like him would wind up in a place like this. He tells Walter, “I was on my way, jumping through hoops, kissing the proper behinds, attending to all the non-chemistry that one finds oneself occupied by. You know that world. That is not what I signed on for. I love the lab, because it’s all still magic, you know?” Walter agrees. “It is. It is magic,” Walt says, “it still is.” Gale continues, “And all the while, I kept thinking about that great old Whitman poem.” Walt says he doesn’t know it. Prodded by Walt, Gale recites it from memory.
“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” is, among other things, a declaration of disillusionment with convention, and of liberation, of emerging from the passive seat and propelling oneself into the world to participate and engage with it:
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,…
By reciting it, Gale is delivering an apologia of sorts: He’d been on the wrong side of the lectern—he didn’t want science to be distilled down to something that could be narrated and calculated. He needed to immerse himself in the lab work, to create, to participate in the “magic” of science, behold the majesty of nature, on his own terms. Which could never happen for him in an ivory tower.
Veiled in this message, as Walter hears it, is Gale declaring that, while he can be a faithful assistant, he can bear it for only so long. Soon he will glide out, for there is little Walt can teach Gale, a sensual, sentient, self-admitted nerd, a vegan with a passion for Italian music and horticulture, and who prides himself on his elaborate vacuum reflux/distillation system that brews the perfect cup of coffee. Walt’s wariness may be unfounded—we never see it onscreen, but we can assume Gale gives Walt a copy of Leaves of Grass as a gift; we later see Walt reading the book, inscribed with an affectionate note: “To my other favorite W.W. It is an honour working with you.” But Walt loves being a teacher—his ego is ravenous for the applause—so he winds up swapping out Gale for the less competent Jesse, his old student and partner.
Though Walt initially gets into meth cooking for what he thinks will be quick and easy money, he soon discovers that it gives him a second chance: not only as Jesse’s teacher, not only to redeem his legacy as a legendary chemist (if only in an illicit universe), but as a way of embracing life full throttle. The lessons of the “Learn’d Astronomer” apply to Walter White too. He has been a consummate underachiever, trying to impart in vain his vast wisdom on unappreciative, disrespectful students, including Jesse, whom he flunked out of high school chemistry years before.
The Walter White we first encounter in the pilot is a shell: hapless, mild-mannered, self-effacing, a public high school chemistry teacher struggling very hard to support his pregnant wife, Skyler, and his teenage son with cerebral palsy. It takes a diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer just after his 50th birthday to breathe life into a man who’d been hiding behind “the charts and diagrams,” cleaving to his resignation. Getting a death sentence and subsequently turning to meth production (ostensibly, he first does it to build a nest egg for his family) thrusts Walter out of the “lecture-room” and into the “mystical moist night-air.” As he declares to an incredulous Jesse, who can’t believe that this is his former straight-and-narrow teacher: “I feel … awake.”
After his first day cooking meth in an RV, Walter climbs into bed with his very pregnant, half-asleep wife. He’s randy, aggressive—he grabs her and has sex with her. “Walt,” she asks, “is that you?” No, this is a new Walter. He is already deceitful, withholding news of his illness from his family and more. Soon his lies and omissions take on a life of their own. They spin off into a badass, fearsome persona—fueled by hubris. Does Walter contradict himself? Very well, then he contradicts himself—more with each passing day. Like Whitman, he is large; he contains multitudes.
Walter White might have a newfound appreciation for appetites of all kinds—sexual, aggressive—but his intellect and his own harsh logic trump all. He can, and does, justify nearly anything—the poisoning of a child, standing by and watching Jesse’s girlfriend choke to death, and worse. We catch a glimpse of graduate-school Walter in a flashback, as he and his then-girlfriend, Gretchen, map out all the elements that compose the human body. They are as enraptured by the intellectual exercise as if they were actually physically communing. As they tally everything up, they come up short. Gretchen says, “Doesn’t it seem like something’s missing? What about the soul?” He laughs, not quite at her, and says, “There’s nothing but chemistry here.”
It may seem a cynical commentary on life in our time to compare a man who lives amid the big blue skies of a 21st-century barren desert landscape, and takes on as his life’s work engineering and reengineering the purest form of something so wholly artificial and poisonous and illicit as meth, with an American bard whose landscape was verdant, who took his cues from the Transcendentalists and treasured nature, who wrote and reworked his free-verse epic Leaves of Grass until his death. And it is. But that doesn’t negate what they do share in common: both are intellectual pioneers in their fields, their legacies—centuries apart—demanding risk, casting them outside of society, gliding out into the world, liberated from societal constraints. Both strove for perfection in their creations (Whitman actually wanted to enjoy partaking in his work; Walter has never tried his own product—at least so far), reworking them over and over again. Both had been teachers (Whitman had also been a journalist and a printer, among many other professions). Whitman was rejected by publishers and excoriated by critics (one called him “trashy, profane and obscene”) but that didn’t stop him from pressing on, literally—he self-published the first edition of Leaves of Grass and would agonize over the manuscript for the rest of his life, editing the poems and subtracting and adding new ones that were not only personal but also works that documented the unfolding tragedies of American history, of the Civil War and his grief over the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, publishing a total of nine editions.
Mike Chasar, an assistant professor of English at Willamette University in Oregon, is one of a handful of shrewd culture bloggers who writes about Breaking Bad’s Whitman fixation. He observes:
Like Whitman…, White assumes a second identity (that of meth cook) during wartime (both the war on drugs and the wars between dealers), and his character revolves around the performance of his multiple identities and especially how those identities affect his status as parent; not only is he a biological father (the economic pressures of his son’s physical disability plus an unexpected pregnancy drive him out of the classroom and into the drug trade) portrayed as an artist (also like Whitman) creating new material all the time, but he is also a surrogate parent for his assistant Jesse Pinkman…. Walter White is also busy trying to make a future he won’t be part of—laboring under a cancer diagnosis to provide financial security for his biological family in the event of his death.
But since “laboring” toward this future, Walter has lost all sense of his humanity. The name of the fifth season’s cliffhanger of an episode is “Gliding Over All,” which is clearly a reference to a short work from the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass:
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.
This poem is a portrait of the Walter we’ve come to know. This lowly science teacher has beaten inoperable cancer into submission and sung many deaths, destroying every competitor in his wake to emerge as the king of New Mexico—a dubious honor, sure, but for a 51-year-old nerd, it’s no small achievement. He has created a product that gives only his life meaning, feeds his insatiable ego, while eroding the lives of its users. He has more money than he can even possess, and murders anybody who gets in his way. He’s not loyal to his business partner, and his wife hates the man her husband has become. (“All I can do is wait,” Skyler spews at him. For what? Walt asks. “For your cancer to come back.”) “This business is all I have left now,” he tells Jesse in a rare moment of candor. “It’s all I have.”
The meth business has allowed Walt to become invincible—or so he’d like to believe. As he tells Skyler at the end of season four, “I’m not in danger. I am the danger.” He is gliding over it all.
Kera Bolonik is a culture writer and the former arts editor of Salon. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Glamour, the Village Voice, and Bookforum, among other places. She is currently curating "The T.V. Age" collection for Medium.