The Reading Room

Me and My Shadow: Liberty, “Breaking Bad”, and Shadow Possession

What is the nexus between liberty and Breaking Bad, named by Rolling Stone as the third-best television show of all-time?  The archetypal tale of Walter White’s “transformation from Mr. Chips to Scarface” teaches that there is no individual freedom without freedom of the mind.  
Indeed, Walter White fell prey to the tyrant of his own unassimilated psychology.  He permitted himself to become possessed by what analytical psychologist Carl Jung called “the Shadow.” Jung described the Shadow as “that hidden, repressed, for the most part inferior and guilt-laden personality whose ultimate ramifications reach back into the realm of our animal ancestors and so comprise the whole historical aspect of the unconscious.”
When those parts of our psyche are in control, there is no freedom for the mind and consequently, no true liberty for the individual.
We repress the ugliest parts of ourselves – the elements of our personalities that we despise or are ashamed of; and impulses, desires, instincts, and shortcomings considered unacceptable to society.  Anything that falls short of our imagined ideal is relegated to the Shadow.  
Ideally, Jung believed that only by confronting our Shadow and accepting the worst parts of ourselves can we progress towards wholeness.   In the worst of circumstances, we remain unconscious of our Shadow and risk it overtaking our conscious mind, i.e. possession.  
Jung writes, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it… But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected and is liable to burst forth suddenly in a moment of unawareness. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.”  
We’ve seen the Shadow throughout history and popular culture, in Darth Vader, Mr. Hyde, and Voldemort.  Each of these villains began as well-intentioned individuals (Anakin Skywalker, Dr. Jekyll, Tom Riddle) only to fall prey to Shadow possession.
So, too, with Walter White.  
The Shadow can be activated in many ways.  In Walter’s case, he’d spent his entire life playing the role of good father, devoted teacher and husband, and family provider.  He’d worn the mask of what society found acceptable, which Jung called the Persona, for decades.  It is his cancer diagnosis that causes that persona to fracture and release the Shadow, as actor Bryan Cranston describes in his memoir, A Life in Parts, excerpted here from Vanity Fair:
“The hook was set at the very beginning. Walt had gone to seed, but he was a family man, doing his best, living paycheck to paycheck like so many people in the world…. He’s been living inside a kind of emotional dead zone and faced with a definitive prognosis—two years to live—feelings burst from his core: fear, anger, desperation.”
Those feelings are Walter’s Shadow emerging.  As the series progresses, we learn the origin of these feelings.  Cranston writes, “Walt was brilliant. He was raised with everyone around him telling him: sky’s the limit. Straight A’s. Well-liked. His teachers, his parents, his fellow students all said he’s going to go far. You can write your ticket. You’re going to be making seven figures. You could discover the cure for cancer.”
He co-founded a biotech venture that could have made him rich, and achieve all the things he was told he would accomplish.  Instead, he quit. Cranston isn’t specific as to the reasons for Walter’s exit, but suggests it’s because of a fear of failure.  Walter permitted his Shadow to undermine his confidence, and thus he sold his shares for a pittance to be safe from criticism.  When the venture became wildly successful, he hated himself even more, thinking, “How could I have been so stupid?”  He had only himself to blame, but couldn’t admit that truth.  So he stewed for years, carving out a pathetic existence that he resented, and put on the smiley-face persona of family man and teacher to hide his true feelings of self-disgust.
The more we repress our Shadow, the stronger it becomes.  Eventually, critical mass is achieved and it just takes one final straw for the dam to burst. Walter’s Shadow roared to life when he got sick, as he realized all this time and effort he went just to provide for his family would amount to nothing. 
He spent the rest of the series possessed by the Shadow, rationalizing the need for wealth to provide for his family after he died.  That rationalization – and his Shadow -- were enabled by those he encountered in the meth-infused universe.  No matter how bad he broke, there was always someone worse.  At least Walter could say he was building wealth for his family after he was gone.  Not a single other character could claim to be doing anything remotely good.That is, except for Walter’s penultimate opponent, Gus Fring.  In Fring, Walter faces his døppelganger.  Here is another man with a perfect persona, but one who is able to maintain it at all times, and is even more ruthless than Walter.  He is also more successful in the drug trade.  He holds power over Walter, whose Shadow cannot stand the fact that it is not in complete control of the meth universe.  After all, it is Walter who invented the blue meth, not Fring.  The Shadow, once activated and subsuming its host, cannot and will not stop until it achieves complete tyranny over its host and everyone in its orbit.

It is that moment when Gus is blown up that Walter’s possession is complete.  We see it happen.  From there, Walter is gone.  He is now Heisenberg, just as Anakin was consumed by Vader.  Like Vader, Walter then collapses into pure ruthless evil, and kills nineteen people before he dies.  Ironically, he accomplishes his missions: to provide for his family, to be (in)famous, and he even manages a touch of quasi-redemption when he frees Jesse.  
Walter never had a chance at liberty because his mind was never free.  Yet we are left with one final quasi-redemptive moment for Walter, when he frees Jesse from Jack Welker’s gang.  Perhaps we are meant to believe that no matter how much liberty may be crushed, the spark always remains, as it must.  As John Locke said,  “To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.”
Or in this case, a man’s Shadow.



Lawrence Meyers is the best writer on the planet. Everything he does is art! He’s a creative Hulk.