Breaking Bad and freedom

The summer after my junior year of high school, the father of the previous year’s senior class president shot the mother of the previous year’s senior class president, and then himself. The senior class president wasn’t someone I knew personally, and I never learned the details of what had led to that irrevocable moment, nor do I know what became of the senior class president himself. I was the editor of the high school newspaper, and we prided ourselves on taking on serious stories, but none of us wanted to touch this one. We never mentioned it. No one ever mentioned it really. It happened and was gone.

The trail of bodies in Breaking Bad is longer, the tale more elaborate, but it’s moments like these in our actual lives that make Breaking Bad plausible. People are not who they say they are. There have been times in my life when I would have seen much more of myself in Walter White. No, I never did anything remotely as awful as he did, but there were things I kept hidden from those closest to me. I know what it is to be a liar, and I know what it is for lies to unravel. Most of us do.

At this point in my life, though, there’s another side of Breaking Bad that resonates. It’s the craving for freedom, for the feeling of aliveness, that runs through the show: Jesse emerging from drugs only when he’s cooking meth or in love, which might be two sides of the same thing; Marie stealing tchotchkes; Flynn driving a fast car; and of course Walter being good at something. For those of us who live within the rounds of a responsible life — which, again, is most of us — there’s a thrill in watching people escape from that, even for a little while, even if they fly too close to the sun and get burned.

I’ve been lucky in my life to have found opportunities to be free. I’ve slipped off for months at a time to wander in faraway places. I might be further along in my career if I hadn’t. I might have more money. Or I might not. The time away forced me to break free from where I had been, to start over again, to try something new. It opened up pathways in my life that I continue to follow. Freedom, if you’re lucky enough to be able to pull it off, has its perks, even when it’s gone.

Breaking Bad is freedom at a desperate extreme: barrels of cash, endless chaos, constant threat, and a trail of devastation. But it gets at something of the price of breaking away from the steady and predictable. There are risks. There are losses. There is destruction, even if it’s just quitting your job or selling your furniture. Freedom is uncertain. But that feeling of being alive that Walter talks about in the last episode — what is it worth to you? What is it worth to me? And what do we risk when we don’t go after it?