Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Book Review: Breaking Bad and Philosophy: Badder Living through Chemistry

As the final season of AMC’s Breaking Bad is heading toward its much anticipated series finale on Sept. 29, I’ve been consuming just about anything written about the show. Whether it is episode reviews or crazy fan theories about how the show might end, I love reading it all.

One of the more interesting pieces of writing I read was Breaking Bad and Philosophy: Badder Living through Chemistry. The book is an entry in the Popular Culture and Philosophy series, published by Open Court. Previously, the series has examined some 60 other topics including Seinfeld, Harry Potter, and The Walking Dead, another hit AMC TV show.

Before going any further, here’s a warning: there are probably spoilers ahead. I’ve tried to avoid too many specific plot points, but the book examines in depth many choices and actions from the show involving a slew of different characters, so it's kind of impossible to talk about the book without at least referring to some of these plot events. Again, you've been warned. 

            The book is a collection of 19 essays, each by a different author. As someone who knows next to nothing about philosophy, I was a little afraid that I would not have enough knowledge of important philosophical concepts to really understand what the authors were saying. But by and large, the authors did a great job of “dumbing down” many potentially confusing philosophical concepts. Most of the authors seemed to realize that a majority of the people who read the book will be more a fan of Breaking Bad than a fan of philosophy, so they tried to simplify things as much as possible without losing depth or meaning. A downside I could see to this approach, though, is that people who are well-versed in philosophy will spend a lot of time reading many philosophy terms and concepts that may seem elementary to them.

The opening chapter of the book details each death Walter White is responsible for, looking through the lens of Aristotle’s criteria for either blaming or praising Walt for an action including his motivations, justification and the consequences of the actions. I was a little surprised, especially considering how far Walt has fallen this season, to remember how much sympathy and empathy I had for Walt in those early seasons. Despite him killing (or being directly responsible for the death of) at least nine people, I remember justifying his actions as “doing it for his family” and that he simply had no other choice. Little did I know how unjustifiable Walt’s actions would become in the later seasons.  

            Probably my favorite chapter in the book was "Heisenberg's Uncertain Confession" and was written by Darryl J. Murphy, an instructor at Brock University (who I can only assume was chosen to write for a Breaking Bad book because of the name of the university). Part of this chapter’s appeal was how accessible Murphy made the discussion of some of history’s greatest philosophers. Going into the book, I definitely didn’t expect to be reading the sentences "cut off his junk and sent him packin' " and "had mad relations with females" before page 20.

            Murphy makes a novel connection between Walt naming his drug kingpin alter ego “Heisenberg” and physicist Werner Heisenberg’s famous Uncertainty Principle. I apologize in advance for butchering this attempt at an explanation, but in short, the principle argues that there is a limit to how precisely some physical properties of sub-atomic particles can be measured. There is some “uncertainty” in the measurements. After some logical reasoning, Murphy concludes that this gives Walt’s science-based, “materialist point of view” a chance at gaining some kind of redemption by the end of his story. “Heisenberg allows Walt to believe that he chose to break bad and that he can choose to be good again." 

            Other chapters cover many varied topics, such as comparing Breaking Bad to Shakespeare's Macbeth, looking at parallels between Walt and Don Draper of AMC's Mad Men, and how Gus Fring's lack of empathy helped him become the criminal mastermind who led the meth market in much of the southwest U.S. 

As a whole, the book was an enjoyable, fairly easy read. One of the benefits of the essay format was that the book was very easy to pick up for 15 minutes, knock out a chapter and then begin a brand new topic when you picked the book up a day later. And since there was no real carryover from chapter to chapter, one could easily skim or completely skip any chapters that don’t seem interesting.

One issue I did have with the book, and maybe it’s a bigger deal to me than to most readers since I work with words for a living, but there were more than a few really distracting grammar mistakes. Some adverbs should have been adjectives, some present tense verbs should have been past tense. These mistakes often made me reread sentences and paragraphs to figure out what the author was trying to say.

            The book only covers through Season 4 and not any of 2012 and 2013’s two-part fifth season. Walt’s body count has risen since then, so those deaths and choices are not examined in the book. But I guess it’s a good indicator for how much I enjoyed the book that I’m hoping a new, updated version is published after the series finale.  

Be sure to follow Matt Skrajner on Twitter @MattNewsHerald

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