Breaking Bad, heir to Frankenstein

So I guess I’m going to preface this blog post with one giant SPOILER ALERT. That being said, I couldn’t help noticing throughout our reading of Frankenstein that AMC’s hit critically acclaimed best show ever made Breaking Bad bears countless similarities to Mary Shelley’s novel. Breaking Bad also seems to inherit a lot of Gothic elements (a genre of which Frankenstein was a pioneer) as well as a penchant for Romantic landscape (something Shelly alludes to a few times).

For those of you who are just as obsessed with the show as I am, I hope this is enlightening (and helps ease your transition to a post-BrBa world). For anyone who hasn’t seen the show, if you start now you can probably marathon it in a week or two. You won’t regret it.

Anyway, first up is the striking similarity between Walter White, Breaking Bad’s protagonist, and Victor Frankenstein. Both of these tragic heroes strive desperately toward the science of creation: Frankenstein moves past the secret of life to attempt to create a new life single-handedly; Walt, meanwhile, uses his chemistry knowledge to create something entirely new in his world — “blue ice” crystal meth has a 99 percent clarity. Both of these men do so purely for their own glory, motivated solely by the desire for their own genius to be recognized and revered. They both offer up altruistic motives — Frankenstein says he wants to better science, while Walt enters the drug underworld to provide financially for his family after his cancer slowly kills him. But the audience of both forums quickly realizes that Walt and Frankenstein are only in it for themselves. Frankenstein finally admits his thirst to have “a new species … bless me as its creator and source.” For a schleppy ex-chemistry teacher who was emasculated in turns by his wife and brother-in-law in the first season, Walt quickly morphs into someone drunk on power and invincibility. He demands that others acknowledge his status — “Say my name,” he commands — and tells a fearful Skyler White that he “is the danger … the one who knocks!” And, like Frankenstein, in the end he too admits that somewhere along the way his motivations became purely selfish; “I did it for me,” he says in the series finale. “I was good at it. I was alive.”

There’s another similarity between two different characters, though. Just as Victor’s thirst for glory produces something monstrous, so too does Walt’s — the ruthless Heisenberg, his drug kingpin alter ego. Like the monster, Heisenberg turns to bloodthirsty violence when he feels spurned. After the De Lacy family rejects him, hatred fills the monster. “I could with pleasure have destroyed the cottage and its inhabitants, and have glutted myself with their shrieks and misery,” he says. Later, after killing young William in cold blood, the monster shows no sympathy. Rather, his “heart swelled with exultation and hellish triumph” as he exclaims, “‘I, too, can create desolation; my enemy is not impregnable.”‘

Heisenberg is quick to violence when his ego is bruised or his own power is questioned. In the first half of season five, Walt impulsively, fatally shoots Mike Ehrmantraut because the latter insulted him and rightfully placed blame on his doorstep.

This violence, rather than solve problems, isolates Heisenberg and the monster. “Vice has degraded me beneath the meanest criminal,” the monster bemoans at Frankenstein’s death bed. Though they each die on their own terms (Walt next to his beloved lab equipment after machine-gunning a dozen neo-Nazis, the monster in a funeral pyre in the Arctic), they both die alone.

But Breaking Bad does more than simply recreate character allusion throughout its stellar run. Like Frankenstein, the show also inherits tropes from both Gothic and Romantic fiction. For instance, Shelley’s novel typifies Gothic literature at the time: while countless horrors are meant to terrify viewers, the emotional response and stylized violence rather thrill or please the audience. Indeed, in a novel heralded as the “birth of science fiction,” there is zero actual science mentioned in the creation sequence; rather, the scene is simply a dialogue of Frankenstein’s conflicting emotional reactions to his creation science.

Breaking Bad is littered with grim or gruesome death scenes that should absolutely horrify and disgust viewers. Yet the scenes are so stylized and beautifully shot that they impart “shock value” at worst and vindication at best. This is evident in Gus Fring’s death scene: he walks out of a room with half his face blown off. But there’s an undeniable poetry in the way he characteristically, meticulously adjusts his tie before falling down dead. It doesn’t gross anyone out; viewers instead feel thrilled and elated by the action.

Finally, there’s a subtle Romantic edge to Breaking Bad: its breathtaking landscapes and scenery.

Shelley inherits a grand tradition of Romantic thought, and glimpses of it are visible in Frankenstein. Most notably, when Victor feels distraught over his suspicions that the monster is to blame for William’s (and Justine’s) death, he seeks comfort in nature. “These sublime and magnificent scenes afforded me the greatest consolation,” he rhapsodizes. The glaciers “filled me with a sublime ecstasy that gave wings to the soul, and allowed it to soar from the obscure world to light and joy.” He concludes his ode by admitting that “the awful and majestic in nature had indeed always the effect of solemnizing my mind.” The Romantics retreated into nature to further understand themselves and the world; they set up nature as the superior foil to cold science. Frankenstein basically espouses direct allusions to the poetry of Wordsworth and other Romantic figures.

The very first episode of Breaking Bad opens in silence, with a few quick pans across the Albuquerque desert. The contrast between the dusty mountains and the deep blue sky would be enough to make Wordsworth weep with joy. There’s something beautiful in the desolation of the desert, and producer Vince Gilligan makes the most of the natural world surrounding his characters.

But Breaking Bad radically departs from the Romantic opinion of nature. Though the natural world never loses its beauty, it does not inspire awe. Instead, if a character is out in nature, odds are he’s in grave danger.

jesse mike shotgun

The same serene shots of the desert that open up the series quickly give way to chaos, as Walt and Jesse find themselves in the midst of their first (and far from their last) life-or-death situation.

pilot brba

In one of the show’s most pivotal moments, Fring confronts Walt in the middle of the plains, where both men are on ominously equal footing.

gus walt meeting

Mike dies near a river after demanding that Walt shut up; nature is, for him, a chance to gain inner peace and calm before dying. A quick shout out to the masterful pairing of two bald guys wearing khakis and earth tones. What a way to emphasize the power of the scenery through matching it. (Too soon to joke about Mike’s death? RIP, big guy. You’re sorely missed).

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3 Responses to Breaking Bad, heir to Frankenstein

  1. writinginmy says:

    I’ve watched the first couple of episodes of Breaking Bad, and I was going to say that the opening up to a vision of a vast, empty desert felt somewhat unsettling. Based on what you said, it makes sense.

    So drawing these parallels between Breaking Bad and Frankenstein, do you think there’s anything to be said about the role of family and the sense of belonging in both art forms (especially with the way, say, how Breaking Bad ends)?

  2. ebbwilliams says:

    Thank you for assuaging my still befuddled post-BrBa brain. I really enjoyed your post not only for the Breaking Bad references, but also for the parallels you drew between it and our course. (Though I maintain that if you watch enough BB it starts showing up everywhere.) Your comparison of Heisenberg/Walter White and Frankenstein’s creation/Frankenstein shed new like on the few moments where Frankenstein actually seems to take accountability for the deaths of his friends and family. I love when Walter is talking to his former co-workers who bought him out of grey matter and he says that the man that they knew has been gone for a long time. It seems that both Heisenberg and Frankenstein’s monster outlive their creators.

    I wonder about the end of the novel though. While Frankenstein’s monster does reveal his plans to extinguish himself in what I consider to be a Promethean flame, he doesn’t act on it by the end of the novel. We brought this up at the end of class. Do we take the monster at his word, or do we expect him to live forever, or at least long enough to become the painfully attractive Aaron Eckhart. I’m not sure he’s going to go through with his suicide. It seems more poetic than realistic. What do you think, is he going to kill himself? You’re completely spot on though, Walter White death was exactly where and what it needed to be. It may sound more than a bit macabre, but I was sorta hoping Jessie would die too. I think he got off a little light.

    In terms of the family writinginmy brings up, I think that there are parallels to be drawn between the two men. Both men give up/abandon/endanger their families to all encompassing pursuit of their scientific quests. Though Victor and Walter wax poetic about their concern and ties to their family, when it really comes down to it, they ultimately hang them out to dry. Family seems to have be the genesis for both of their creations as well. Walter starts cooking because of fear over mounting medical bills. Victor alludes to his desire to (re)create life stemming from the death of his mother while he was young. Family plays a part in both of these men’s lives, but in the end they are merely a backdrop for a one man act.

  3. warren says:

    I wonder if you could draw a parallel, too, between Walter’s relationship with Jesse and Frankenstein’s relationship with his creation. Arguably, Walter made Jesse: transformed from meagre and trivial drug pusher to efficient, obedient drug ambassador.
    Like the monster, Jesse turns on Walter’s family towards the end, targeting his home, promising the wholesale destruction of what he holds dear (his cash stashed in the sands). There is similarity in the climactic finales of both tales as well: Walter retreats to snowy New Hamspire, while Frankenstein finds himself chasing his monster to the ices of Northern Europe. You are correct to point out the romantic themes in BrBa, as the man who steals Walter away to New Hampshire in flight points out that “it’s even kind of beautiful out here”.
    The narrator of Frankenstein (that is, the letter reader) is even named Walton. It’s difficult to see mere coincidence in character names when both works of fiction deal so well with the same themes of corrupted creation and egoistic glory.
    I like the comparison. Well done!

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