White to Black and Back Again

“Yes, I’ve been black, but when I come back, you’ll know, know, know.” -Amy Winehouse

Attention: If you haven’t seen Breaking Bad (all the way to the cliffhanger with Hank on the toilet); major spoiler alert!

There are Good people, Bad people and Middle people, according to a ten year old friend of mine I spoke with the other day. Apparently Good people do good things, Bad people do bad things, and Middle people mostly do good things. When Middle people do bad things they feel guilty, but when Bad people do bad things they do not. Also, Bad people can occasionally do good things, and Good people may once in a great while do bad things (but they feel very guilty about it and try never to do it again). My young friend was quick to add that she believes most people are Middle people. This made me wonder, do people ever switch from being Good, Middle or Bad? Can they come back again?

I remember the first time I heard the phrase “breaking bad” used in a sentence. I was at a family reunion about five years ago, and a small group was discussing the whereabouts of certain family members who weren’t in attendance. In a fairly conspiratorial way my favorite Aunt said, “Well, you know what happened to so-and-so, don’t you? He broke bad…” Although I had never heard it said before, I remember instantly knowing what it meant. So-and-so was now a person who did bad things and didn’t feel guilty about it. Brian Cranston, the actor who plays Walt White on the tv show Breaking Bad, once defined this term in an interview as “…a colloquialism…[that] means when someone [] has taken a turn off the path of the straight and narrow, when they’ve gone wrong. And that could be for that day or for a lifetime.”

On the show Breaking Bad, Cranston’s character, Mr. White, starts out as a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who has just been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. He is more or less what my young friend would call a Middle person. However, his terminal cancer diagnosis combined with the likelihood that his family will be financially devastated by his untimely loss, serve to launch Mr. White on a desperate trajectory that is dark, shocking and very seriously bad: cooking crystal methamphetamine and selling it for massive profit. For those of you who have never seen Breaking Bad, I know this must seem like a preposterous idea for a tv show. Well, yes, you’re right. I understand that a number of studio executives shared your opinion and passed on the project before it was picked up by AMC. However, trust me, this show is awesome.

Anyway, due to the show’s overwhelming popularity (and that of shows like it), I have to believe we’re all a little fascinated with the idea of being able to do whatever we want, without remorse…being a truly “bad person.” Take The Sopranos, for example. Only, there’s a big difference between Walt White and Tony Soprano, isn’t there? Mr. White invented his own style of bad guy…out of the ether, while Tony always played by the old school mob rules –such as they supposedly were. I imagine that had they met, Mr. White would have unceremoniously killed Tony Soprano in a three episode character arc and calmly sent him to his eternal slumber in a 55 gallon drum filled with acid. Soprano’s own waste management company would have then disposed of his body in a landfill on the outskirts of Jersey, ba da bing, ba da boom! I think part of the reason we’re on Mr. White’s side long after there’s no reason to do so is because he’s a dumb luck survivor and a true outsider. Oh, and because life dealt him a terrible hand, one he didn’t know how to play. So, he winged it. We’ve all been there.

Initially, Mr. White finds himself somewhat compelled to do bad things, due to his need to make a lot of money in a hurry (as well as the nature of his new “business associates”). However, all too soon, Mr. White chooses to do bad, bad things. As if to underscore this transformation from White to black, Walt gives himself the alias Heisenberg and dons a black hat (wink wink), black windbreaker and dark sunglasses when he meets with fellow criminals. The name Heisenberg is a nod to the German Physicist who developed the “uncertainty principle” of quantum theory, which states that the exact position and momentum of a particle cannot be simultaneously known. When White becomes black, he is a selfish, cruel, arrogant, delusional, manipulative drug lord and a cold-blooded killer; an unknowable entity. Perhaps Mr. White chooses that name because he’s beginning to realize that he doesn’t really know who he is, what he believes, or where he’s headed anymore.

Shocking as it may seem, White goes from dying family man to heartless mass murderer in the course of one year’s time. It’s important to note that early on there is a point when Mr. White is given a second chance. His cancer goes into remission, and he could walk away from the drug trade free and clear, if he wanted to. He doesn’t. He can’t go back to the life he had before, in the Middle. He won’t…Why? And, more importantly, what does this have to do with the rest of us? Well, this is not meant to be a blog about morality. It’s more of a musing on the idea of how and when and why a person turns down a different path than they had previously been going. Why do we stray from the way of the Middle?

Dr. William Glasser, has this theory that we all have what he calls a Quality World. Glasser defines it as “a ‘personal picture album’ of all the people, things, ideas and ideals that we have discovered increase the quality of our lives.” What’s so important about our Quality World, according to Dr. Glasser, is that it provides specific motivation for our behavior. With that in mind, let’s use Walter White as an example…

Who are the most important people in his life? His wife, daughter and son. CHECK.

What is the one thing he wants to have accomplished before he dies? Financial security for his family. CHECK.

What would his ideal job be? To be known as a genius chemist, handsomely compensated and greatly admired for his work. To be his own boss. CHECK. CHECK. CHECK.

What are his deeply held values? Well, this is where the train goes off the rails, right?

Well, not necessarily. Dr. Glasser has observed a few things about the pictures in our Quality Worlds. These observations go a long way towards explaining what enabled Mr. White to turn into Heisenberg. They are as follows:

Our Quality World Pictures:
1. Meet one or more of our basic human needs (survival, love/belonging, power/recognition, freedom and fun)
2. Are changing and changeable
3. Are unique
4. Often conflict with each other
5. Vary in levels of intensity
6. Vary in levels of attainability

Walter White found himself in a situation where his values conflicted with his need to provide for his family. What I believe caused him to break bad was that he discovered his greatest need was actually attainable, if he were willing to compromise his values. With death hanging over his shoulder, he found that he was able to not only satisfy his needs for his family, but also to achieve power/recognition, freedom, and (arguably) fun for himself. Once he suppressed his value system (which was clearly of a lesser intensity than other pictures in his Quality World), he began to create pictures that were greater than any he had dreamed of since losing his company and becoming a teacher. Splitting into the unknowable Heisenberg persona allowed him to separate himself from any sort of remorse, regret, guilt or ambiguity. Unfortunately, this resulted in the disintegration of his family; the loss of love/belonging.

My high school math teacher, Mrs. Vidal, used to always say, “Lie, cheat, steal, kill…it’s a slippery slope. If you do one, you’ll do ’em all.” She would say that in an effort to keep us honest in our homework assignments and on test days. She liked to remind us that doing bad deeds would only hurt us, not her. She was trying to influence the unique pictures we were creating in our Quality Worlds. Since I still remember her words like it was only yesterday that she said them, she has succeeded. Sometimes we have conflicting pictures in our Quality Worlds. They often vary in intensity and attainability. They are there to inspire us to action, yet they are also changeable. Walter White is a man who finds himself repeatedly at the crossroads of two Quality Worlds on Breaking Bad. White/Heisenberg has committed heinous crimes that are epic in scope. However, once his survival (or at least his family’s survival) has been secured, he must choose between his need for power and freedom and his need for the love of his family. The choice is between black and white.

In the last episode of the mini-season, Walt makes his decision, not long before before Hank’s fateful trip to the bathroom…oh, I just can’t tell you what it is. Watch it yourself to find out, if you haven’t already. If you have seen it, you’ve got to be hating the bathroom scene. I know I am.

We are all faced with choices that we must decide based on the images we have stored away in our Quality Worlds. If you find that your images have stopped motivating you to make choices and act on them, and you no longer feel like you’re able to enjoy a quality life, you may be stuck in the Middle. We can help you organize and sort through the many pictures that have accumulated in your Quality World over time. Perhaps there are items in there that no longer serve you, and you’ll need to remove them. There could be others in there that you used to cherish but are buried so deep, that you’ll need an excavator to find them. Let’s dig them out and polish up those frames of sterling silver. Whatever and wherever those images are, the Counselors and Life Coaches at Life Skills Resource Group in Orlando can help you eliminate what’s unnecessary, enhance what’s essential, and obtain what’s missing from your Quality World. After all, wouldn’t you like to go from Middle to Good? Let’s not even think about Breaking Bad. Give us a call at 407-355-7378.