Breaking Bad and Walter White’s “Song of Myself”

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” – Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” from Leaves of Grass

Disclosure: As Jesse Pinkman might say, this writeup has mad spoilers for the half-season finale, yo. Read at your own risk.

“Breaking Bad” has made many allusions to poet Walt Whitman’s work and the show writers have connected these poems to the actions of the show’s anti-hero, the closely-named Walter White. In seasons 3 and 4, Walt’s relationship with his would-be-meth-lab-turned-murder victim Gale Boetticher is summed up in Gale’s notebook scribblings of “When I heard the learn’d astronomer.” These notes are later found by Walt’s DEA brother-in-law Hank, who wonders who the elusive “W.W.” is, and Walt quickly pins Gale’s notebook worship on the poet, and not on himself.

the original heisenberg?

Walt Whitman, in a hat that Heisenberg would covet.

The Whitman influence was never as potent as last night’s half-season finale, “Gliding Over All,” when Hank finds out who the real “W.W.” is after he skims an inscribed copy of  “Leaves of Grass” (once given by Gale to Walter)  that was left rather carelessly in Walter’s bathroom, presumably left there by Walt (perhaps for some late-night commode sessions). The episode was all about Walter making his family “legitimate” (Michael Corleone-style) as he “Godfather”-ed a hit on Gus’ old crew in jail and made good on his promise to Skyler that their family could reap safety and security in Walt’s meth-sowing.  The episode is named for a Whitman poem, and the title seems to reference Walter’s deity-like power in creating and controlling deaths around him:

“GLIDING o’er all, through all,
Through Nature, Time, and Space,
As a ship on the waters advancing,
The voyage of the soul–not life alone,
Death, many deaths I’ll sing.”

With all of these Whitman references, it’s not hard to imagine that perhaps Walter has been taking cues from the poem “Song of Myself” throughout this season and it would perhaps give better insight to his actions. “Song of Myself,” a poem found in “Leaves of Grass,” is a celebration of self — as an omniscient, universal form of self. By all means, I am no Whitman scholar or expert, but after reading this poem, it seems prescient in Walter’s actions this season. Let’s take a look at some of the lines, shall we?

“I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume”

“If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread
of my own body”

This entire season has been about Walter assuming his alter-ego Heisenberg fulltime in the aftermath of Gus’ murder. He becomes cocksure in his words and actions with his partners Jesse and Mike. Walter lords over Skyler and keeps her captive and complicit in their marriage. He buys himself expensive cars and flaunts large purchases to  Hank. Walter’s ego has become godlike.

“I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.”

Walter is 51 years old and he’s nowhere near perfect health because of his yearlong battle with cancer — this much is true. However, he finds a certain stamina from continuing to cook meth. Even when he gets out of debt to Jesse and makes thousands (and later, presumably millions as evidenced by Skyler’s mad stacks of storage unit cash), Walter finds great joy in cooking and tries to drive his partners to continue even when it becomes increasingly dangerous to stay in the business. Walter has escaped death many times on the show, and he himself has been the cause or catalyst for death. Until last night’s episode, he probably would have continued cooking until his death, if not for Skyler’s insistence to stop.

“I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.”

Walter’s narcissism is out of control this season. He threatens new business associates. And when his partners are out (Mike murdered by Walter’s hand and Jesse through his own decision to get the hell out), Walter is nature without check. “”There is no ‘we,’ Jesse,” Walter tells his former partner in the final episode. “I am the only vote left.” This is never more clear when Walter orders a massive jail hit, seemingly inspired by “The Godfather” when Michael Corleone orders the deaths of the heads of the five Mob families. He’s taken cues from gangster movies this season, and has become a don, a god, in his own mind. Walter White is a mere mortal, but Heisenberg could live forever in the “empire-making business.”

“I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.”

“I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised
and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.”

“I wear my hat as I please indoors or out.”

“I carry the plenum of proof and every thing else in my face,
With the hush of my lips I wholly confound the skeptic.”

Walter’s anxiety over getting caught in the meth-making business has been one of his defining characteristics on the show. He’s gone to great lengths to keep his identity secret throughout the show, including wearing masks  (perhaps most notably when he and Jesse kidnapped Saul in season 2, and in the season 5 opener during the magnets heist). But throughout most of this season, his ego has made him not only thirsty for recognition, but seemingly untouchable and reckless with his identity getting caught up in this. Walter brings the methylamine supply to the car wash. He leaves Gale’s book in his bathroom with the damning inscription. He asks for recognition from other drug lords (“Say my name,” he demands in the penultimate season 5 episode to Declan, Mike’s meth contact. “You’re Heisenberg.” “You’re goddamn right.”). Perhaps the most symbolic imagery of Walter’s love of his alter-ego is when he chooses to wear his Heisenberg hat (once reserved only for drug deals) out in public throughout season 5.

“What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children? … They are alive and well somewhere, The smallest sprout shows there is really no death … All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses …”

The drug business is a dirty one, and Walter has to make justifications throughout the series for the deaths that happen. He tells Skyler that Gus’ death was necessary. He tries to comfort Jesse that the deaths they’ve caused (including a child’s) were necessary to making it in their meth empire.

“Why should I pray? why should I venerate and be ceremonious?”

“I am given up by traitors,
I talk wildly, I have lost my wits, I and nobody else am the
greatest traitor,
I went myself first to the headland, my own hands carried me
there”

“Enough! enough! enough!
Somehow I have been stunn’d. Stand back!
Give me a little time beyond my cuff’d head, slumbers,
dreams, gaping,
I discover myself on the verse of a usual mistake.”

Walt refuses to kowtow to anyone throughout this season — to his partners, to his lawyer, to his wife’s pleas, to the new business associates.  And when others refuse to venerate Walter, he shuts them out of his world. He sees them as enemies. He’s cold to Jesse when his partner wants out. And when Mike tries to knock Walter down  few notches for not knowing “his place.” “You owe me that much,” Walt tells Mike when he demands gratitude and the names of the Gus’ prisoned men. “I don’t own you a damn thing,” Mike gristles back. Walter impulsively kills Mike, and stunned at his actions, shows some remorse for doing so (“I’m sorry, Mike. This whole thing could have been avoided.”).

“The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are
with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I
translate into a new tongue.”

This line from Whitman’s poem could very well speak to the season opener in which a flash-forward reveals Walter celebrating his 52nd birthday tearing up bacon (a Skyler birthday tradition to him) under a new alias and buying an assault rifle for some unknown reason. Walter’s birthdays have served as poignant reminders of how far he’s progressed on the show, and this vague flash-forward suggests he’s in a hell of his own making and he’s gearing up for some kind of showdown.

“Hurrah for positive science! long live exact demonstration!”

“He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the
teacher.”

I laughed when I saw this. This recalls all of Jesse’s “Yeah, science!” moments, including the magnet heist earlier this season. In addition, this also touches on Walter’s ego. He’s always been a softy when it comes to teaching; he revels in passing along his demonstration of chemistry to Jesse, to Gale and later to Todd. He likes recognition for his intelligence, a characteristic of his ego. We see it when he accidentally pushes Hank back to working on the Heisenberg case when he asserts that Gale was not the famed meth cook. It’s apparent when Walt keeps Gale’s copy of “Leaves of Grass” because it’s a reminder of someone once worshiping Walter’s mind. This may lead to his downfall, as Hank has now discovered that inscription.

“I give the sign of democracy,
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their
counterpart of on the same terms.”

Walter negotiates a deal with Declan in which “everybody wins,” meaning Mike gets $5 million and out of the business. In the end, no one got what they wanted except for Walt. Mike loses money and gets killed; Jesse gets out but loses his share and his relationship with Walt.

“I think I could turn and live with animals, they’re so placid
and self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.”

“So they show their relations to me and I accept them,
They bring me tokens of myself, they evince them plainly in
their possession.”

Walter spends a lot of time contemplating the existence of flies on this show; they’ve made appearances during key moments, like when Walter shuts down the lab in season 3 when he sees the fly as a contaminant. The fly seems to symbolize Walt’s sense of his own rottenness in being involved in the meth game. In season 5′s “Glided Over All,” he merely watches one for a few minutes after he’s killed Mike and makes no move to get rid of it this time. The fly is no longer a contaminant, but Walter is now the contaminated one and rotten.

And finally, there are many more lines in “Song of Myself” that could be applied here, but I will leave you with the most quoted ones:

“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Creator Vince Gilligan has said many times that “Breaking Bad” is about turning Mr. Chips into Scarface. Walter has wrestled with his identity during the entirety of the show — from a mild-mannered chemistry teacher with cancer to a meth kingpin. Now that he’s made his choice to go “legitimate” and give up the business presumably for good, it remains to be seen how his former Heisenberg identity will leave residue on Walter and his family, as Hank now knows the truth about the multitudes that Walter contains in his contradictory personality.

What did you think of this finale, and the Walt Whitman references? What are you most looking forward to in the last half-season?

“Breaking Bad” image viaWalt Whitman image via.

 

Update, 4:45pm: I wasn’t able to catch the full inscription on first watch, but Hitfix’s Alan Sepinwall linked to a nice gif of Hank figuring out the identity of “W.W.” in the copy of “Leaves of Grass.” The inscription apparently reads:

“To my other favorite W.W.

It’s an honour working with you.

Fondly

G.B.”

Update, 9/04: WordPress included this post on their “Freshly Pressed” page — very excited and honored about that! If you are new to Film Rascal, thank you for stopping by and welcome!

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53 thoughts on “Breaking Bad and Walter White’s “Song of Myself”

  1. Great analysis! Thanks for a super interesting Sunday morning read after a long night of BB contemplation.

  2. I’m not usually much of a TV fan but this show certainly got under my skin. Very smart and interesting insights!

  3. Mrs. P says:

    Great analysis!

  4. For me, the most interesting part of the half-season finale was the brief scene where Walt pays Jesse a visit. With all the shifting that’s gone on with Walt’s character, you had to wonder whether he was genuine in his reminiscing or simply manipulating Jesse (once again). And really, was I the only one who thought Mike’s head might be in that bag instead of the cash? I can’t decide if I just want to assign some semblance of humanity to Walt because it would make me feel better or if some actually still exists. Vince has certainly achieved his Scarface goal.

    P.S. I got to sit in on the Breaking Bad panel at Comic Con this year – unbelievably awesome!!!
    P.P.S. Great post – congrats on the FP!

    • Thanks for your interesting thoughts on Walt’s motivations for visiting Jesse. I was on edge the entire scene, thinking one of them was going to shoot or harm the other. The horse idea would have been perfect considering all of the references to gangster movies, though I think I was expecting maybe a bomb! Poor Jesse. In the end, I think Walt was lonely and kept trying to grasp for whatever messed-up relationship he had with Jesse, who arguably might be the only deep relationship he had left in his life. Now that Walt has become Scarface, I wonder if the next season will also be about getting some of his humanity back?

      Very cool that you got to sit on that panel — I’m jealous! They’d definitely be the ComicCon highlight for me. :)

  5. Here, here! to the above comments… +1

    This show has rekindled my faith in the marriage of writing, acting, directing and all of the other opening and closing credits. The art, set, photograph, audio… all of it, a marriage happily getting along together.

    • Thank you! I agree with your thoughts on the marriage of all the wonderful elements of a television show — the past few years have allowed for that kind of experimentation with the emergence of a few things, probably mostly premium cable channels and changing consumer behavior. I certainly hope it continues.

  6. rizalID says:

    i like our post, sob …

  7. mistertwot says:

    Great musings on the episode, am looking forward to its return/conclusion!

  8. [...] Breaking Bad and Walter White’s “Song of Myself”. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. [...]

  9. edgeledge says:

    Whilst I haven’t read your blog (we get a two week delay to getting the episodes) I am looking forward to reading it in two weeks time. This season and the whole Breaking Bad ride has been amazing, so well written and just a joy to watch (though at times it is quite confronting!)…So I will check back in a couple of weeks…

  10. Very good analysis. I have to wonder if Walt found out that the cancer had returned. It would explain his visit and gift to Jesse–it’s his way of saying goodbye.

    • Thanks! Interesting thoughts on the cancer coming back, and after rewatch, I think I would agree. There were a few clues that might point to it coming back (besides the scene of his doctor appointment) — the dinged-up papertowel dispenser, the painting with the lone boater waving to people on the shore. It would certainly add more believability to his promise to Skyler that he’s truly out, if he really does want to spend more time with his family.

  11. Tom says:

    Great show! Great post! thanks for sharing!

  12. GP says:

    Reblogged this on misentopop.

  13. [...] a thank-you note: Major, major thanks to WordPress for including my post about Breaking Bad and Walter’s “Song of Myself” on their Freshly Pressed page last night! I am really honored to be included in the roundup. If you [...]

  14. ButterKate says:

    Very insightful deconstruction of that last episode. Part of me wants to see W.W. get away with it.

    • Thanks so much! I waver back and forth on whether I want Walt to get away with it. Part of me wants Hank to capture him, and for Jesse to hate him for lying about all the deaths Walt has had a part in. But then, maybe it would be interesting for Walt to claim some of his humanity back before dying in his (surrogate) son Jesse’s arms, a la Darth Vader and Luke.

  15. Sally Haig says:

    Best explication de texte ever! I really enjoyed reading your analysis and careful comparison of Walt Whitman’s poetry and the direction this show has taken.

  16. John says:

    Holy cow, excellent analysis. That’s reminiscent of The Sopranos opening their final season with The Seven Souls by William S. Burroughs (but far, far more subtle).

    The wait between now and the end is going to be excruciating. No other show engages my interests and makes me feel tension the way Breaking Bad does.

  17. Well done! Walt’s narcissism has been tough to watch at times, and also a hard to read. So thanks for shedding light on these points and making it more clear. A part of me misses the “chemistry” between Walt and Jesse.

    However, can you believe we have to wait til next summer? Oh the cruelty.

  18. It seems just as Walt seems to have everything under control the most epic of all BB storyline emerges…. Walt vs Hank!

    After watching the show today and then reading your page it has just got me more amped up for more. Great post, very insightful!

  19. Drex01 says:

    I have been following breaking bad for about a month I watched all the seasons and was pretty pissed off to see the DEA agent find that book. I don’t know where they are going with this but I really enjoyed your insights to the whole mess. Thanks I look forward to next Sunday’s episode!

    • Thanks for your comment. I think I had the exact opposite reaction to the book revelation! I feel like Walt has been built up to become a villain on the show and actually cheered when Hank found it… it’ll be interesting to see if there is a confrontation between the two of them later on.

      • Drex01 says:

        I’m sure it will end with blood somewhere. I just don’t know how they could ever tie all neatly back together. The only way I see it playing out calmly is if they go into a loose “partnership” where it is all still about money. Like having the lawyer he would have connections in the DEA. That seems kinda boring though and I don’t want to see either of them die. I don’t know, they still have plenty of episodes this season to straighten it out.

  20. angelasoelzerragosa says:

    I enjoyed reading this post and it’s well written, enjoyable reading for this BB fan. I want to also say “Congratulations” on being FP! I absolutely am addicted to BB!

  21. Lu says:

    Great post! Congrats on on being Freshly Pressed! Very impressive!

  22. Fay says:

    I can’t believe I have only just found this show and am on series one! I have some serious catching up to do on my days off! Congratulations on FP and i cannot wait to get further in the show!

    I look forward to more posts :D

    • Thank you, Fay! I hope you enjoy catching up on seasons 2-5. I first got hooked on this show right before season 4, and there is something to be said for watching the show two different ways — bingeing on many episodes vs. catching it week by week. I think you get to notice a lot of details when you watch 6-7 episodes in a row (as opposed to once a week when you might forget some details). Either way, hope you enjoy!

  23. davidatqcm says:

    Wow. wonderful analysis. we have seen too few series here in Oz, and especially down in Tasmania. Looking forward to buying / downloading the series whenI can find a net source.
    Sincere Congratulations on your FP, well deserved!
    tHC

  24. This is most inventive! Thanks.

  25. artlesspoems says:

    Reblogged this on artlesspoems.

  26. Great stuff, and I think you’re spot on. Whitman’s muse was unbridled freedom, and Walt covets that freedom above all — freedom through money, freedom from his cancer (which clearly has returned), freedom from the nasty empire he hath wrought. Indeed, as you say via the image of the fly, Walt’s song of himself is rotted from within, its inner lyrics leading to either death (already has, “many deaths” in fact), or some semblance of freedom. Of which death is the ultimate form, of course. Question is, will Gilligan rob Walt of even that final peace, either through Hank’s ultimate inability to haul in his own brother-in-law and therefore, ironically, tarnish his own professional reputation, or through Walt’s twisted life-craving ego? The flash-forward told us it could go either way.

    • Interesting point about freedom — you’re right, Walter has been craving that since the pilot. This season we got to see what happens to his personality when he had freedom through money and freedom from fear. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about Walter dying as a series finale — it would be satisfying in a way, to see this long-suffering and twisted, damaged man finally get the axe. But, Idk — some part of me wants redemption for him before any of that happens.
      Thanks for your comment! You’ve made me think quite a bit on the show’s possibilities :)

  27. Thank you for your insight. Gosh, what a beautifully orchestrated show, glad to see so many others who can appreciate the intricacies all the same.
    Congrats on FP!

  28. The Guat says:

    Jesse Pinkman is too funny. Mad spoilers, yo. That was too funny. I’m liking the Walt Whitman references here. The season finale? Duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuude. Yo. I couldn’t believe Walt would keep that book. Cliffhanger indeed.

  29. i can’t read this yet because i’m not caught up to breaking bad! i only just started the 5th season last night (only started watching the show like 2 weeks ago and that’s how fast i burned through the series) —- but i’m book marking this to read when i finally finish and i’ll let you know what i think!! i’ve always loved the walter white vs walt whitman undertones since the introduction of gale betticker!! xx

    • okay!!! so i finished the 5th season and i came back just to read this!!! <3

      really wonderful!!! brilliant piece of writing.

      "walter white is a mere mortal, but heisenberg could live forever in the 'empire-making business'" – - SO spot on.

      i also laughed at the jesse pinkman yeah science comparison! thanks so much for sharing! x

  30. dimples101 says:

    Wow. I feel inadequate to write my own review and analysis. Great blog. I love breaking bad, I can’t wait till next summer. Its so bittersweet to know its ending but Vince Gillian has done the show justice and I know he won’t fail us!

  31. craft fear says:

    Very cool idea. I only read a little bit because I don’t want to spoil it, but thanks for doing such in-depth analysis.

  32. Rayni says:

    Very well done! Bravo.

  33. Love Breaking Bad. It’s awesome. End!

  34. lobboy says:

    Reblogged this on Lobboy's Blog and commented:
    Excellant!

  35. navyphoto22 says:

    Walt, like many criminals and people that do things they know they aren’t supposed too, wants to get caught. Much like Jack the Ripper sending letters to Scotland Yard bragging about his crimes, Walt has been needling Hank, reveling in being one step ahead of him at all times, showing off how smart he is. Now Hank may have the upper hand (although he won’t have much evidence unless he finds that stack of cash), and Walt may just have to pay the piper. Really enjoyed reading your analysis on what has become one of my all-time favorite shows!

    • I’ve wondered too if Walter does so many dumb things because he wants to get caught. In the end though, regardless of what he subconsciously wants, I think Walt’s downfall will always be his hubris (much like in a classical hero tragedy like in Greek mythology). I like your comparison to Jack the Ripper. Thanks for commenting!

  36. sarallica says:

    what if Morgan Dexter meets Walter White ? :D

  37. [...] Breaking Bad & Walter White’s “Song of Myself” (filmrascal.wordpress.com) [...]

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