“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 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
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
I went myself first to the headland, my own hands carried me
“Enough! enough! enough!
Somehow I have been stunn’d. Stand back!
Give me a little time beyond my cuff’d head, slumbers,
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
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
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
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
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?
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.
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!