August 18, 2013

Breaking Bad and Walt Whitman

There have been several Walt Whitman references during the four and a half seasons of AMC’s Breaking Bad. This month the final episodes of the series are being shown.

The two WW's - Whitman and Breaking Bad protagonist, Walter White - have a strange connection.

The two don't seem similar. White is a high school science teacher who finds out he has cancer and becomes a crystal meth maker and distributor to build up a cash reserve for his family. Over the seasons, he breaks very bad, going “from Mr. Chips to Scarface” as the show's creator, Vince Gilligan, has said.

Whitman is nothing like that. Whitman and his book, Leaves of Grass, were not part of some original plot plan by the creator, But he keeps popping up.

In season three, White’s lab assistant, Gale, recites Whitman's poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer", a poem about disillusionment with theory and a need to engage with the world.
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air,…

Gale gives Walt a copy of Leaves of Grass as a gift. In a later scene, Walt read the book which Gale inscribed with “To my other favorite W.W. It is an honor working with you.”

The name of this year's fifth season’s midpoint cliffhanger episode was “Gliding Over All,” which is an allusion to a poem in the book, "Song of Myself."

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.

This poem connects with the Walt that White has become.

And then Walt’s brother-in-law Hank, a D.E.A. agent who has been pursuing the meth cook that is Walt, found the copy of Leaves of Grass in Walt's bathroom, and reading the inscription written by the now dead Gale, knows that Walt is the meth cook and drug lord also known as "Heisenberg."

Walter "Walt" Whitman the poet was a humanist and part of the transition between transcendentalism and realism. He is among the most influential poets in the American canon, often called the father of free verse.

His work was very controversial in its time, particularly Leaves of Grass, which was described as obscene for its overt sexuality.

Will "The Good Gray Poet" figure in the final episodes of the series?

As at thy portals also death,
Entering thy sovereign, dim, illimitable grounds...
I grave a monumental line, before I go, amid these songs,
And set a tombstone here.

More About WW and WW

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