The chemistry of a (Breaking) bad man
By Bill Coffin
In Passing: Walter White (1959-2013)
Most people live life knowing that eventually, they will hit that health problem that will do them in. Most people would like to think it will be something that will steal upon them in old age, perhaps while they are sleeping. The truth is, death comes for all on its own terms. Sometimes it can be delayed, or certain outcomes can be prevented or avoided, but in the long run, death always wins. What matters, is the life that is led before then, and the legacy one leaves behind.
Walter Hartwell White was a brilliant chemist specializing in X-ray crystallography. His early research contributed to a 1985 Nobel Prize in chemistry, and helped found Gray Matter Technologies, a company White abruptly left in its early stages for personal reasons, and which later became a multi-billion dollar enterprise. Embittered by his failure to stay with the company built upon his genius, White’s career followed a downward slide until he found himself teaching high school chemistry in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In 2008, a day after his 50th birthday, he discovered he had inoperable stage three lung cancer that would kill him within two years. With a son in high school (who was also suffering from cerebral palsy) and an unexpected infant daughter on the way, White became obsessed with his inability to pay (due to insufficient health insurance) for the cancer treatments that would extend his life and possibly beat his cancer. He became likewise obsessed with leaving behind enough money to support his family once he was gone. Thus began White’s entry into the illegal drug trade, where he used his advanced chemistry expertise to formulate an unusually pure (and distinctively blue-colored) form of crystal methamphetamine. Within a year, White had gone from underachieving milquetoast to ruthless drug kingpin willing to commit any form of collateral damage to reach his goals. Though he stated his aim was to provide for his family, his real aim, ultimately, was to enjoy the power and recognition his criminal work brought him. After a short but tumultuous criminal career that made national headlines, White was found dead of a gunshot wound at a meth lab of his own design following a bloody shootout with former criminal associates. The legal, emotional and moral fallout of White’s actions deeply scarred everyone he cared about; for his efforts, all White accomplished was the destruction of lives, including his own. So goes a brief and relatively spoiler-free summation of the recently concluded, Emmy-award winning television drama Breaking Bad, which ended its five-season run in late September. And while readers of this column may be angered at the reveal that (surprise, surprise) the show’s lead character dies at the end, that outcome was fairly well established in the pilot. Viewers always knew, or at least strongly suspected, that Walt would die. He had to. But what would he accomplish along the way? What would become of those who knew and loved him, those whom he supposedly was trying to help? Those answers remain to be discovered for those who have yet to watch the show.
Breaking Bad was a phenomenon that used the meth trade as a dramatic setting, while never once glamorizing the drug, the shadow economy surrounding it, or the effects of the drug’s use. The show’s producers worked with the FBI to show enough of the drug’s manufacture to seem real, while introducing details that would render worthless any effort to make drugs purely from the show’s example. The show is about transformations, both chemical and personal, and how one man, when faced by his utter failure to plan for himself and for those he loves, can find himself in strange territory, indeed.
Much has been made of the show’s premise of a man who turns to manufacturing drugs to pay for his healthcare, and of the comments that can be made about the inadequacies of the American health care system. So much so, in fact, that no small number of jibes have sprung from it, such as the following Twitter post: “Canadian Breaking Bad – Walt gets healthcare. The End.” The show doesn’t go out of its way to demonize health insurers, so much as it conforms to a prevailing attitude that over a long enough time frame, one’s health insurance is likely to fail them at some point, perhaps catastrophically so. For Walt, that time came up way before he ever expected, and to a man who had already squandered his vast personal potential, the news of his premature death broke him to the point where he simply began doing whatever he pleased, regardless of who it hurt. Health insurance is not the bad guy in Breaking Bad. Walter White is. But with all of the focus on Walt’s poor health insurance, and the shortcomings of health insurance in general, a far bigger point has been missed, though it is one that fellow LifeHealthPro editor Corey Dahl has already made on a column of her own about Breaking Bad: where was Walt’s life insurance? From the beginning, Walt is a guy who has a gift for lying to people, but most of all to himself. And for a while, before he gets too deep in a moral rabbit hole of his own making, he really does believe that the only reason why he is committing his crimes is so he might provide for his family once he is gone. Early in the show, he calculates that he needs somewhere around $750,000 to pay off his mortgage, provide college education for his kids, and leave something behind to fund the family’s very modest lifestyle. That amount could have been easily obtained through a term life policy. Walt never discusses any life insurance he gets through work, but one would imagine that his teacher’s union would have negotiated for at least some kind of coverage. Maybe not enough to cover his needs, but any producer could have offered Walt a wide array of very reasonably priced options that would have fit his financial needs. (That is, if any producer would have bothered to reach out to him. The Walter Whites of the world are part of that woefully underserved middle market that never seems to get as much attention from agents and brokers as the high-net-worth market does.)
The truth is, however, that it's not Walt's agent's fault that he was underinsured. Walt never prepared. Just as he never thought through the long-term implications of his career choices, he never imagined a life that might end at the age of 52. Granted, he probably would have been one of those life customers who thinks life insurance was too expensive for him, given his ongoing difficulties making ends meet even before his cancer diagnosis. But term is cheap. Cheap enough even for Walter White, a high school teacher forced to wash cars as a side job, to afford. He just never bothered to make the numbers work. And even if he had a trusted associate do the math for him, the chances were good that Walt would have blown him off. Some people are beyond help.
Walter White was a fiendishly smart man. He was also a tragically stupid one. If Breaking Bad teaches us anything, it certainly isn’t how to cook meth or run a sustainable criminal enterprise. It is that our choices have consequences, and that if we really care about our family and our legacy, then we will take preventative action to ensure they are taken care of long after we have closed our own final scene. We want to be remembered once we are gone, just as Walt wanted to be remembered, but not as an example to others of what not to do. Rather, as a reminder that our work while we were alive was, really and truly, intended to help those around us.