December 21, 2023

An Essay on Liberation: Breaking Bad

Christoph Menke

Still from Breaking Bad, season 1, episode 1: “Pilot.” Created by Vince Gilligan.

The thinking of freedom begins with a paradox. The paradox follows from the fact that freedom—on the one hand—only exists in such a way that it is the process of its becoming. Freedom is not a property, but a relation (to what is given), which we still have to produce and enact. At the same time, however—on the other hand—we must already be free in order to be able to bring this relationship about. If it is indeed true that freedom is to be thought of only as liberation, then freedom seems impossible; it seems to stand in two irreconcilable logical places, having to be both a result and a prerequisite.

This paradox can also be formulated in the form of a question directed at its premise. The paradox breaks up when we think of freedom as liberation and, further, when we think of liberation not as the act of some other, as a gift, but as our own act. If this alternative—to be liberated or to liberate oneself—is complete, the paradox is inevitable and indissoluble. But is it?

I want to discuss this question by looking at a story. I could have chosen the perhaps oldest liberation story we know in the West, namely: the Exodus narrative in the second book of the Pentateuch. But I rather prefer to look at one of the most recent ones: the television series Breaking Bad.1 Breaking Bad tells the story of the last two years in the life of Walter White. It moves from the days immediately before he receives a diagnosis of terminal cancer up until his point of death, which is therefore (dead) certain right from the beginning, yet comes to pass in a very different way. For in the intervening period, nearly the entire time of the series, we see Walter struggling less against his cancer then for his freedom; the story of Breaking Bad is a story of a struggle for liberation under late-capitalist conditions. I shall start by briefly considering how this struggle for liberation begins (1), how it proceeds and at first fails (2), and finally how it ends, in my reading, successfully (3). In a brief conclusion I will define a task that follows from this story for the analysis of liberation (4).


Using a technique that will be employed repeatedly throughout the series, the beginning of the story is presented in retrospect: “Three weeks earlier …” reads the text which introduces the narrative of the beginning. That is to say, three weeks before the scene that constitutes the opening of the pilot episode of the series and which is thereby marked as an anticipation of what is to follow: an absurd, surreal, and chaotic scene in which a pair of light-colored trousers sails through the air against a clear, blue, empty sky; with a wildly careering camper van and the sirens of rapidly approaching police cars in the background; with a man wearing nothing but underpants and a gas mask in the driver’s seat, with a second apparently unconscious man next to him, with two lifeless bodies being flung back and forth in the luggage hold along with several other objects; with the same man, finally, videoing himself and recording a message for his wife and son in which he speaks of the terrible “things” that he has done; and then: cut, opening credits, suspense. What is thus presented as happening three weeks before is defined as the beginning of a chain of events that will end (for the time being) this way.

This beginning, to which the series thus turns back after the opening credits, is the morning of Walter White’s fiftieth birthday. Each of its moments bears the message, as if set in stone, “Like every morning …” Even this birthday (with its symbolically laden figure) is like every other day: first the fitness routine, then breakfast, with the entrance of the teenage son with the usual complaints about the badly functioning boiler which needs replacing (“for the thousandth time …”), and then work. And the latter in two shifts: we see him first in his main profession as a high school chemistry teacher before a class of students, fluctuating between utter boredom and half-hearted unruliness, and then in his second afternoon job as an attendant in an automatic car wash, where we witness the ultimate humiliation of Walter White as he cleans the wheels of the car belonging to the student he had earlier clashed with in school (this scene in the car wash is of course instantly captured on smartphone by the student’s girlfriend and immediately passed on to everyone else). Right at the beginning we see a life of sheer habit and routine: a restricted, enclosed financial, familial, professional, and social situation that reproduces itself through the law of empty repetition. If the “principle of life,” as Walter White attempts to explain to his indifferent students, is constant transformation (thus quoting the Romantic definition of chemistry), then this is a life that does not live: it is the servitude of the merely habitual.

Yet suddenly something happens. An image comes up that instantly holds the gaze and rouses the imagination. At a surprise birthday party for Walter White thrown by his wife Skyler, and where nothing really surprising takes place, Skyler’s policeman brother Hank compels the assembled company to watch and admire his success in a television report about a raid conducted that very morning on a drug factory producing methamphetamine. First we see the policemen and then great wads of bank notes, which were confiscated during the raid. In an instant Walter White is alert and awake. His expression becomes suddenly animated, his gaze concentrated, and indeed fascinated: “So much money,” juxtaposed against a few rather unprofessional looking chemicals and pieces of equipment. In gazing at this scene, something crucial happens. The habitual routine of life is punctured, the possibility of something else is suddenly there. The gaze says (and Walter White thereby knows it): there is something new, something different.

Fascination, to be or become fascinated, is not one’s own act or deed; rather, fascination, “the passion for the image,” is passivity: “the gaze gets taken in, absorbed by an immobile movement and a depthless deep.”2 But that is how it breaks through, indeed suspends, the established course of habit, and Walter will use this breakthrough of fascinated passivity in order to perform a deed and thus produce himself as a subject. For in his lifeless life of habit, Walter is not a subject. Here, his behavior is merely the mechanical reproduction of two socially defined roles or identities whose relationship is economically defined: his identity as a father bereft of all authority in a post-patriarchal middle class family, and his identity as a chemistry teacher equally bereft of all authority in a public school, which no longer appears to offer its students any career prospects or educational opportunities. But this gap, which the fascinated gaze into another world has torn open in the conventional world, can only be used by Walter White to accomplish the first genuine act of his own, once his social de-subjectivation, by his existence in the servitude of the habitual, is duplicated and intensified by a further one: the biological de-subjectivation which is effected by his body.

That something is wrong with his body is suggested very early on. First, by the coughing that first disturbs Walter White during his early morning fitness routine, and which then repeatedly interrupts his other everyday activities. He attempts to control the problem with echinacea until, just after his fiftieth birthday (all of this transpires in the first fifteen minutes or so of the pilot episode), he collapses and is rushed to the hospital against his will. There he receives the diagnosis: lung cancer in its final stages and an optimum life expectancy, with chemotherapy, of no more than two years. If a disease can be a metaphor, then it certainly is here. The biological death is the image of that social death, which is life in the form of habit. The cancer speaks, it says: you are an animal that has already begun to die from the very moment of birth. And this in a biological as well as in a social sense; for, as Hegel told his students, “The human being also dies from habit.”3 The biological becomes a metaphor of the social, but only because the social has become perverted, habitual, and identitarian; just as life, biologically considered, is a process of dying from the beginning, so too social life as habit is dead or lifeless.

At first it seems this is all too much for Walter White; he hardly hears the words of the doctor who gives him the diagnosis; back home he tells his wife nothing about it; he appears to “repress” it. But actually the opposite is true: for Walter White, this disease, the certainty of imminent death, is the chance that he needs. Now he can act—for the first time in this story. Against the truth of biological experience, the experience that reveals the biological truth of his social existence: I am an animal that has always been dying from the beginning, whose life is a process of dying, whether it be through cancer or through habit; it is against this truth that Walter White pits another truth, a subjective truth: I am a subject that is capable of acting. And “acting” can only mean breaking with habit, with identity (the father who works for the sake of the family, etc.). The shock of truth—socially and biologically speaking my life is as good as dead—is released in a sudden fit of rage; after his fascinated absorption in the image of money on the television screen, this is Walter White’s second emotional reaction. He gives up his work. He just leaves. This is his first deed, his first act of freedom.

How then does this liberation begin? It begins with two images: the image of money and the image of disease; of disease as image. The first of these images fascinates Walter White: it tears him away from himself, and what it opens up is not so much another particular possibility as the very possibility of something else: possibility as the Other of the given self-reproducing reality he knows. That is the reason why the image here is that of money; the image cannot be of anything but money. For money is itself pure possibility, the bare possibility of anything whatsoever.4 The object and the effect of the image coincide. That is why Walter White’s fascination with the money here is not an expression of avarice or of any striving for success, social status, or security. On the contrary, it is pure fascination. It is fascinated by itself, a fascination with fascination: fascination as pure indeterminate possibility and fascination for pure indeterminate possibility.

The second image shocks Walter White. Like every shock, this too only is effective with temporal delay (the logic of trauma). The effect of this shock is an insight. Like every true insight, it initially manifests itself as a fading away of the surrounding world and by the dissipation of knowledge, by knowing not to know. “No idea,” Walter White responds when Skyler asks him how he is. Now he knows that he has no idea how his life is, or indeed if he is alive at all. The shock of the image of his disease wakes him out a condition of torpor.

The point (or the essence) of the image, its strange or alien character, is thus not what it shows, but how it shows (or that it is). An image is derealization. But not merely the derealization of the object that it shows, since it is equally the derealization of the world of the one who beholds the image. The image derealizes the object and thereby interrupts or suspends our usual ways of dealing with it. It “de-automatizes,” as Victor Shklovsky describes it, the perception and liberates it from its merely automatic performance. 5 The image achieves this most easily by possessing (as Aristotle said) “the character of something strange or astonishing.” But once again we should note that the image is not “new” because it communicates some new content; there is no image (as image) in communication. The image is new insofar as it renews the perception, the situation, and the beholder; it is new because it awakens. The image achieves this through its mode of being or operating; through the perception it effects. It interrupts the purely recognitive perception. It de-automatizes our usual perception as it interrupts habit. It is with this irruption of the strange and unfamiliar image that the process of liberation begins.


Seeing and leaving is how Walter White’s liberation begins. What does he do then? He does what seems most plausible (or rational): he starts to think and to meditate on the situation. Until he suddenly comes to a decision that he will no longer waste his knowledge on a bunch of bored students but use it to enter the illegal drug business instead. In what follows, Walter will try again and again to interpret and justify this decision, especially in relation to his wife Skyler. In short, he justifies it by arguing that only this will allow him to make enough money to provide financially for his family after his imminent death (since the American middle class can apparently no longer afford the requisite insurance through honest labor). One may argue about whether Walter’s decision was the right one, and viewers of the series, including a remarkable number of philosophers in the field of “applied ethics,” have indeed passionately done so—as if they were themselves members of the television family, sitting there in the living room along with the Whites and capable of influencing their decisions and actions. But far more important than to judge its ethical value is to grasp what kind of development, or story, is set in motion by this decision. It is a pattern of events whose formal structure—and this is why it can be narrated only in the form of a series—is that of an ever-deepening repetition of a single, indeed, an identical basic structure. Over no fewer than sixty-two episodes, we see Walter White struggling to uphold and maintain this one initial decision.

I cannot show here precisely how this transpires in detail, or how Breaking Bad uses the artistic form of a television series in order to analyze the logic of economic action that Walter White has embarked upon in its radical neoliberal form, until it all ends where unfettered capitalism eventually leads: in the fascist logic of open violence. Rather, I should just like to offer a few brief remarks on why Walter White’s attempt at liberation ends in this renewed, but now truly voluntary, subjection to the power of repetition—how his liberation turns into the necessity for this self-repetition. The reason lies in precisely how Walter White understands liberation. For Walter White, liberation from the power of habit, the reclamation of subjectivity in the face of social and biological dying, means to finally being able to live and to act in such a way that he can realize what he truly wants. The reality of social alienation is to be replaced by what is most personal to him, what is most his own as an individual, what he has enacted himself. Walter understands his liberation as the opportunity for shaping his remaining life as his own project. The series does not simply present the fatal logic, the specifically modern form of fatedness, which the realization of this conception of liberation unleashes. It shows right from the beginning that there must be something fundamentally wrong with this conception. For it presupposes that Walter White, once he has been cast out from his life of habit, knows what he truly is and wants. It seems that he can derive this from those very images that have shown their de-automatizing power through shock and fascination. Walter White reads these images as signs whose hidden meaning is nothing but himself. Thus the shock of his approaching death reveals his true identity as a member of the family that will survive him, so that in working on their behalf he can even survive himself, that is, he can even survive his own death through living on through his family. Likewise, he rationalizes his fascination with the image of money as a symbol for his striving for economic success: for economic value in the name of the family values, the value of family, or the family as value. Making money in the name of the family: this is the oikonomic-economic, the domestic-financial complex or syntagma, which determines Walter’s thought and action from this point on with the power of fateful necessity, precisely because it is the product of his own free choice—of the free act of claiming his identity. This is Walter White’s mauvaise foi—his dishonesty, his lack of courage in sustaining his horror and his fascination. Like the “flaw” or hamartia of tragic heroes, that of Walter White is not the “evil and depravity” of his character but a “kind of error,” 6 which he commits by the way he judges, interprets, and thinks. His error is the categorical mistake of occupying the nothing, the liberating emptiness, and indeterminacy at the heart of images, with something, with a specific, particular determination: with himself, with that which is most his own. His error lies in understanding liberation from habit as the process of self-realization and this self-realization as the realization of his true identity. That is the meaning of “breaking bad”: it does not signify doing something bad or evil. It signifies acting (and thinking, judging) badly: acting as if one were not acting; acting not as a free deed, but as the enactment of what one already is.


It is with Walter White’s key decision in the middle of the first episode that the specific temporality of the series begins; with this decision begins the narrative in the form of the series. It ends with Walter White’s achievement of self-knowledge, which he expresses in the middle of the final episode. The serial logic of his economic activity ends when he acknowledges and thereby breaks through his mauvaise foi: the act of a second liberation, of his liberation from that new world of economic fate that he has created for himself through his initial liberation. Only after this second liberation is Walter White able to accomplish a final act that brings everything to an end. This a radically noneconomic act. Walter White’s self-liberation leads to an act of self-sacrifice, which he performs for the sake of another; however, this time he does not do so for another’s well-being—the economic well-being of his family—but for another’s liberty; for the liberation of his business partner, Jesse Pinkmann (who, because of Walter, is being held as a slave laborer forced to produce drugs by the motorcycle gang the Aryan Brotherhood).

In the final scene of the entire series, a scene that seems to lie in an undecidable space somewhere between irony and gravity, Water White’s act of self-sacrifice is apostrophized as the ultimate act of justice. Walter White lies dying in a narcotic laboratory where he has finally managed to drag himself after his bloody confrontation with Jack’s gang. As the police pour into the laboratory, the camera zooms upwards away from the scene and we hear the song “Baby Blue” by the band Badfinger, sung by Pete Ham, with the line “Guess I got what I deserved.” It is as if the voice of Pete Ham were the inner voice of Walter White himself; the voice of his own soul or conscience, which finally rises with the camera and, thus, with us, as we accompany Walter White’s soul or conscience rising from his body and looking back upon the course of his life and here passing judgment from on high: I have indeed deserved what I have received. This deservingness has a threefold quality: since to receive what one deserves is the definition of justice; and since Walter White has brought upon himself what he deservedly receives through his own act; and, finally, since this act is the consequence or is in fact the expression of his liberation—his second liberation leads to justice; it is the sign of true liberation to make the just act possible. But does this make the act of liberation an act of justice? Is liberation itself an ethical act, an act of virtue, of ethical insight?

No, it is not. For the liberation is grounded, indeed, arises in an aesthetic (self-)experience. At least this is how Walter himself presents it in his last encounter with Skyler. After Skyler has finally said what every viewer has long since felt, which is that she can no longer bear Walter’s protesting that he has only done all this for the sake of the family, we hear Walter White’s liberating confession in a sequence of four increasingly radical and increasingly truthful statements: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. I was alive.” It is the last of these four statements which changes everything: the admission that he continued as he did, not because he was concerned about the family, nor because he recognized true value and thus his own identity in his efforts for the family, but because he felt alive in doing so. That is, he did so because one specifically feels alive when one does not do what one (truly) wants—when one is no longer concerned with one’s own identity.

The concept of liveliness is defined by the way in which the narrative of Walter White unfolds. It is the aesthetic concept of life, that is, it is the way that life or liveliness is defined in the context of modern aesthetics. To be alive here signifies a specific kind of sequence, one of processing or proceeding.7 A proceeding can be described accordingly as alive to the extent that it is more than the mere repetition of a given pattern, indeed, to the extent that is not determined by the fulfillment of any end or function. On the contrary some action, achievement, or performance is alive when at every moment it goes beyond any state or condition which it had already attained. A living achievement is the unfolding of a force which expresses itself by producing a determinate form and in the same moment once again transcends its expression and dissolves the form that it had produced in the first place. Every living accomplishment is thus a process of permanent transformation. Transformation here has a complex structure. It means to proceed from one determinate form to another determinate form by going through a moment of absolute indeterminacy; a process of renewal or rejuvenation via passing through the negation of determinacy (as such). Life or liveliness as the unlimited production of the new is an effect of inscribing the nothing within determination. Liveliness is thus an effect of death, or a different, affirmative way of being mortal or finite (only a mortal being can be alive).

The aesthetic experience of liveliness is liberation from the first and false form of liberation. It is the second or true liberation that changes the form of liberation. In his first liberation from the death of the habitual, Walter White established new values through which his true identity was to be expressed. He thereby entangled himself in a new kind of servitude; he effectively became his own slave (or a slave of what is his own, his proper identity). The liberation from this first liberation does not lie in establishing different values or in discovering some even deeper and truer identity (his identity as a human being, for example, rather than merely his identity as a family member). Liberation from false liberation lies in the insight that freedom is a kind of liveliness, and that this is a freedom that cannot assume the form of a decision (the decision for a value), or the form of self-realization (of a false or of a true identity), but which consists in the active unfolding of an unregulated play of transformation.


What does this reading tell us about the question that is raised by the paradox of liberation? The question is what kind or form of process liberation is if it is indeed true that it can neither be a gift, something given to us, nor one’s own act. It cannot be given to us, because then we would be unfree in becoming free. It cannot be our act, because any act is the exercise of an ability that we already possess. We possess abilities by being habituated. Habit, however, is precisely the condition of unfreedom, of servitude, from which we have, and want to, liberate ourselves. Thus, liberation cannot be an act that we exercise on the basis of our acquired abilities, for then it would be merely habitual in character.

The paradox of liberation leads to skepticism about its possibility. But it may also be read as the expression of an idea. This is the idea that there might be forms of activity where our habitual abilities come to transcend themselves, where precisely through exercising these abilities, something else, something other than what we are able to do and hence can expect to happen, comes to pass. And is it not the case that the two moments of liberation narrated in Breaking Bad—the beginning and the accomplishment of liberation—hint in this very direction?

The beginning of liberation is a gaze, that is, the fascinated response to an image of unlimited, immeasurable, and thus also indefinite and indefinable possibility. The process of liberation begins from outside through the shock of confrontation with the bare or pure possibility of an act as such; that is to say, not with the possibility for this or that particular act, nor with the experience of a socially habituated ability as a specific practical possibility, but rather with the possibility of the practical (itself). Liberation begins by the confrontation with the fact of possibility. As a fact, we encounter it outside, if it comes to us by itself from somewhere else, that is, in an image. But what meets us from the outside is ourselves: the possibility of action as such or at all.

Does this not contradict the very first move with which we started, the claim that freedom is not a property or a given condition? Does it not turn freedom into a fact? Yes and no. The thesis that liberation begins with an experience in which our freedom appears to us from the outside, or on the outside, means that our freedom is a fact that we have always already forgotten: a fact, then, which—for us—is not given, whose presence is essentially absent. Thus, the achievement of liberation, as we have seen, consists in its repetition: I liberate myself now by remembering that I already have liberated myself, and I remember that I have already liberated myself by liberating myself now.

The narrative thus reveals two essential features of liberation: it is defined a) by an essential passivity and b) by a split or retroactive temporality. Both features converge in the demand to rethink the concept of activity which underlies the paradox of liberation. For this paradox only arises if we understand activity simply or merely as the exercise of an ability, as the realization of an identity, which we have acquired through the processes of social habituation. Liberation is precisely the act of breaking free from this concept of activity. The activity of liberation is nothing other than the liberation of activity.

This essay originally appeared in Blick, rörelse, röst: Festskrift till Cecilia Sjöholm (Södertörns högskola, 2021), ed. Rebecka Katz Thor and Erik Wallrup, and was further developed in Christoph Menke’s book Theorie der Befreiung (Suhrkamp, 2022). Published with permission of the author. Translated from the German by Nick Walker.


Produced by Vince Gilligan and Mark Johnson; sixty-two episodes over five seasons; broadcast from January 20, 2008 to September 29, 2013 on AMC (USA).


Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (University of Nebraska Press, 1982), 32.


G. W. F. Hegel, Outlines of the Philosophy of Right, trans. Malcolm Knox, ed. Stephen Houlgate (Oxford University Press, 2008), 158.


In Goethe’s Faust, Mephistopheles says: “Six stallions, say, I can afford, / Is not their strength my property? / I tear along, a sporting lord, / As if their legs belonged to me.” (Faust, Part I, Scene 3, lines 1824–1827). Marx comments as follows: “That which exists for me through the medium of money, that which I can pay for, i.e. which money can buy, that am I, the possessor of the money. The stronger the power of my money, the stronger am I. The properties of money are my, the possessor’s, properties and essential powers. Therefore what I am and what I can do is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy the most beautiful woman. Which means to say that I am not ugly, for the effects of ugliness, its repelling power, is destroyed by money. As an individual I am lame, but money procures me twenty-four legs. Consequently, I am not lame. I am a wicked, dishonest, unscrupulous and stupid individual, but money is respected, and so also is its owner. Money is the highest good, and consequently its owner is also good. Moreover, money spares me the trouble of being dishonest, and I am therefore presumed to be honest. I am mindless, but if money is the true mind of all things, how can its owner be mindless? What is more, he can buy clever people for himself, and is not he who has power over clever people cleverer than them? Through money I can have anything the human heart desires. Do I not therefore possess all human abilities? Does not money therefore transform all my incapacities into their opposite?” Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts,” in Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (Penguin, 1975), 377.


Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” in Russian Formalist Criticism, ed. T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis (University of Nebraska Press, 1965).


Aristotle, Poetics, trans. Stephen Halliwell (London: Duckworth, 1987), 1453a.


See Christoph Menke, Force: A Fundamental Concept of Aesthetic Anthropology (Fordham University Press, 2012), chap. 3.

Television, Freedom

Christoph Menke is Professor of Practical Philosophy at the Goethe-University of Frankfurt am Main, Germany.


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