Wednesday, 2 October 2013

A Surprising Little Grief

I discovered the television series Breaking Bad a few months ago and spent the summer catching up on the first four and a half seasons in preparation of watching the last episodes as the story drew to a close.  Like millions, I became a fan of the main character Walter White - the meek Nobel Prize winning high school chemistry teacher who, when diagnosed with stage three lung cancer, begins to cook methamphetamine to make enough money in the time he has left to provide for his family.  Walter “breaks bad”, but for a good cause; he has a wife to support and two children to put through college.

Spoiler Alert:
Early on, as Walter discovers that with his knowledge of chemistry and his meticulous nature, he and one of his ex-students, Jessie Pinkman, cook a type of meth that has a purity of over 96% - a feat unheard of in the drug world.  In addition to the purity and potency, his unique formula produces a clear product with a blue tint that sets it apart from all other meth and makes him and his recipe a hot commodity.  However, as Walter is drawn into the drug trade, he finds himself repeatedly being used as a pawn.  Walter comes to the realization that he has to take the initiative to guide the course of his own life.

We know from the outset of the series that the treatment Walter undergoes for his cancer will at best only prolong the inevitable. Even when he goes into remission, we know that his cancer will one day return and he will eventually die.  And Walter knows it as well.

As Walter journeys deeper into the crime world he creates the persona “Heisenberg” (named after a German physicist) and takes charge of his destiny.  Along the way, as Heisenberg, Walter lies to his family, betrays and manipulates his partner, causes literally hundreds of deaths, and commits some gruesome crimes.  But through it all, along with millions, I found myself cheering for Walter; for the first time in his life he was taking risks and was succeeding.  For the first time - ironically as a dying man - Walter felt truly alive.

In the final season his cancer came back as predicted, his web of lies collapsed and his crimes impacted everyone around him.  Yet still we cheered for him, right to the bitter end.

When it came at the end of the final episode, Walter’s death was a poetic one - he had come to grips with his own reality after almost a year of soul-searching while hiding out under an assumed name.  His final act was to set things as right as he could; he took his revenge on people who had wronged him, provided for his family, and freed his ex-partner Jessie from a life of living hell.

Walter’s death came peacefully in the end, to the strains of Badfinger’s 1972 hit “Baby Blue” - originally a love song written for a girl named Dixie, but now forever etched into the minds of Breaking Bad fans as Walter’s swan song.  For Walter, “Baby Blue”, was the blue meth he created and made world famous - the accomplishment he loved simply for the pure chemistry.

The final scene of Breaking Bad and Badfinger’s song were ever present in my mind for days after watching the finalĂ©.  I repeatedly asked friends and colleagues if they were Breaking Bad fans and if they’d watched the final episode.  I spent three fruitless days trying to find someone to talk to about it.  No one I met had.

I began to question why it was important for me to find another fan and talk about Walter’s death and the answer I arrived at surprised me.

I was grieving.

I suppose I still am, and this column is my way of eulogizing Walter White.  To pay tribute to a man who touched my heart.  It doesn’t matter that he was a fictional character and his story was a make-believe crime drama; on an emotional level, Walter was real.

I miss Walter.  I miss cheering him on through his seemingly insurmountable struggles.  I miss the passion he gained for life through the knowledge of his impending death.  I miss him as though he were a dear friend now lost to me, and my search for someone to talk to about it was a desire to grieve openly, to talk about the emotions the song “Baby Blue” now elicit, and to hear someone say; “I miss him too.”

Grief can find us on any level.  From the death of a loved one, to the loss of a treasured memento, and even in the death of a fictional character.  And no matter how small that grief may be, it’s an important process for us; it reminds us we are human and we make connections that enrich our lives and the loss of those connections make us sad.  Yet at the same time, grieving renews hope and appreciation of what remains to us.

When we experience a loss, we must grieve, we must hurt, and we must say goodbye - each of us in our own time and in our own way.

Goodbye, Walter.  I miss you.

Aaron D. McClelland, RPC -


  1. I have felt this 'small grief' myself ~ mostly over after finishing a book ~ and also experienced a sense of loss at not being able to talk with someone about it. In fact, I've learned to mostly keep this emotional angst to myself as others have ridiculed my response. "It's only a book. It's not real."

    This post really resonated with me (though I am currently in Season One of "Breaking Bad" and clearly no longer have any need to watch the rest of it. lol) and I appreciate you taking the time to write it.

    1. I would still recommend continuing with Breaking Bad - to enjoy the masterful story and character development by Vince Gilligan and his team as Walter and those around him transform through his own "breaking bad". There is unique humour, tragedy, and examination of human experience throughout the series' life.