Breaking Bad’s Faustian Cast
By Jessica Barbour
Note: this post contains many, many spoilers for Breaking Bad. Update (2 October 2013) below.
In a Reddit AMA session a few months ago, Bryan Cranston was asked when he thought his character on Breaking Bad broke bad. His response: “My feeling is that Walt broke bad in the very first episode. It was very subtle but he did because that’s when he decided to become someone that he’s not in order to gain financially. He made the Faustian deal at that point and everything else was a slippery slope.”
The story of Faust, the man who made a deal with the Devil, dates back many centuries and has taken many forms, from folktales to puppet shows to plays to novels. Since Johann Wolfgang von Goethe completed Part I of his play Faust in 1808, variations on the tragedy have inspired at least a dozen operas, as well as numerous art songs and concert works.
The tale’s lengthy heritage suggests that there’s always been something intriguing about watching a man freely sacrifice his soul for a chance at happiness. I’ll focus on works derived from Goethe’s telling of the story, both because it’s inspired so much music and because it’s the version I’ve actually read.
As we all anxiously await the final episode of Breaking Bad, it’s impossible not to wonder/theorize/obsess over how the story will end. Taking Cranston’s use of “Faustian” here further than he probably intended, I’m going to recast the main roles in Faust with characters from Breaking Bad, looking at each character through the lens of a Faust-based work from the classical music canon. The exercise might give us some clues about what will happen to these characters, or, failing that, provide something to mull over while waiting to see what actually happens.
Walter White: Faust
Faust is an unhappy scholar, a man suffering from extreme ennui who craves more than his life can afford him. After he comes close to killing himself (but decides against it), a demon, Mephistopheles, appears to him and guarantees that he can bring Faust whatever he desires. In a moment of hubris and greed, Faust agrees to a deal with Mephistopheles: the Devil will be his servant while he’s on earth, and Faust will be the Devil’s servant in hell. If Faust ever reaches a moment in which he is finally truly happy, the Devil will claim his part of the bargain.
Having watched all but one episode of the final season of Breaking Bad, I can’t help but feel like Walt has already arrived at the second half of Faust’s deal. As soon as Walt got everything he wanted—he’d retired from the meth business with tens of millions of dollars, his wife no longer appeared to hate him, and he could finally enjoy a leisurely outdoor meal with his extended family—it was all snatched away.
The piece: Hector Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust (1846)
As has been the case for Breaking Bad, the critical acclaim for La Damnation de Faust outdistanced its popularity. Berlioz adored Goethe’s version of the tale, and his libretto is based mainly on Faust, but his narrative does have some variations. Berlioz sets the bargain at the end of the work, after Mephistopheles tells Faust that if he wants to save Margaret (more info on her below) he must sign a contract in which he agrees to become the Devil’s servant the next day. Faust signs it, and he and Mephistopheles ride back towards Margaret to save her—except, in reality, Mephistopheles is taking Faust straight to hell and does nothing to save Margaret.
If you’ve seen the Breaking Bad episode “Ozymandias,” the exchange above may remind you of the scene in which Walt tries to bargain with the neo-Nazis for the life of his brother-in-law, DEA agent Hank Schrader, offering them $80 million in exchange for keeping Hank alive. The Nazis do take most of Walt’s money, but they also murder Hank. Walt must then return home through the desert, abandon his family members, who now fear and abhor him, and live out his remaining months as a hermit in the New England cold until his cancer kills him (or so he initially thinks).
Crystal Meth: Mephistopheles
Someone I told last week about this post asked how it would be possible for Breaking Bad to be Faust without a character on the show standing in for the Devil. In actuality, there have been several versions without the Devil—and in many versions of the Faust story the protagonist is not dealing with Satan himself, but one of his minions, e.g. Goethe’s Mephistopheles. We’ve seen Walt align himself with several representatives of the Business Partners from Hell while pursuing his goals (see Krazy 8, Tuco Salamanca, Gustavo Fring) but he’s somehow managed to escape them all until now (see Neo-Nazis).
Of course, despite its perennial snub at the Emmy Awards (not even a nomination!), the most important supporting character in Breaking Bad is methamphetamine. We see some incarnation of it in nearly every episode, and its introduction to Walter is what inspires him to change his life. Watching a news report about a meth-lab bust with Hank, Walt witnesses all the wealth the crystal meth business can yield, providing you (1) are decent with chemistry and (2) don’t get caught.
Meth offers him everything he wants, but is just as upfront with the eventual consequences of the deal as Mephistopheles. Walt ignores this fact, though—because of his recent lung cancer diagnosis, he figures he’ll be dead before he can be brought to justice.
The piece: Charles-François Gounod’s Faust (1859)
Gounod’s Faust, while based on Goethe’s play, deviates greatly from its source material. According to Grove Music Online, “The main objection is that the librettists transformed Faust, a seeker for knowledge (or experience, or power), into an operatic lover; but this merely proves that composer and librettists understood the nature of the genre, and of opera as a business operation, better than their educated and literary critics.” The opera was a great success when it opened and remains immensely popular.
In Gounod’s version, Mephistopheles interrupts a man singing a song about a rat (which is sung in full in the Berlioz version—see below) to sing a song about the golden calf and mankind’s self-destructive devotion to money. (This replaces the song Mephistopheles sings Goethe’s Faust, about a king and his flea; this text was set to music many times, too.)
Meth as Mephistopheles (Methistopheles!) is cynically aware of what Walt truly wants—what he thinks the whole world wants—and offers it up to Walt, who gradually learns to ignore the difference between what’s truly right and wrong in order to accept it.
Skyler White: Margaret
The third character from Goethe’s Faust who needs to be accounted for is Margaret, aka Gretchen, the woman Faust loves. In Breaking Bad, we’re shown only two women with whom Walt has been in love: his wife, Skyler, and his ex-girlfriend, who happens to be named (gasp!) Gretchen.
Faust instantly falls in love with Margaret and seduces her with lavish gifts. Eventually, he persuades her to let him stay with her one night, giving her a sleeping potion that she can give her mother so they won’t be found out. Faust impregnates her that night.
She later tries to go to church to pray as usual, but is scared away from confessing her sins by a host of demons (bringing to mind the scene in last Sunday’s “Granite State” when the neo-Nazis invade the baby’s nursery in the Whites’ home to scare Skyler away from giving any information to the police). Later Margaret is imprisoned after accidentally killing her mother with the sleeping potion and, having gone insane, drowning her baby.
I’m loath to bring it up, but could this all bode ill for baby Holly? Breaking Bad has been ruthless and cold when deciding which of its characters to kill off. While I’m not convinced that Holly isn’t going to make it, the implication from Todd and co. is that if something did happen to either of the White children, it would be Skyler’s fault. (In a show with so much German thrown into characters’ names—e.g. Heisenberg, Ehrmentraut, Schwartz, Schrader—and which features a five-and-a-half-minute opening scene auf Deutsch, the fact that “Tod” is the German word for “death” might not be a coincidence.)
At the end of Goethe’s Faust Part 1, though, Margaret is saved by an angel chorus that exclaims “She is redeemed!” and calls her up to Heaven. So perhaps the ending for Walt’s family doesn’t have to be that bleak.
The piece: Franz Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (1814)
Schubert composed this song when he was 17 years old (more than halfway through his life). He was another Goethe devotee, and composed more than sixty lieder on texts from the writer’s oeuvre. This is one of his best known, and it quotes directly from a scene in Faust. In it, Gretchen sits at her spinning wheel (represented by the circular motif in the piano), thinking about Faust. She’s troubled by how overpowering his seduction of her is, and feels herself losing her mind and her inner peace while obsessing about how it feels to be with him.
I recently rewatched a disturbing scene from the fifth season of Breaking Bad in which Walter comes to Skyler in bed and begins foreplay with her while talking about the justification for all the horrible things they have done. This occurs as she looks away, horrified. She has absolutely no power to escape him, no matter how many times she’s tried. Her life is so tied up with his that severing herself from him seems, in this scene at least, impossible.
One key difference between the two stories is that Margaret never stops loving Faust, and never sees him as an evil man.
Jesse Pinkman: The rat
There is, of course, a major character missing a Faustian equivalent: Jesse Pinkman. I considered creating a parallel version of the cast that would assign Jesse to the part of Faust. However the last episode plays out, I think many Breaking Bad viewers would agree that Walt might not be Faust, but the Devil. He approaches Jesse when he’s vulnerable, promises to improve his way of life, then destroys every element of it.
But despite my desire to cast Walt as the Devil in this scenario, I’m not sure it fits. When I was watching La Damnation de Faust, however, there was one section that eerily reminded me of Jesse’s current predicament:
The piece: Branders’ song.
It’s a story told via drunken bar patron about a rat who lived happily on fat and butter in a kitchen. The cook poisoned the rat, and the creature pathetically reels around the house, gnawing everything in sight and drinking from puddles to alleviate the feeling inside, which won’t go away. Eventually the rat simply runs into the stove and dies, and the cook laughs. The translation of the refrain “Als hätte sie Lieb’ im Leibe” is given as “as if it were in heat”, referring to the wild manner in which the rat reacted to the poison. The literal translation, though, and one that applies to Jesse, is “as if it had love in its body”.
As we discover in the final season, the lowest life form in the estimation of Walt (the meth cook) is that of a rat. And Jesse is never more prone to tragedy or despair than when he’s in love. Walt has been poisoning Jesse throughout the show’s story arc, and any time Jesse thinks his existence can’t get any worse, he dooms himself further.
The trouble with all of this, of course, is that there are so many different endings to the Faust story, at least in terms of the fate of the titular character. Margaret is consistently redeemed; the rat, when he’s mentioned, always dies; maybe we can count on these endings for Skyler and Jesse. But the fate of Faust himself is up to the composer—in this case, Vince Gilligan.
Update (2 October 2013): The Breaking Bad finale aired on Sunday. The more than 10 million people watching that episode also heard, but may not have noticed, an excerpt from Gounod’s Faust (the second musical example below) playing in the scene in the Schwartzes’ home. This was a far more subdued musical cue than the use of “El Paso” or “Baby Blue”, but its Easter Egg quality made it all the more satisfying to catch. (And knowing the extreme level of Breaking Bad‘s attention to background—or foreground—detail, there’s absolutely no way that it was a coincidence.) I was really pleased that Gilligan (or possibly his music adviser) agrees with the premise that Walter White’s story and Faust’s are not so different.
Jessica Barbour is the Associate Editor for Grove Music/Oxford Music Online. You can read her previous blog posts, “The 1812 Overture: an attempted narration,” “Baseball scoring,” “Glissandos and Glissandon’ts,” and “Wedding Music,” and you can learn more about Berlioz, Schubert, Gounod, Goethe, Faust, and the operas mentioned above with a subscription to Grove Music Online.
Oxford Music Online is the gateway offering users the ability to access and cross-search multiple music reference resources in one location. With Grove Music Online as its cornerstone, Oxford Music Online also contains The Oxford Companion to Music, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, and The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.
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Image credit: Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in Episode 15. Photo by Ursula Coyote/AMC. Source blogs.amctv.com/breaking-bad. Image used for the purposes of illustration. (c) AMC. All rights reserved.