Way back when I enthused about the awesomeness of Breaking Bad a second time, I noted that protagonist Walter White soon found himself surrounded by fellow baldies. It’s very true—by season 4, of the 7 male characters I’d consider major, 5 had shorn or nearly shorn heads. And way back when, I briefly considered what this meant. But, I feel there’s enough going on to consider the matter at greater length. Just what does the gallery of scalps around Walt tell him?
Walt shaving his head is a significant moment on the show. It happens in the episode “Crazy Handful of Nothing,” the 6th of the 7 episode first season, and marks the true beginning of his metamorphosis. He’s inspired by the first handful of hair he pulls from his scalp after he finally agrees to undergo chemotherapy. Though Walt gets his cancer diagnosis in the pilot, it’s been a sort of intellectual exercise until now. The patches on his scalp are proof of his death sentence that everyone will see, and it for the first time seems to make it real.
But that’s not all on Walt’s mind when he picks up the razor. Newly reinvested in cooking meth, but still unclear on what a life of crime will expect of him, Walt pushed his partner Jesse to seek out a distributor, in the hope of earning more than the paltry $1300 Jesse was able earn, slinging one 16th of an ounce at a time. Jesse’s attempts to broker a deal with local big shot Tuco got him beaten badly enough to be hospitalized. Walt had expected he could remain hands-off. “No more bloodshed. No violence,” he says as the episode begins, outlining a role for himself wherein he is the silent partner, never taking a direct hand outside of cooking. Looking at Jesse, beaten and unconscious, he seems to realize that passivity won’t be possible if he’s going to continue down this path. In the next scene, he shaves his head. When he emerges with this new look, which has become iconic of the show, his wife Skyler is shocked speechless by his transformation, but his son Walt Jr. nods approvingly: “Bad ass, Dad.” Later, Walt will confront Tuco, and adopt his criminal pseudonym, “Heisenberg,” for the first time. He fully embraces his extreme path.
The confrontation and acceptance of death is central to Existentialism since at least Heidegger—it’s a moment where we realize we are free, unconstrained, and responsible, a moment that allows us to take authentic action, a moment where we are prompted to make our lives our own. There is no turning back from it. But, as Sartre points out in “The Wall,” it’s a difficult, and even dangerous moment. Just because we’re making choices after we understand our mortality doesn’t mean they’ll be right.
Walt shaving his head comes at the moment he has truly internalized his mortality, and decided to take action. The shaved head becomes a symbol of that internalization—each significant shorn pate we see belongs to a man who has faced death, and started acting accordingly. Confronting mortality is a singular, subjective moment for each individual, and yet each scalp and the moment they symbolize circle back around to the center of the show, Walter White, reflecting on his own journey, giving him guidance, or warnings.
The very first skull Walt faces after revealing his own belongs to Tuco, the very drug lord who hospitalized Jesse. Connected to the Mexican cartels, Tuco has not taken his internalization well at all. He’s violent, drug-addled, and likely insane, a vicious nihilist who knows he’ll die, but doesn’t take his or anyone’s life very seriously. Hardly an authentic or empowered life. Waving his giant knife around like a maniac, taking pot-shots at passing cattle with his assault rifle, Tuco’s actions may not be constrained, but they are also without thought. He beats Jesse for no particularly good reason beyond asserting his power, which is silly, given they are sitting in his fortified drug lair, surrounded by his muscle at the time. While high, he beats a henchman to death, again to assert power that needs no asserting.
We don’t get to see Tuco’s confrontation (though we’ll eventually get a good idea who was involved), but the end result on his mindset is plain as day. He’s concluded that life, even his own, is cheap and disposable, and Walt is rightly horrified—he’s not far from the mark when he says Tuco is a “degenerate, psychotic piece of filth who deserves to die,” and he’d later refuse to work with “another Tuco,” rejecting the man utterly. Walt believes himself to be a cautious cat, and Tuco is why. His paranoia drives him to abduct Walt and Jesse, dragging them off into a desert shack, home to his stroke-crippled tio, Hector, who we’ll see again. Eventually, Tuco’s behavior would lead to his own demise, when his unwarranted and unplanned killing of his henchman eventually puts him right in the path of Hank, who has his own baldness issues.
Tuco is the first baldy Walt faces after becoming one himself, but not the first to appear on the show. Walt’s brother in law Hank enters the show free of hair, before we even have a reason to consider what that means. Hank is a local DEA agent, a man of action and danger who faces death every day, and while it’s not clear if Walt envies him, he certainly feels inadequate next to and frequently cowed by this burly, boisterous, confident, charismatic paragon of masculinity. Even though Walt is taller, Hank always looks the bigger man.
I was about to say “We never see the moment of Hank’s confrontation,” but that isn’t necessarily so. Hank’s bluster and unflappability is a carefully maintained persona that hides the truth: Hank has internalized fear. His shootout with Tuco earns him acclaim and esteem he soaks up with grace and good humor, but once he’s alone, Hank becomes a trembling mess of anxiety. He knows he will die, and fears it. While dispatched to Juarez, he narrowly avoids being maimed or killed by a bomb, and returns to Albuquerque, abandoning his promotion and job for a time, refusing to discuss why, until Walt is called in. Walt sees Hank’s fear, and seems to feel more than a little contempt. That contempt seems to prompt Walt to push back against Hank’s bluster at a party later, though not in a particularly good way. Still, Hank is prompted to live authentically, and cannot bring himself to do it.
But Walt doesn’t give Hank the credit he deserves, probably because he only sees the aftermath. Once the moment has passed, Hank’s fear makes him a wreck, but in the moment itself, he has none. In those moments, he’s nothing less than astonishing. Against Tuco, he’s absurdly outgunned, and his steely nerves and patience carry the day. Later, against the Cousins, he’s unarmed and outnumbered (and the Cousins wear armor, no less), but quick thinking and some good fortune help him through. Walt’s trademark way of handling a crisis is bumbling and fumbling. Maybe he should take a harder look at his brother-in-law.
Mike is probably the most well-adjusted character on Breaking Bad, or as well-adjusted as you can expect from a drug lord’s cleaner and assassin. He does his job with an unassuming professionalism, gets a drink at the bar after the working day is done, and takes his granddaughter to the zoo on weekends. There doesn’t seem to be any angst, conflict, or fear in his actions or his life. Mike has found his place, and seems happy, even if he isn’t always happy with boss. It looks like Mike has found himself an authentic life (though there is a pretty alarming amount of killing involved). And beneath his gleaming dome is a key bit of advice for Walt.
While we don’t see Mike’s internalizing moment, I do think he tells us and Walt about it, in his monologue from the episode “Half Measures,” where he discusses his time as a cop. Fed up with constantly dealing with an abusive husband, Mike drives the man out to the desert, intent on killing him, going so far as to put his gun in the man’s mouth, but finally decides to threaten the man instead. Two weeks later, the man finally killed his wife. “Moral of the story is,” Mike tells Walt, “I used a half-measure, when I should have gone all the way. I’ll never make that mistake again.”
No more half measures, Walter. It’s advice he takes, for better or worse.
Early in season 2, panicked and convinced the law is about to come down on his head, Tuco kidnaps Walt and Jesse and holes up in a remote hideout where he proclaims, ominously, they will wait for his cousins to spirit them all into Mexico. It isn’t until the beginning of season 3 that the twin Cousins, Marco and Leonel Salamanca, appear, and as terrifying as Tuco was, he is nothing next to them. Tuco internalized his mortality and became an insane, cruel, drug-addled degenerate—all human traits we can recognize. But in the Cousins, it seems there is nothing human left. They’ve internalized their own deaths, and seem to have become it.
Their chilling demeanor befits their moment of confrontation, which we do see, and is one of the most horrifying scenes the show has yet produced. Playing under the watch of a much younger and less stroked Tio Hector, the Cousins get in an argument over a broken toy. “I wish he was dead!” Leonel says. Hector asks Marco to fetch his tio a beer from the ice bucket as his side, and when the boy reaches down, Hector forces his head under the water. As both boys struggle vainly against Hector, he torments Leonel, only relenting when the boy punches him in the face. Looming over both, he makes his lesson plain: “La familia es todo.”
That frightening scene created frightening men. Every scene with the Cousins, every time they appear, is marked with dread and fear for everyone. Having had knowledge of their mortality inflicted upon them, they relentlessly inflict plain mortality on others, without care, or thought, or seemingly any emotion at all. They are both purely death, and purely action, hardly even bothering to speak—between the two, they have perhaps enough lines to count on one hand. Just about anything we’d recognize as human has been bleached out of them.
Walt doesn’t spend enough time with the Cousins to really glean much (they are, after all, there to kill him) but he seems to recognize them as an embodiment of consequences—the sight of one of them, crippled and legless, dragging himself bloody across the hospital floor just to get at Walt is certainly vivid. If they’d had more time, maybe Walt would be thinking harder about the toll his actions take on himself, not just his body.
“He sounds a little like you,” Saul says, after describing exactly the sort of distributor Walt and Jesse need—a proper businessman, a professional, who treats Walt and Jesse’s product. He’s thinking of Gus the Chicken Man, better known as Gustavo Fring, and not long after meeting him, we realize that Saul was really buttering Walt up. While both Walt and Gus seem unassuming, under-the-radar types, the similarities end there. Gus has power, prestige, money, security, and perfect control. Walt only has one of those. Gus isn’t like Walt, as much as Gus is what Walt could be like, and definitely wants to be like.
Yeah, they try to kill each other.
Twenty years earlier, Gus looked much more like Walt as he actually is. He was waiting, poolside, for a meeting with Cartel Kingpin Don Eladio, with a cheap suit, longer hair, and little more than a plan to make money. The meeting takes an ugly turn when Eladio is less than happy with Gus’ presumption, and asks a very valid question: if Gus’ partner Maximilio is the chemist, what use does Gus have? It seems the twosome hadn’t prepared for this question, as they both fumble and grasp through weak appeals and apologies, until a shot rings out and the side of Gus’ face is splashed with blood. And the man holding the gun is our old friend Hector Salamanca. Max dies, but Gus is spared, and spared only because of his mysterious and shady past in Chile.
That past complicates Gus’ internalization. It’s strongly implied that Gus has some connection to the Pinochet regime and their myriad abuses, and as such he should be a man already inured in the fragility of the mortal coil. However, when he’s sitting with Don Eladio, he’s a long way from Chile, and whatever life he had there. If he was a baldy under Pinochet, he tried to forget the insights his haircut implies—he wanted a new life, and to forget his old one. But there are things that are true about all lives, truths that ask us to act accordingly (remember, awareness of death is a call to action), and Gus has to realize that, pinned to the ground, forced to watch Max die. No one ever said it was an easy realization (as we’ll see shortly), but armed with it, Gus would build his distribution empire, and exact a horrible revenge on Eladio, Hector, and the entire Cartel that wronged him.
The dispute between Walt and Gus isn’t nearly so operatic—it starts as a simple matter of control. Jesse defies Gus’ orders to maintain peace between himself and some dealers, and Walt intervenes, first killing the dealers to save Jesse’s life, and then arranging the death of Gus’ back-up chemist to save his own. Gus isn’t about to have one man be the linchpin in his domain, certainly not one who doesn’t do as he’s told. Walt isn’t about to let himself be killed, and neither is he willing to have his actions or inactions dictated to him. Bloodshed was pretty inevitable.
In the end, Walt comes out on top, and that, unfortunately, seems to be what he takes away. “I won,” he tells Skylar when Gus’ violent end is announced to the world. Really, though, he should focus less on that he won, and consider how he won: by luring Gus into a trap, exploiting his need to revenge himself on old Tio Salamanca. Revenge was the sort of motivation thinkers like Nietzsche criticized, rooted, as it was, in the past when we really ought be thinking about the present and the future. Letting go of the past is something Walt really needs to work on.
Internalizing mortality can be a difficult, arduous, and long process. How difficult, arduous, and long? Early in season 2, Jesse is nearly shot in the head by Tuco, yet he keeps his hair. He spends a dark night at the mercy of a pair of crazed meth heads (and their tragic child), one of whom dies in front of him, yet he keeps his hair. One of his best buddies, Combo, is killed while slinging for Jesse and Walt, yet he keeps his hair. In a drug-induced stupor, his girlfriend Jane chokes to death on her own vomit while he sleeps, insensate, next to her, yet her keeps his hair. Jesse blames himself for her death (they were going to get clean the next morning, they swore), and coming out of rehab he tells Walt he’s at peace, because he realizes who he is. And who is that? “I’m the bad guy.” But he’s still got all his hair.
Enraged at discovering Combo’s killers are in Gus’ employ (and thus slinging product he helped make), Jesse tries to poison them, and when the truce Gus brokers between the parties leads to a boy’s murder, he makes a kamikaze run against them (but not before donning a beanie that evokes the shape of his scalp), only to be saved by Walt’s violent intervention. Then, to save Walt’s life, Jesse shoots Gus’ reserve chemist, the mostly innocent Gale, in the face. The trauma sends Jesse spiraling further into a despair that has him sealing himself off from everyone, drowning out his thoughts by hosting wild house parties that decay into a meth pit. Finally, fearing both the police and how their bosses are taking Jesse’s new attitude, Walt tries to intervene, and he finds Jesse, head shaved.
At last, Jesse is ready.
Though Jesse may finally be ready to act for himself, he remains a work in progress. But where once his life was marked with (often deadly) failures, he’s begun to rack up successes. Under Mike’s guidance, he took on important and trusted roles in Gus’ organization, got clean, and even made a little family for a time. Even as Walt and Gus pulled him back and forth between them, he pushed back against both. As he feels more validated, he grows bolder in his actions and more assertive in his choices.
Walt has been getting Jesse to do what he wants for a long time, but the true import of Jesse’s recent developments seems to have eluded him. Obviously, Walt has noticed that controlling Jesse has taken more nuance and subtlety lately, and the extreme act it took to secure his loyalty isn’t something he’s soon to forget, but he seems to regard it all as just another thing he needs to do, a wrinkle in managing his business. He should be seeing them as warnings, because while it’s hard to say what exactly Jesse will do with his newfound freedom, it’s an easy guess what he will do if he learns the truth. If Gus is the embodiment of Walt’s ambitions, Jesse is the repository for the awful things he did to achieve them. Every awful thing described in the first two paragraphs of this section can be tied to Walt, and it’s Walt’s very good fortune that Jesse is only aware of those that are less than direct, like the Tuco situation and Combo’s murder, or those where Jesse retained some agency, like killing Gale. These are all things that haunted Jesse, but the death of Jane nearly destroyed him—his declaration that he’s the bad guy was a healthy and lucid step up from where he was, high and cradled by Walt, sobbing “I killed her” through his tears. But Walt was responsible for that directly, knocking Jane from her side to her back, and failing to intervene when she began to choke. And the extreme act that pulled Jesse away from Gus and back into Walt’s orbit—the (non-fatal) poisoning of Jesse’s Girl’s little son.
It is very easy to predict what Jesse might do in response to either of these revelations. After all, the Bhuddists who inspired the proto-existentialist Arthur Schopenhauer had a saying about what students must do to their teachers.