The setup is perfect. Walter White, an ordinary chemistry professor and family man, learns that he has inoperable lung cancer. He panics over his limited income and his family’s financial future. From his brother-in-law, a DEA agent, he learns about “easy money” making meth. He knows he can do it. Partnering with a former student, Jesse, Walt starts his secret life as a meth cook.
The show’s use of elemental symbols in its title and credits signals an interesting question: Is Walt’s degeneration into corruption a matter of something “chemical” already inside him, or is it the result of decisions he progressively makes as forces and pressures cross his path? Is he changed from the inside or the outside?
“I am awake!” Walter responds to Jesse’s query of why he’s “breaking bad” at age 50. He's already described chemistry as cycles of growth, destruction, and transformation. Might this be the emerging declaration of the dormant Walter Black? Does Walter White even have a choice in the matter, once the seed has been watered?
The courts would hold him accountable for any criminal act, but the field of neurocriminology might suggest something else. Neuroscience today is changing our notions about what drives "evil" behavior. Numerous studies of twins and adopted children confirm that some 50% of the variance in antisocial behavior is genetic. It’s in the blood, so to speak.
The earliest neurological studies performed on violent offenders occurred during the 1940s with electroencephalograms. In research that involved fifty-eight males and six females implicated in murder, the EEG records were generally abnormal. The most dramatic readings came from offenders who had committed seemingly aimless crimes—psychopaths.
Computed tomography came along in the 1970s. This imaging method makes cross-sectional 3D pictures to reveal the brain’s structure. The result of a CT scan was included in the defense for John Hinckley, Jr., who had tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
Throughout the 1980s, the fields of neuroscience and cognitive science joined, developing better ways to watch the active brain. During the 1990s, researcher Adrian Raine compared 41 murderers against 41 matched controls and discovered brain abnormalities in most of the violent individuals. Other neuroscientists have joined his effort.
Many believe that, as consistent results turn up, they might eventually be able to read a neural signature for violence. This could introduce a causal neural mechanism into criminological assessments. That is, we might actually see what thing in the brain influenced Walter White to break bad the way he did.
On the other hand, biology is not destiny. The circumstances did set him – and kept him – in motion.
Some structural and functional abnormalities seemingly predispose some individuals who cannot make adequate moral connections to antisocial acts. Add a poor environment, with physical or substance abuse, and you have a rich cauldron for criminal behavior later in life.
In other words, Walter White might have had a criminogenic neuro-deficit already: a bad seed. Add the pressure of his concern for his family, his pending death, and his sudden education in how to make money fast with skills he already had, and you water the seed.
So, it wasn’t just the power of the situation and it wasn't just a bad seed: the situation may have started a seed that might otherwise have lain dormant. But a bad seed might have influenced increased offending.
The images on a brain scan are not yet definitive, but as the data mount and the instruments grow more precise, there will be changes in how we understand dangerous people in our midst. Biology is not destiny, but it appears to play a significant role.
Breaking Bad keeps these questions front and center across the six seasons through which the main character devolves. The secret life of Walter White, episode by episode, provides numerous opportunities to grapple with this stimulating and important debate.