From Victim to Victor: “Breaking Bad” and the Dark Potential of the Terminally Empowered
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- Lewis, M.A. Cult Med Psychiatry (2013) 37: 656. doi:10.1007/s11013-013-9341-z
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As treatments for malignancies have improved incrementally over the preceding decades, patients with cancer have been encouraged to reject an attitude of hopelessness and to choose instead the role of fighters. The recasting of the cancer patient as warrior and winner, upheld through the Livestrong movement, reaches its monstrous apotheosis in the form of Walter White, the central figure in the AMC television series “Breaking Bad.” The story begins with Walt as the protagonist, but the arc of this conversion narrative transforms him into the antagonist, exploring the darkest potential of his post-diagnosis empowerment. His awareness of his own mortality enables him to take risks that his more rational, pre-cancer self would have avoided. Rather than being rendered impotent by fear of an impending death, he finds himself emboldened, liberated from behavioral norms, capable of heretofore-unthinkable violence and even murder. As Walt moves from victim to victor, the viewer realizes the perils of a survive-at-all-costs mentality and is forced to question their own, initially sympathetic perception of Walt. The series subverts the notion of the cancer patient made noble through struggle by portraying a man betrayed by his own body who then becomes willing to betray everything else in the amoral service of his pride.