Is the Truth Out There?

Janet Manley traces the philosophical origins of Breaking Bad‘s nihilism to show creator Vince Gilligan’s beginnings as a writer for The X-Files.


Vince Gilligan is best known as the series creator of Breaking Bad, but he was also a writer and producer for over 30 episodes of The X-Files. Where The X-Files worked to make “believers” of us each week, with its global and economic cynicism and its famous tagline “The Truth is Out There,” Gilligan, a decade and a half later, seems determined to make nonbelievers of all of us in the black comedy of Breaking Bad. What’s scarier than the notion that something is out there? For Vince Gilligan, the notion that there’s nothing out there.

Gilligan cast Bryan Cranston, who plays Breaking Bad lead Walter White, as a guest star in The X-Files episode “Drive” (reviewed on Slate) — a casting move Gilligan described to The New York Times thus: “We had this villain, and we needed the audience to feel bad for him when he died… Bryan alone was the only actor who could do that.” This speaks to the ambiguity of Gilligan’s later writing efforts, and of character arcs on Breaking Bad, which more often appear to be straight downward tumbles.

Gilligan told the Times, “I’m pretty much agnostic at this point in my life. But I find atheism just as hard to get my head around as I find fundamental Christianity. Because if there is no such thing as cosmic justice, what is the point of being good?” So goes the setup for Breaking Bad, which pits the ultimate rationalist against the chaos of mortality. In suburban Albuquerque, N.M., high school chemistry teacher Walter White discovers in the pilot that, despite never having smoked, he has advanced lung cancer. Motivated by the need to provide financially for his family, he recalibrates his moral compass, entering methamphetamine production with a former student, deflecting bigger questions of mortality and spirituality with how best to utilize labeled beakers and appropriate safety precautions to create a superior product.

His partner in crime, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), a small-time drug dealer, brings a contrasting sweetness and naïveté to his hoodie and sweatpants-clad search for a home life. After being kicked out by his parents, Walter stands in as an imperfect paternal figure. Walter’s slide into crime is driven by his analytic mind; a counterpart to Pinkman’s gut instinct (and reliable stupidity). In an interview with Vanity Fair, Gilligan explained, “[Walter is] a world-class rationalizer. He can point to science, logic, and cold hard facts. Unemotional reasoning are where his conclusions come from and it helps rationalize his bad behavior.”

The corresponding skeptic/believer partnership in The X-Files adhered to a more reliable formula. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) could not be swayed by anything less than witnessing the real-time breeding of alien fetuses in jars to accept that scientific rationalization could not explain her paranormal experiences; seven seasons and multiple abductions, implants and stopped watches in, she still needed some convincing. Her partner and yang, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), with an emotional core of Gak, brought an affecting ability to follow smoke signals into implausible territory, motivated by the loss of his sister and romantic love for Scully. Gilligan hit on the difference between the moral landscape of each show in the Vanity Fair interview: “When you have agents Mulder and Scully on The X-Files… you need to protect that franchise… If Walt kills somebody, he’s changed forever. Stasis is not maintained.”

On account of his agnosticism, Jesse is affected differently by the illicit activities of their partnership. (SPOILER ALERT) Jesse’s absolute investment in his girlfriend Jane Margolis (Krysten Ritter), the recovering addict, leaves his world poised for one shattering blow as she overdoses in one of the most visceral scenes in the series, Walter hovering over their bed as she convulses, vomit foaming at her mouth in a moment that evokes the “taking” of victims in The X-Files. In one sense, Walter is privy here to the crossing over of a character, though how Jane’s violent, lonely, pathetic death plays into his philosophy is unclear. I viewed it as an image of waste, a rebuke of childlike belief in an afterlife and an affirmation of Walter’s suspicions — that Hamlet’s claim, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” is in fact wrong. That, “No. There’s less,” to quote another existentialist (Seinfeld). Walt functions both as an angel of death in the scene, but also an innocent bystander — what is a passive killing in a world where there is no judgment? If Gilligan’s personal philosophy ultimately triumphs, then Walter will pay for his role in the death, but until then, the show moves onto the practicality of the next plot challenge.

The episode also serves as a turning point for the pair: Jesse’s stint in rehab serves not to chemical dependency, but to attune him to the lack of mercy life shows. “I know who I am. I’m the bad guy,” he tells Walter upon return. In contrast, as Gilligan explained to The A.V. Club, Walter “doesn’t examine himself too closely; he doesn’t see the truth of his reality… Walter White doesn’t see himself as a bad guy.” (Walter’s wife and the chief character judge on the show, Skyler, played by Anna Gunn, is met with morally reprehensible characters at every turn: her sister, boss and husband all betray her adherence to what is “right”; she also flirts with the power that comes with self-determination. Hank (Dean Norris), her brother-in-law provides an interesting counter to the right/wrong ruling as a DEA agent, no match for the level of “bad” present.) The switch in the relationship between Jesse and Walter mirrors latter seasons of The X-Files when Mulder is abducted and Scully has to put aside her doubts to spearhead the search.

Visually, both series are iconic, and Gilligan has admitted the influence of The X-Files prior to his tenure, telling Vulture “that series made me realize how truly cinematic television could be.” While The X-Files used the moody, dim, and foggy Pacific Northwest as the setting for its particular brand of existential crisis, the overexposed New Mexico desert serves a similar purpose in Breaking Bad. Walter’s passage through limbo after his diagnosis looks like a peyote-enhanced near-death experience, and recalls the bright lights of alien bodysnatcher moments in The X-Files; while Mulder and Scully fumble through the dark with flashlights, occasionally stumbling into a brightly lit hanger containing some piece of the “truth,” Jesse and Walter are blinded by the domestic complications of real life, driven into basements, vaults, and gas mask-clad desert camping trips for cover, and always at the mercy of the vastness of the landscape. Hitmen, police cars, crazed drug czars, dehydration — the threats of a horizonless setting are in some sense more alienating than the occasionally climactic spotlighting of the Vancouver evergreens by stray UFOs. But while “the truth” works to carry out a war of attrition on Scully’s skeptic, the deeper we venture into America’s Southwest, the more devoid of order it appears to be. The closer to the edge Walter goes, the greater the yawning chasm he encounters, as family members peel away, his skin reddens, and his resolve petrifies.

The societal territory that each mines is different: The X-Files centered on a far-reaching government conspiracy, while Breaking Bad unearths the rot at the center of suburban America, much like its somewhat removed predecessor, American Beauty (“Look closer”), as seen in Walter’s early drive to replace all the floorboards in his house. But the handle each show has on ambiguity and spirituality is not dissimilar. Characters in each are plagued by interference: for Walter, the invasive flow of intravenous chemotherapy; for Skyler, pregnancy; for Jesse, drug dependency; for Walt Jr., cerebral palsy; for Hank, bureaucracy; for Mulder and Scully, literal abduction and surgical invasion. At each point, the highest authority figure is revealed to be woefully inadequate or outright corrupt (recall Carmella’s faith in The Sopranos). At certain points within each show, the heavens literally open up and rain down carnage on the earth; Mulder’s missing sister and the charred, one-eyed teddybear that appears in season two flash-forwards in Breaking Bad perform similar functions as shorthand for a destroyed innocence. Each show provides incomplete clues to the supernatural; in either a meta or literal sense, recalling Gilligan’s personal agnosticism.

Having reached a plateau where amoral characters can play out their game against one another, both Breaking Bad and The X-Files hit their stride (the latter quickly moved from “monster of the week” episode constructions to broader umbrella themes of “the Syndicate” and the new tagline “Trust No One”) and reveal an underworld of fringe characters. The Lone Gunmen — underground nerds, swivel chair-enthusiasts and conspiracy buffs — spurred a spinoff show following their peripheral role in The X-Files, while “The Cigarette Smoking Man” — a high-up government ringer — is curiously invoked by Walter’s unlucky terminal condition.

The greatest comedy in each anxious Breaking Bad episode comes from liminal characters who surface once all doubt or adherence to ethics have been abandoned. Take the subversive lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), a highlight of the show in his faux Grecian office (“Better call Saul!”), who seems at first to test the limits of amorality, but is ultimately bested by Walter in the race to nihilism (likewise, season three and four villain Gus). As Walt climbs the corporate ladder within meth production and distribution, his illness seems farther and farther behind him; the man appears to be cheating death itself (or, in the style of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, has already crossed over). This ambivalence slips out in the same Times interview, in which Gilligan quotes his girlfriend: “I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.” (Also invoking the title of The X-Files movie.) When and whether the characters of Breaking Bad will receive their comeuppance is unknown even to the show’s creator, who, in an NPR interview, offered, “The things that Walt does probably, he does need to atone for, and then perhaps he will when it’s all said and done… I’d like to believe that there is there’s more than just us in this universe. I can’t prove it to be true.”

Image courtesy of Breaking GIFs

Janet Manley lives in New York and can outwalk the best of them. She tends to croissant and Twitter habits. For solicited commentary on the state of open-toed boots, contact her via her website.