Obsessional Neurosis & Breaking Bad

lego walt

In psychoanalysis, the effect of language and of the Other is to produce a cut, a division in a subject. There are many ways in which this subjective division can be organised, and perhaps the most famous of these, in psychoanalysis, at least, is hysteria. Hysteria can be understood as a subset of neurosis, which is to say, it is an effect of primary repression. Freud, in the case of the Ratman, indicates that obsessional neurosis is a ‘dialect’ of hysteria, and Lacan develops this further, moving the obsessional away from the phenomenology of obsessions and compulsions, and toward a structural position. Here, I would like to outline some of the predominant features of this structural position using the series Breaking Bad. The protagonist of this series, Walter White is in many (though not all) ways an exemplary obsessional subject.

The hysteric suffers with her body, but for the obsessional, the locus of suffering is in thought. Walter White is a man who dwells in thought, which is at once a source of fantasy and of jouissance, but also a torment. Thought provides White with his signature defence, rationalisation, which he marshals whenever faced with an ethical quandary (or a subjective division, which here amounts to much the same thing).

‘Name one thing in this world that is not negotiable!’ he cries. Everything can be negotiated, which is equivalent to saying that everything can be rationalised. The corollary of this rationalism, however, is doubt. That everything is negotiable means that nothing is certain, a condition not unlike that of radical, Cartesian doubt, and the interplay of doubt and rationalisation are a feature of White’s modus operandi. Unlike Descartes, for whom there is a benevolent deity to banish away uncertainty, but there is little certain or benign about Walt’s big Other. It is surely not a coincidence that the nom de crime he chooses for himself is Heisenberg*, a signifier most closely associated with uncertainty as a structural necessity. Doubt distinguishes Walter from the psychotic, but also constitutes evidence of a lack, the consequences of which he is endlessly trying to squirm away from. He is not in danger, he is the danger, he says, as if these two possibilities were mutually exclusive. As an obsessional fighting his own doubts – not to mention those of others – he is at war with himself.

So often throughout the series it is money which, for White, plays the role of the object of demand from the Other. He must cook meth in order to provide for his family after his presumed death from cancer. Nobody among his loved ones demands this money from him, and the plot makes clear that he has alternative means to obtain money in any case (i.e. when his wealthy former colleagues offer to become his benefactors). Nonetheless, money as object provides the fantasmatic cover for White’s jouissance in his actions, but also functions as a kind of objet petit a, (usually in an anal guise), throughout the series. Walt hoards and accumulates money, almost none of which is any good to him. (We might contrast his attitude to that of his accomplice, Jesse Pinkman, who, guilt-ridden, eventually tries to hastily redistribute his share of the funds). As Miller* puts it, the obsessional ‘has nothing in his hands but the waste of his own demanding’, and it is frequently as waste that money functions for Walt, who burns it, buries it, withholds it or offers it as a gift. Again, this aggressive, anal mode of dealing with an object can be contrasted with Jesse’s orality (i.e. especially in the consumption of drugs). Walt generally avoids mind-altering (or mind-numbing) substances, preferring the enjoyment of his own thoughts. The narcissistic enjoyment in one’s fantasy, and the relentless attempts to situate demand in the Other both stand contrary to desire. This, I believe, is borne out by the fantasmatic ending to the series, in which Walt eventually resembles an addict more than his counterpart, Jesse. It is the latter who gradually assumes his lack and becomes resolute in his desire to escape his situation. Walt, on the other hand, ultimately lapses into a final narcissistic reunification with his lab equipment, which here we can interpret as the props and machinery of the drives. Walt himself finally realises this, telling his wife: ‘I did it for me. I liked it.

One of the ironies of the obsessional neurotic is that he resides in a world of castration, in which his own lack is something from which he hides. The scene below is exemplary is this regard:



‘Never give up control’. Such a maxim presumes that one has control in the first place, a presumption undercut by the mere fact of undergoing a screening for cancer at all. This militarisation of the self and refusal of lack is well-supported by many prominent discourses today, and we might think of a good obsessional like Walt as constituting the so-called ‘self-made man’ aspired to by many.  One could well imagine Walt enjoying (initially) a round of CBT, in which he and the clinician can alternate in who plays the master and the slave, who dishes out advice and who puts the Other to work. To a certain extent, Walt situates himself neatly with regard to lack, at least, for a while. To the lack in his own family, he approaches with the rules and reasonableness of the ego ideal, for instance, gently chiding his disabled son for his inability to drive, and keeping his aggression within acceptable boundaries. With Jesse, his quasi-son, the superego replaces the ego ideal, displacing the rage at one son onto the other, with whom the normal rules do not apply. It is with Jesse that he can enjoy himself, smoking a joint at his house, and using him as an object for unbridled rage and denigration. (Of course, the neurotic often  reproaches the Other for the faults he perceives, but does not admit, in himself).  In one rare instance, the superego, with its imperative to ‘Enjoy!’ crosses over into Walt’s domestic life, and he compels his son to drink whiskey. At this, there are ill-effects, to say the least, the result being a sickness and censure as far removed from pleasure as the superego is removed from the ego ideal.

Enjoyment in transgression, whilst perhaps not universal in the obsessional position, is typical enough to be regarded a feature. The response expected of Walt, whilst he is in the secretive, early phase of his drug manufacturing, is that as a man with a mid-life crisis and a terminal illness, he might be having an affair. Whilst this possibility occurs to several other people in Walt’s life, it never seems to occur to Walt himself. For him, transgressive jouissance is realised through breaking the law, literally and metaphorically. Walt lives in a world of aggression in which sexuality seldom features. To the extent that it does, it is tepid (as in the sex scene in which Skyler pleasures him whilst following an auction on Ebay) or again, transgressive (i.e. shtupping in the carpark of his own school).

Skyler plays an interesting role in Walt’s adventures. Since the obsessional sustains his desire through its very impossibility, this is most easily achieved by being refused permission. Ultimately, however, Skyler grants him (some) permission, even becoming complicit in his crimes, allowing Walt to desire the impossible, namely, to live the life of a gangster and a family member simultaneously. In the history of US gangster stories, the reconciliation between a life of crime and familial piety is almost always impossible. (Vito Corleone is a notable exception, yet he is supported by unusually favourable circumstances in the Sicilian American community, and even then, his sons do not share either his virtues of his good fortune.) Hence this scene in the ‘Ozymandia episode’:


Of course, Walt realises that his phone call to Skyler is being tapped by the police, and takes the opportunity to exonerate her and implicate himself. Yet he does so with a little too much gusto, a little too much enjoyment, to be merely acting for an eavesdropping audience. This may be part of his vicious, obsessional cycle, in that, by granting Walt permission, and even becoming his accomplice, Skyler acts contrary to the sustenance of his desire. She allows him to put the impossible to the test, and the result of this permissiveness is not satisfaction so much as rage and anxiety. As ever, benevolence is contradicted by aggression, and this ‘cancelling-out’ is a marker of obsessional neurosis.

This desire in transgression and impossibility finds, as its corollary, guilt at the moment when the entire system is on the point of breaking. In neurosis, desire is the inverse of the law, and guilt binds these two terms together. Hence, when stranded in the desert, on the precipice of death by thirst, Walt proclaims ‘I deserve this’. This is obsessionality in its depressive, self-pitying mode, apparent after the edifice of rationalisation and deception has collapsed, and Walt is faced with the wasteland of the real.

For the most part, however, these fault-lines are not exposed. Walt assumes the obsessional  position par excellence of the slave who craves to be the master. Of course, this necessitates both the killing of the master and identification with the dead master. The dead are not renowned for their action or agency, however, and the obsessional is a master of deferral and procrastination, acting almost as if death does not exist, as if time is unlimited. True to form, Walt is liberated by his diagnosis of terminal cancer, before which he was ‘scared of everything’, but after which he is free to move from thought to action, rather like Hamlet, who only kills Claudius after he is mortally wounded. I have met men such as this, who survived cancer to find remission a state of ceaseless anxiety, and who received news of a fresh cancer with a kind of grim joy. Until death makes an appearance, the obsessional delays action. Freud observed this in the case of the Ratman, in which the obsessional’s procrastination is like ‘the old German courts of justice, in which the suits were usually brought to an end, before judgement had been given, by the death of the parties to the dispute’. When death is imminent and real, Walt plunges into action (such as when he saves Jesse from being shot, or demands that Jesse kill his chemist colleague), but otherwise, Walt’s strategies and plans have much the same convoluted character as the Ratman’s circuitousness in trying to repay his debt.

The identification with the dead master is shown quite literally in Breaking Bad. Repeatedly, Walt takes on traits of the dead men whom he has murdered, usually in the form of a little point of identification, an Einziger Zug. After keeping Crazy Eight hostage for days and eventually killing him in the first series, Walt is seen in series three eating his sandwiches in precisely the same way as his victim (i.e. with the crusts cut off). After killing Mike, Walt takes up Mike’s signature drink, scotch on the rocks. Again, one can contrast this position with that of the paranoid psychotic, for whom there are relatively unambiguous enemies and persecutors. For Walt, enemies are not only rivals but also figures to be emulated, something which he enacts literally, showing that where there is hate and aggression, there can also be a little bit of (imaginary) love as well.


*Names are important in the series, and like a good obsessional, Walt sees to the maintenance of the symbolic order, and to his recognition in the Other (‘Say my name!’). His name functions as a kind of prosthesis that he grows into, starting from a point of being a cavallo sin nombre, as the show has it.

*Miller,J-A. (2009). The pivot of the desire of the Other. (Trans. A. Price). Psychoanalytical Notebooks, 18.


2 thoughts on “Obsessional Neurosis & Breaking Bad

  1. I was recently rewatching this show and some telling examples which bring to the fore your analysis are quite striking: e.g., in the first episode, Walter is distracted by a mustard stain on the doctor’s gown when being informed he has inoperable lung cancer; in the third episode, Walter compiles a list which is composed of two columns, being ‘let him live’ and ‘kill him,’ in order to rationalise his decision.

    The examples could be compounded, of course, but I just noticed how apt your analysis is in rewatching the show!

    • Well-spotted. There’s quite a high level of detail in the show. There could be a critique of political ideology in there, too, since Walt is at his happiest when he’s master of the factory, even if it brings him death. On the other hand, the fate worse than death in the show is being turned into an enslaved Mexican.

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