Donald Rumsfeld, Walter White and Trying to Control the World (Why I Partly Hated the Ending of Breaking Bad)

I read few nonfiction books. There are four that come to mind from the last year or so (and I only have finished the first one). Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and Antifragile by Nassim Taleb are the best of them; The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver is less focused but very good; Resilience by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy is kind of like a junior version of Antifragile, but it has some good insight for social policy (and it might have more to it, I’m not that far in.)

All of these books touch on some degree on the concept of epistemic humility, on the essential unknowability of the world and the future. It’s something that I feel intuitively, but I sometimes have trouble articulating or placing: it often boils down to saying or feeling “this is bullshit” to certain ideas, to sensing that things are wrong. It’s not a new idea by any means; it’s as old as philosophy and even storytelling. But the opposite camp, people who believe they can know and plan the world, that all things are possible with enough modeling, have also been around forever. And so have bullshit artists, who take advantage of the gaps in knowledge by filling them in with meaningless inventions. So the idea is always in need not only of advancement and development, but also of application to current ideas and structures. And, because hard analysis helps clear up noise, it’s always great to see solid grounding of the point. We can bullshit back and forth all day, but Kahneman has decades of research showing people don’t know what they appear to know, and Taleb has formal statistical analysis showing what we can’t know.

I sometimes read the New York Review of Books. Mark Danner recently wrote a great article on Donald Rumsfeld, based on Rumsfeld’s autobiography, another biography by Bradley Graham, and an interview-based documentary by Errol Morris (Morris grasps the limits of our knowledge very deeply, and The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War are profound illustrations of this idea). You can find the article here, though you’ll need a subscription to read through it.

Rumsfeld is a fascinating subject, because he has made statements that seem to indicate a deep grasp of the limits of our knowledge, while undertaking actions that seem to indicate a deep ignorance of them. His famous quotes “There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know” and “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” are succinct expressions of important and true ideas. But he also tried to bend history to his will, both with his war and his attempts to shape the story of it. And because his belief in his own potency had roots in his belief in his own knowledge, intelligence, and planning, the lack of realism about omnipotence implies a lack of realism about omniscience. As the article concludes:

Donald Rumsfeld tried, and is trying still, to create his own reality. But the ruins of his efforts are visible all around us, and there is finally a kind of unsettling fantasy in his belief that he can still obscure them from us by an act of will. Just who is it, in the end, from whom reality is being obscured? This is, finally, the “unknown known” of the title Morris chose from Rumsfeld’s sham philosophy: this is “the thing you think you know that it turns out you did not.” As Donald Rumsfeld says of Saddam Hussein, the man whose hand he grasped in Baghdad in 1983: “He was living his image of himself, which was pretend.”

The same is true of TV’s Walter White, hero of Breaking Bad. White tries to bend both circumstances and people’s perceptions to his will. Like Rumsfeld, his actions have unintended consequences, and his bullshit gets called. And like Rumsfeld, he lived a false image of himself. In the show’s best moment, he tries to order Saul Goodman to abort his acceptance of reality, telling him that “it’s not over—” before deteriorating into a fit of coughing. Saul looks down at him, pitying and a little put off by Walt’s delusion, and just says “it’s over.” And so Saul goes on to his new and modest life, and Walt is left to live with the memory of his empire.

But the more central myth is how he got there in the first place. It’s the myth of conquering intelligence, the idea that with nothing but ingenuity, determination, and a superior mind a man can do anything. Walt cooks good meth, and it has a magic effect on everyone who encounters it; he MacGyvers and Houdinis himself out of dozens of should-be-dead situations, and can stop people who want to kill him from pulling the trigger with the perfectly calculated word; he defeats his opponents with Rube Goldberg plots, lining up complex outcomes from several moves away in a turbulent world.

This is obviously (or apparently obviously) hogwash. His plans are fragile; complexity of his style doesn’t hold up to the volatility and unpredictability of the real world. The narrative always pushes Walt’s plans to just the point where he can recover, but not far enough to break in the countless times he’s a hair away from death or arrest. The variations create the illusion of resilience, but the truth is his plans aren’t being threatened; just rearranged into a different improbable chain with the same result. He turns a zero-probability situation into a long-odds situation, and then the magic of the story makes the long odds hit. The show knows it. Warning Hank and Gomez about the danger of Walt, Jesse tells them “Mr. White, he’s the devil. He’s smarter than you are, and he’s luckier than you are.” It’s the latter trait that’s the operative principle, even if it’s enabled by the former.

The show works because it isn’t about how things work, not really. It plays these miracles for dark humor, as Walt’s success is accompanied by the destruction of everything he claims to care about. It’s really a show about psychologies and choices, Walt’s first and foremost. The world of the show is a surreal landscape for a morality play, and the play is enthralling, multifaceted, and thought-provoking.

So it’s no surprise that in the last episode, what changes is his motivation. Walt finally admits to Skyler that he did everything for him; he leaves Junior alone; he lets Jesse go; he lines things up not to expand his empire or legacy but to actually tie up loose ends and ensure his family’s prosperity.

At the end, Walt goes full hero. The show makes it easy; his enemies are a sociopathic creep (Todd), a neurotic control freak (Lydia), an insufferable rich couple (that insufferable rich couple), and a bunch of fucking Neo-Nazis. We’ll always take the devil we know over that bunch. And he wins through the same ol’ bullshit, even more extreme this time. In his crowning achievement, he perfectly lines up a trunk-mounted machine gun to strafe everyone in the complex except the three main characters. It’s the Miracle Outside Albuquerque!

(Imagine Donald Rumsfeld, after contemplating his errors, sweeping victoriously back into Iraq, liberating the people of Fallujah, killing the leaders of ISIS, and funneling hundreds of billions of dollars back to the people of the United States.)

And the same myth remains: we’re in awe of Walt White, the conquering genius. I don’t mean we’re in awe of his choices, or his legacy, or that we think he’s a good guy. But he’s managed once again to bend the world to his will through impeccable planning, and this time it’s for a good cause.

And that’s nonsense. Foolish ideas are just as foolish if the intentions are good. And the myth that all things are reachable through intelligence, that outcomes are knowable, that our best laid plans will bring us victory if only we lay them carefully enough and push them hard enough, still lies at the center of some of our worst mistakes.

You don’t need to take that away from Breaking Bad. You can read it as telling its morality story well, and enjoy it as entertainment. I was thrilled by the episode, I got emotional satisfaction, I enjoyed watching all the motherfuckers get put in their place.

But it’s important to know intentions don’t change the folly of Walt’s approach, and to know that it doesn’t always end with a bang. Not even on TV. The Sopranos had the balls to reject the guts-and-glory narrative, and end it with a focus on something much more mundane and real and consequential. The Wire had its magic characters to a point, but before the end Omar (who never did anything as damn fool as Walter White did) got shot in the back of the head by a kid in a corner store.

That’s how it ends, maybe, for real life Walter Whites. Or it ends (the part of the story we care about) with a Saul Goodman sadly unimpressed by his insistence on delusion. Or it ends how it still continues with Rumsfeld, staring into an Interrotron, bullshitting whoever’s there to listen, never letting go even as his power wanes.

That’s not because the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. It’s because any human’s, indeed humanity’s, epistemic universe is incomplete, and the consequential universe vibrates with volatility.