The best, most faithful, and most complicated adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is not going to be a direct, official adaptation like Steven Moffat’s brilliant Jekyll, or the come-and-gone medical drama Do No Harm. Both of those are about good men who share their body with evil alter egos over whom they have little to no control. As I previously said, Jekyll and Hyde is really about a seemingly respectable but in fact amoral man who finds a way around societal expectations to act out his worst urges, and the show that really explores the appeal and eventual cost of apparently consequence-free villainy is Breaking Bad.
True, Breaking Bad has nothing so fantastic as the mysterious compound that allows Dr. Henry Jekyll to completely transform his body into someone unrecognizable. However, a diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer basically has the same dissociative effect. For Jekyll, any consequences for the crimes he commits will fall on Hyde. People will blame Hyde, the police will try to arrest Hyde, leaving Jekyll free to live his supposedly virtuous life. For Walter White, a diagnosis of less than two years to live means that any punishment or consequences for his crime will probably come after he’s dead, which from his point of view means they will never come at all.
Like Jekyll and Hyde, it’s easy to misinterpret Breaking Bad as the story of a good man who slowly becomes evil. In the pilot, after all, Walter White has all the outward signs of decency. He has a respectable, but non-threatening job as a high school chemistry teacher. He has a supportive wife and loving son. He’s well liked by his friends and neighbors. Even his official motive for beginning to manufacture methamphetamine is the noble intent of securing his family’s financial future before he dies.
But the show quickly undercuts White’s facade of decency. For one thing, he’s very quick to turn to murder to solve problems. In only the third episode, Walter lists “post-traumatic stress,” and “won’t be able to live with yourself” as reasons not to kill a potential threat to his family. But PTSD and an inability to live with oneself do not matter to a man who is about to die, leaving Walter free to strangle the man to death.
And even if you say Walter only does terrible things for the sake of his family, the fifth episode, “Gray Matter,” removes that motive entirely. Old business partners offer to give Walter a high paying job, or just pay for his medical bills no questions asked. If Walter were truly more concerned about his family’s future than he is about his own freedom, he’d swallow his pride and accept their charity. But Walter doesn’t, because that would take away Walter’s excuse for his bad behavior. It would be Henry Jekyll giving up his transformation formula, before he really had a chance to play with it.
Like Jekyll, Walter White is very prideful, and his bad side had mostly been kept in check by fear of societal disapproval. Jekyll confesses to living a double life, one of virtue, one of shame, long before taking his magic drug that allows the sins he commits as Hyde to never be associated with the respectable doctor and gentleman he wishes to be seen as. Similarly, Walter White needs to be seen as a good man, a good husband, and a good father, even and mostly especially when he’s not. This over-preening pride affects his criminal endeavors too, as he demands respect for the quality of the drugs he makes and the powerful people he’s defeated.
Like Jekyll, Walter White creates an alter ego named as a winking joke at his double life. Jekyll calls his other half “Hyde” because he can put on and take off that identity as a second skin. Walter’s nom du crime is “Heisenberg,” after the physicist famous for his Uncertainty Principle and his theories on the dual nature of photons. Walter White uses a shaved head, a black pork pie hat and sunglasses to create a visual difference between his two identities, and the show hints that Heisenberg may be a separate identity, like when the sight of his hat tempts “mild-mannered” Walter White into buying a muscle car. But, of course, Heisenberg is just a made up name, and Walter is the monster who lies, cheat, and kills to protect himself and get what he wants.
Like Jekyll, Walter revels in the freedom he has as a bad guy. Jekyll enjoys the youth, secret pleasures, and most of all liberty of being Hyde. Walter isn’t quite as much a hedonist (the sports car really is his only indulgence). Instead, Walter enjoys the fear and respect he receives as a drug kingpin, making scary, violent men practically beg him to cook meth for them. Both Jekyll and Hyde and Breaking Bad show how alluring a consequence-free life could be.
Like Jekyll, Walter White has done such a good job building up his facade of respectability that his closest friends cannot conceive that Walter has a dark side at all. Jekyll’s friends assume that Mr. Hyde is extorting Jekyll, because they can not imagine their friend would have anything in common with the clearly boorish and violent young man. Similarly, no matter what hints they get that Walter is leading a double life, such as disappearing for days or suddenly coming into a lot of wealth, Walter’s closest family do not guess that he might be doing something as dangerous as entering the drug trade.
Well, at first. Because, also like Dr. Jekyll, eventually the consequences Walter White thought he could avoid do catch up to him. For Jekyll, the consequences come when his drug stops working and he’s stuck in Hyde’s form. For Walter White, the consequences happen when his cancer goes into remission. Suddenly, Walter has a future again, one where he has to live with the lives he destroyed, directly and indirectly, in his quest for power.
Walter can only hide his double life for so long. Unlike Jekyll, Walter is married, and it’s impossible to hide his secret dealings from someone who shares his bed. Skylar White realizes Walter is doing something shady early on, even if it takes her some time to learn precisely what. And if the cancer had killed Walter within a year as he assumed it would, he would not have lived long enough to see his brilliant and tenacious brother-in-law crack his case wide open from beginning to end.
In the end, both Breaking Bad and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, show that no matter what rational their protagonists use, all of their actions have consequences. Both Dr. Jekyll and Walter White enter a life of crime because they find a way to keep punishment for their sins away from themselves. But as much as they want to pretend that—because of a magic potion or a terminal illness—they are only playing at being sinners, people are really dying and lives are really being ruined. The fiction of the stories is that both Jekyll and Walter’s plans go wrong and the consequences do loop back around and fall on them anyway. That kind of justice doesn’t always happen in real life.
Walter White / Heisenberg image by Zyari.