During AMC’s ongoing marathon rebroadcast of the Breaking Bad series, I caught the episode “Salud” and found myself wondering something strange: Walter White has cancer – but does he also have Huntington’s Disease?
Toward the end of the episode (while recovering from an impromptu beating at the hands of Jesse), Walt tells Walt Jr. that his father suffered from that very condition, rapidly declining in the hospital until his death. It’s clear that Walt’s childhood memory of his father’s body slowly disintegrating still haunts him. He admits that he can still hear the man’s labored breathing, a “rattling sound like if you were shaking an empty spray paint can—like there was nothing in him.” Certainly, this could be another of Walt’s lies. But this story seems real.
The children of people with Huntington’s Disease have a 50 percent chance of getting the gene for the disease, though Walt insists that he was screened as a child and came through with clean results. Whether he’s bluffing about that detail isn’t clear, especially since so much of what he tells Junior isn’t true. Either way, symptoms don’t usually begin until mid-adulthood, and now that he’s in his 50s, Walt certainly seems to suffer from some of the classic ones. Obviously, I’m not a doctor. But a few things on the checklist stand out, especially since this is a fictional show in which every tiny detail serves a narrative purpose. Behavioral disturbances? Well, we do often see Walt wandering around in his underwear. Irritability and moodiness? That pretty much defines Heisenberg’s hot-tempered decisions and sudden bouts of rage. Restlessness or fidgeting? Think back to “Hermanos” and “Buried,” with their close-up shots of Walt’s fingers twitching. (Of course, maybe he was just foreshadowing Gus’ death, since Gus’ middle finger twitched, too.) Odd grimaces? There are so many of them. Paranoia? Just remember Walt telling Jesse in “Cornered,” “This whole thing, all of this, is all about me!”
Thinking about this reminded me of a recent This American Life episode, “Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde,” in which a beloved doctor, Vince Gilmer, kills his own father. (Spoiler alert if you haven’t heard the podcast yet—it’s a great episode.) According to reports by his patients, Dr. Gilmer was a generous and caring practitioner (and a devoted family man) before committing the crime. His defense centered on serotonin depletion: He had been taking medication to increase his serotonin for years, in order to alleviate anxiety, but he abruptly went off his meds just a few days before the murder. The subsequent reaction was a worst-case scenario. He became extremely irritable and showed such a severe change in personality that loved ones barely recognized him. Even in the courtroom, he was making strange facial expressions and shaking, and he showed similar symptoms at the time of the killing. So another doctor suggested that Gilmer get tested for Huntington’s. It came back positive. Some experts argue that the disease helps explain some elements of the crime.
Now, it would be tempting to draw the conclusion that Huntington’s Disease leads to violent behavior and might even contribute to murder. That would certainly fit neatly into Walt’s narrative, helping to illustrate how the mild-mannered “Mr. White” suddenly went full Heisenberg. But in reference to that same podcast, Michelle Meyer, a fellow at the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, warns that such connections might be specious: “Although the occasional incidents involving people with HD [Huntington’s Disease] who kill themselves or others make for splashy news and riveting human interest stories, the fact is that the vast majority of people with HD are not dangerous to themselves or others,” she writes on TAL’s web site. As for the reporter on the podcast, Sarah Koening admits, “I can’t say for certain how, or if, Huntington’s was affecting Vince at the time.”
Still, if you think about it within the fictional context of Breaking Bad, it would make a great story, wouldn’t it? Even if Walt beats cancer, survives the upcoming shoot-out, and cheats prison, Huntington’s could still get him in the end, just like it got his father. In “Salud,” Walt tells Junior that he doesn’t want him to have bad memories of Walt’s deterioration at the end of his life, like Walt did about his own father. Walt Jr. sees it differently. It’s not seeing Walt get sick that scares him; it’s Walt’s totally erratic behavior. But what if they were both the same thing?