Ursula Coyote/AMC
Melissa Maerz
September 05, 2011 AT 06:00 AM EDT

How would you live your life if you knew your days were numbered?

That’s the question most often pondered by cancer survivors on television, the point being that if doctors told you that you were going to die tomorrow, you’d concentrate more on the important stuff: spending time with your family and friends, worrying less about work, and generally crazy-sexy-cancer-ing it up, if we’re to believe shows like The Big C. It’s just like Saul Goodman tells Andrea’s son in this week’s episode: “Carpe diem, okay?”

But the genius of Breaking Bad is that it suggests that cliche couldn’t be more wrong. After Walt discovered that he had cancer, he made some pretty self-destructive choices, including splitting from his wife and cooking meth. When Jesse felt sure that Gus would kill him, he held the mother of all parties and did enough drugs to kill a large dog. Even though Gus is pretty certain that the Mexican cartel is plotting his death, he can’t resist taunting the group’s wheelchair-bound leader, Hector “Tio” Salamanca. Knowing that time is ticking doesn’t give these characters a new lease on life. It makes them want to do as much dumb thrill-seeking as they can, as quickly as possible.

Take the lecture that Walt delivers to a fellow cancer patient at the hospital. When the guy complains that God has waylaid his plans to start a family and become an entrepreneur, Walt’s enraged that he’s giving up control and not living on his own terms. “Every life comes with a death sentence,” Walt seethes. “One of these times, I’m gonna hear some bad news. Until then, who’s in charge? Me.”

But, as Walt’s quickly learning, there are some things in life that you can’t control. Gus, for example. Walt has to rely on Jesse to poison their boss, but Jesse’s been lying to Walt about that plan. (Coming on the heels of Gus’s meetings with the cops and the cartel, Jesse’s text—“Meeting is off. Something came up. Boss is busy.”—was the understatement of the year.) And then there’s Hank. Walt likes to believe that Heisenberg’s pulling the DEA’s strings, but when it comes down to just the two of them, sitting in a Los Pollos parking lot, Walt is at his brother-in-law’s beck and call, forced to plant a tracking device on his own boss’s car. (Bugging Gus’s property without a warrant! Is Hank breaking bad as well?) Walt’s not even in charge of the car wash anymore. When Marie tells Skyler, “You’ve really taken to this being your own boss thing!” it’s clear that Walt’s only the second-in-command over there.

Of course, the biggest thing that’s beyond Walt’s control is cancer. It’s been a long time since Breaking Bad has delved into Walt’s illness, probably because he’s been in remission. But lately, each episode seems to remind us that Walt’s sick. In “Bullet Points,” Skyler tells Walt that they should play up his cancer to make Hank and Marie feel more sympathetic about his so-called gambling addiction. In “Cornered,” Walt takes a shower in one scene, revealing the scar from his experimental cancer surgery. This week, Walt Jr. asks if his dad got the results back from his doctor. Walt says his cancer is still in remission, but his uneasy expression suggests that he might be lying. Are the writers trying to tell us something? Considering that Walt believes a man is a measure of his choices, not just his motives, it would be fitting if what ultimately stopped Heisenberg wasn’t Gus or Hank but cancer itself, the one thing that would render all his choices moot.

NEXT: Will Gus soon be “disappeared” by the cartel?

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