Let's all overthink the 'Star Trek' reference on last night's 'Breaking Bad'

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Image Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC; Everett Collection

On Sunday, Aug. 11,  Breaking Bad was an hourlong exercise in sustained tension, culminating in a main-character face-off that’s been building for pretty much the entire run of the show. Fortunately for our collective heart rate, there was also a nice moment of levity, provided by Jesse’s perpetua-stoned best pals Badger and Skinny Pete. The two pals had a Clerks-worthy conversation/analysis about Star Trek which led into Badger’s full-fledged pitch for his own Star Trek teleplay.

Now, Badger’s idea for an Enterprise pie-eating contest lacks the thematic density of other AMC-character metafictional TOS spec scripts, like Paul Kinsey’s “The Negron Complex” or Sarah Linden’s “The Sweaters of Triskelion.” And one imagines that, if you asked Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan to explain the hidden meaning of Badger’s Star Trek pitch, he’d laugh his famous Georgia gentlemen laugh and say, “Well, heck, I don’t know much about ‘symbolism’ and whatnot. But who doesn’t love pies?” NOT BUYING IT, GILLIGAN! If you look closely, Badger’s fanfic contains hidden layers of meaning which illuminate the whole arc of Breaking Bad…and which might give us a clue about the show’s ultimate endgame.

The Color Xerox Theory of Breaking Bad (and the “147 Kirks” Theory of Star Trek)

When the scene begins, Badger and Skinny Pete are having an argument about the nature of the transporter technology used throughout the Trek universe. Badger prefers the conventional wisdom that the transporter is, well, a transporter, beaming human beings (and other species) from one place to another. Skinny Pete, however, has a more insidious theory. “The transporters are breakin’ you apart, man! Down to your molecules and bones! They’re makin’a copy! The dude comin’ out on the other side? That dude isn’t you. It’s a color Xerox.” Badger responds, stupefied: “So you’re tellin’ me that every time Kirk went into the transporter, he was killing himself? So over the whole series, there was 147 Kirks?” Essentially, Skinny Pete is putting forward the idea that every episode of Star Trek featured Kirk’s death and rebirth — and that, with each rebirth, Kirk became a xerox copy of yet another xerox copy, moving further and further away from the original Ur-Kirk.

Now, Breaking Bad as a series is built on the central foundation of one character transforming into a different one — “Mr Chips” to “Scarface,” the protagonist becoming the antagonist. But this Color Xerox theory foregrounds another perspective on the show — that Walter White, in attempting to live two concurrent lives (Mr. White the suburban dad chemistry teacher and Heisenberg the meth-cooking drug lord) has actually lived dozens of lives over the course of the show, each of them a pale imitation of the man he used to be. And every time Walt “transported” — which, in this metaphor, means “became Heisenberg” — he lost a little bit more of himself. Earlier in the episode, we saw flash-forward Walt, a ruin of a man who appears to be living out of his car; his house is an empty wreck. In a sense, this explains why Walt has become simultaneously more monstrous and less complicated during the show: His actual personality has become shorn away. It’s telling that this analogy popped up in the episode where Hank took out the Heisenberg drawing and finally recognized his brother-in-law: Morally, Walt has become a two-dimensional xerox of his former self. This also underlines the show’s obsession with baldness: The loss of hair is a visual representation of each character’s loss of their own personality.

(This theory also retroactively explains why the characters on the original Star Trek tended to exemplify one hyper-specific character trait. Like, the reason why Kirk, Spock, and McCoy represented the Ego, Superego, and the Id is because the other parts of their personalities just disappeared after extensive transporter death-rebirth clone-cycles. By The Next Generation, transporter-xerox technology had improved, which is why the characters on that show were more complicated — but even so, after extensive death-rebirth cycles, the umpteenth-hundred iteration of Picard was noticeably crazier, which is why he thought cruising around in a dune buggy was a good idea in Nemesis.)

The Pie Eating Contest, Part One: Walt is Spock
Badger’s pie-eating contest is a metaphor for the show’s characters. Although we probably won’t understand exactly which character is which until the series finale. The contest ultimately comes down to three characters: Spock, Kirk, and Chekov. Skinny Pete expresses surprise that Spock could ever beat Kirk; after all, Kirk’s got “room to spare,” and is also the more conventional hero. But Spock always beats Kirk — and sure enough, Kirk winds up vomiting. You could argue that Kirk is supposed to be Gus Fring, who by all rights should have defeated Walt in the extended Three-Dimensional Chess Match of Death that was Breaking Bad Season 4. (Gus vomited out the poison tequila back in “Salud.”) You could also argue that Kirk is supposed to be Hank Schrader, who is a more conventional protagonist for a TV show — he’s a detective, basically — but who doesn’t have the stomach for the dirty work Walt engages in regularly. (Further proof that Walt is Spock: Look at his current facial hair. Now look at this picture of Spock’s evil mirror-universe twin.)

Chekov thinks he can beat Spock, though. He has a special system: Scotty is transporting all the pie Chekov eats out into space. Essentially, Chekov is attempting to imitate Spock. It works out terribly for him: Scotty makes a mistake, Chekov’s guts explode, and he winds up coughing up blood.

Theory #1: Chekov is Jesse, and this story implies that this season will culminate in a showdown between Walt and his former protégé, wherein Jesse will attempt to beat Walt at his own game. It won’t go well for him.

Theory #2: Chekov is Todd, Walt’s new protégé and the replacement-Jesse. We can assume that Walt left Todd in charge of the meth business after he retired — and from what Lydia said on last night’s episode, the new meth isn’t holding up to the high standard of Walt’s product. (Todd is attempting to pass his own meth off as Walt’s meth, like the imitation-Blue Sky that used to pop up on the street.) Chekov’s death implies that, without Walt, the meth business is going to collapse.

Theory #3: This whole pie-eating contest is actually a retelling of the Walt-Jesse-Jane triangle from season 2. Jesse and Jane thought they could defeat Walt, blackmailing him into giving them cash so they could run away together. But Jesse/Kirk collapsed, and Jane/Chekov, the lead architect in the anti-Walt gambit, wound up vomiting/spraying blood out of her/his mouth.) (This reading is helped along by the brief aside about Uhura and Scotty, who are really just other versions of Jesse and Jane: From Walt’s perspective, Jesse was distracted by Jane, much like how Scotty is distracted by Uhura.) This implies that the truth about Jane will emerge at some point in Breaking Bad‘s final season.

The Pie Eating Contest, Part Two: Walt is Chekov
Badger’s whole pitch revolves around an intriguing use of the transporter: Using it to beam something out of a person, rather than beaming a person somewhere. Later in last night’s episode, we saw Walter White doing something similar: He’s back in chemotherapy, attempting to purge the bad cells out of his body. In a sense, Walt is also attempting to purge his past as a drug dealer — to eradicate the part of his life that was Heisenberg and the blue meth. (What is Chekov removing from his body? Blueberry pie.) We already know this isn’t going to go well — Flash-forward Walt is on the run, and his old life appears pretty much destroyed. Theories abound about what led Walt to that place; the most likely culprit at this point is the Phoenix Guys who made a deal with Walt last season. But this implies that something Walt does to keep his identity a secret will directly lead to his downfall.

If you think about it, Badger’s Star Trek Fable is really about Greek-tragic ambition: Chekov wants to defeat Spock, even though there is no physical way to defeat a Vulcan at a pie-eating contest. So he cheats — much like how Walter White cheats the American system of capitalism and becomes the equivalent of a Fortune 500 CEO. (SIDE THEORY: He changed the rule of the game. Walter White is Kirk.) In the end, though, he is defeated not by his nemesis but by himself: The very moment he decides to cheat is also the moment he loses the game. In this metaphor, Kirk is Hank, who tries to defeat Walt by playing by the rules and doesn’t realize the game is rigged against him: This strongly implies that Hank is going to die in this final season. But Spock is Walter White’s ultimate nemesis, a character who weighs heavily over the show’s history despite only appearing in a single episode: Elliot Schwartz, the man who stole Walter’s girlfriend, his company, and his entire life. He ate all the pies. He won’t even notice when Walt finally dies. And it’s telling that, in Badger’s story, Chekov winds up coughing blood out of his mouth — a recurring visual in Breaking Bad, which simultaneously signifies Walt’s cancer and his own moral corrosion.

Jesse Misses the Best Part: An ending theory
Jesse walks out of the room, prompting Badger to declare: “Where are you going? You’re missing the best part!” Everyone assumes that this season of Breaking Bad will ultimately build to some kind of Jesse-Walt showdown, with Jesse either triumphing over his mentor-turned-nemesis or becoming one more piece of collateral human damage in the rise of Walter White. But what if Jesse’s ultimate decision actually takes him in a different direction? A theory: Jesse will depart the show before the ending — before “the best part” — maybe finally taking that long-planned trip to New Zealand, or maybe setting off for parts unknown. Basically, he’s going to be like Melfi on The Sopranos (who didn’t appear in the series finale).


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