The Art of War is of course the book your MBA lecturer tells you that you should read but never do. It never seems to be a mandatory part of the curriculum, but it needs to be. Because if you can interpret it and apply what you have learnt, there’s no stopping you. Anyone can teach you a literal practical skill. But being able to interpret a classic text and apply it to your daily life is a massive skill. It’s not easy, but it’s rewarding. So I decided to have a little fun with it and contrast hit show Breaking Bad with the Art of War.
It’s clearly obvious to me that Vince Gilligan has read the book. Walter’s brother in law Hank the Detective is the biggest catalyst for it.
To know your enemy, become your enemy
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
Around series one, Hank Schrader gets promoted to a bigger Narcotics bureau. The squad is full of Mexican detectives with statues of Latino gods on their desks. Hank gawks at them worshipping the same gods as the drug dealers. He quickly realises that these Mexican cops are a better cop than him because they fully understand their enemies. This was the first real Breaking Art of War moment of the series.
Later in the series, Hank is in rehabilitation and starts to get is Art of War on. He takes up an interest in geology. Not because he’s interested in rocks, but because he wants to understand his enemy Walter White.
The 36 Stratagems – build your enemy a temple
Walter White’s business partner Gustavo Fring had demonstrated one of the 36 Stratagems of the Art of War. with his Los Pollos Hermanos chicken store. That stratagem is to build your enemy a temple. After Hank was wounded and in hospital, the hospital was teeming with cops supporting their fallen comrade. Gustav acts as a good guy and provides the cops with bucket loads of free chicken. All the time the cops not even suspecting him or his cartel as complicit in meth dealing.
Intelligence attacks with fire
If you haven’t seen the ending, then stop reading. But when Walter White poisons Lydia Roddart-Quayle, he planned it diligently. He observed her drinking habits. Lydia always adds artificial sweetener to her tea and thus Walter poisoned it. To me this is a reference to [i’m paraphrasing] average soldiers attack with water, but the intelligent attack with fire.
Furthermore Walter deceived his former business partners (remember ‘the Art of War is deception‘) into thinking he was desperate. But he actually knew everything about his enemy and they were powerless to stop him.
You’re nothing without spies
“It is only the enlightened ruler and the wise general who will use the highest intelligence of the army for the purposes of spying, and thereby they achieve great results.”
Walter was spying relentlessly by keeping dibs on his brother in law Hank throughout the series. Whether it was small talk over a family BBQ or wiretapping his desk. But let’s not forget Saul the lawyer. He was the biggest spy of all and assured the Jess and Walter of greatness.
To be without form
“If I determine the enemy’s disposition of forces while I have no perceptible form, I can concentrate my forces while the enemy is fragmented. The pinnacle of military deployment approaches the formless: if it is formless, then even the deepest spy cannot discern it nor the wise make plans against it.”
Formlessness was the secret to Walter White’s success. While producing a distinct form of meth, virtually everything about their operation changed so their enemy could not bust them. How many places did they make meth? From the RV, to home basements to Gustav’s meth lab under the laundromat business. They constantly changed their form and even the recipe to ward off enemies.
Avoid war in the first place
The whole point Sun Tzu makes is that it’s not the Art of War, it’s the Art of Getting Your Way with as Little Bloodshed as Possible. It could be the Art of Wuss, because if you understand the book it’s about avoiding conflict wherever possible. But that may be a bit disrespectful. I guess the Art of War was just catchier. Whenever Jesse and Walter needed chemicals, they very rarely resorted to violence. They always had sophisticated ways of stealing what they needed. Whether it be the train heist, the magnet truck to erase a hard disc in the police lock up or several other scams.
There are probably a billion more references out there. I’m afraid that will have to do for now. A timeless book and an amazingly accomplished piece of television. They deserve each other.