Breaking BATNAs: Negotiation Lessons from Walter White

Jennifer W. Reynolds

University of Oregon School of Law

September 30, 2014

New Mexico Law Review, Forthcoming


Walter White could teach us many things: how to read the periodic table; how to destroy a tub with hydrofluoric acid; how to build a battery; how to make poison out of castor beans; how to build a bomb under a wheelchair; how to use the remote control of the car to operate a machine gun; and how to coordinate multiple assassinations of prison informants within thirty seconds of one another. But these are niche skills at best. Is there anything useful we can learn from Walter White?

As it turns out, Walter White can also teach us how to negotiate — or, to put it more precisely, watching Walter White negotiate in Breaking Bad helps us think more clearly about what we are doing when we negotiate. For the student of negotiation, Breaking Bad is an absolute treasure trove, producing an incredibly complex and varied array of bargaining parties and negotiated transactions, week after week. What’s so fascinating about these transactions is that they draw on familiar, foundational negotiation concepts in the service of less familiar, usually illicit ends. Put another way, when we watch Walter White negotiate, we watch a mega-criminal anti-hero implement the same “value-neutral” strategies that we teach lawyers and businesspeople. Learning to negotiate from Walter White, therefore, allows us to engage in an analytical exercise that explores the conventional wisdom around negotiation in a fresh, modern context, while implicating more critical conversations around value neutrality and other normative concerns in negotiation theory and practice.

Breaking Bad ran for five seasons. In this article, I have chosen five negotiations, one from each season, each featuring Walter White. For these five negotiations, I provide close readings that show how the negotiations demonstrate and/or disrupt foundational negotiation concepts or skills. I then suggest some possible takeaways for negotiators and analysts. The article concludes with a brief thought about ethical implications in negotiation theory and practice.

Breaking BATNAs- Negotiation Lessons from Walter White

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