This actually kind of scared me when I first saw it and it sank in.
What he said.
It’s been almost a week since Breaking Bad ended, and I now think that I have sufficient perspective to provide my POV on the character Walter White, who I feel is one of the most complex, interesting, and significant fictional characters existing in modern history. I don’t normally make sweeping statements like this. I recognize that it’s completely subjective. But I think it’s warranted. We don’t have Shakespeare anymore. You can count today’s good fictional novelists on two hands. Today, we look to the movies, theater, and now, television, for our great fictional characters, more than we do to novels. Which is profoundly sad, but that’s a topic for another day.
I further submit that we are in the midst of a television Golden Age, where the quality of television programming on average well exceeds the quality of feature films at the movies. In my lifetime, I have never so many great shows on at the same time, much less in succession. And before I was alive, I don’t think we ever had this type of quality on the boob tube.
Here’s a brief list of rectn shows I consider historically great:
Some would throw Dexter in there. I’d probably add Justified, personally. The Newsroom on HBO and House of Cards on Netflix may eventually get there. I’ve heard Sons of Anarchy is very good, but have yet to watch it. In the past, you would have MASH, All in the Family, and Hill Street Blues, to name a few. Maybe LA Law (in the beginning). But the above shows are indisputably great and have come so close together in recent years that we haven’t seen anything like it before.
Another thing some of these shows have in common is that they have an anti-hero as the protagonist, or main characters that are uniformly flawed. Tony Soprano, McNulty, Don Draper, Omar, Dexter, Will McAvoy. Some are obviously more flawed than others, and this is precisely what makes them so compelling.
Which brings us to Walter White. I will say this up front: I absolutely loved Walter White. Loved him. When I tell people this, some of them get upset with me because of the bad things Walter did. As if my saying that I loved Walter White the character means that I loved everything the character did. I didn’t love everything Walter White did, obviously. He was a meth kingpin, after all, who destroyed multiple lives, including his own. He was selfish, prideful, and an egomaniac. He had a chip on his shoulder. He felt cheated by life because he knew and believed he was destined for greater things and on Breaking Bad, he proved this to us and showed us how it was true.
I loved Walter White, the character, with all of his flaws. BECAUSE of all of his flaws. I most likely would not have liked the man in real life very much. But he wasn’t real. He was a work of fiction, and it’s the work of fiction and the minds that created it that I respect and love so much because of the effect the character had on me and how inside of his head we were allowed to get. The character, as portrayed by Bryan Cranston, who can do more acting with his eyes than Channing Tatum and other pretenders can do with their entire sculpted bodies, was flawed, torn, complex, and, in the end, beautiful. In the beginning, WW was a family man and chemistry teacher who was kind of wimpy and bullied, not physically, but emotionally by people like his equally flawed brother-in-law Hank, who I decided I didn’t like, and would root against, after the first season. Hank was a jocky, smarmy, know-it-all who treated Walt like a harmless fly for most of the entire series. Until the end, of course. I felt sorry for WW in the beginning. I empathized with him. He had a shit teaching job with students who didn’t give a fuck about him or his class (much as I remember from my own chemistry class in high school.) He wore drab clothes, drove a drab car (WTF was that thing, anyway, a Pontiac?), and lived in a drab house, surrounded by drab furniture.
(Footnote: when WW was walking through Gretchen and Elliott’s house in that last episode, the contrast in the two houses was almost absurd. G&E enjoyed the epitome of opulence: modern, expensive furniture, floors that were made of wood most likely imported from an endangered Brazilian rainforest, trendy art on the walls, huge glass windows, and high-end stainless steel appliances. Compare this to Walter’s POS house, which, for all of that $80 million he made, never got upgraded in even the smallest way. Not even a new fridge or stove. The irony of WW putting it all on the line and spending the smallest fraction of the illegal money he made on a couple of cars and a few knickknacks was not lost on me.)
In the beginning, Walter White was a nice guy, a family man, who then got handed a shit sandwich in the form of a cancer diagnosis. Most of us would have folded, put our heads down and gone through the cancer treatment like everyone does, and just accepted our fate. Walter, who at that point was still focused on his family, chose an alternate and I submit, a more courageous path: he broke bad and became a drug dealer.
I admired that. Illegal yes, but WW knew he had a limited shelf-life and it took balls to go against your moral code and do something about it. Plus he was making use of his talents and ended up creating a nearly perfect product. If it were not illegal and destructive to people, we’d be applauding him. I don’t respect or admire drug dealers, but as a character in a work of fiction, I respected and admired the character WW’s decision to take the path he did, given what he was facing. From a fictional perspective, as the final episodes showed us, Walter’s ultimate demise and destruction of his family started with one small self-compromise and lie to Skyler. His criminality was so small and almost comical in the beginning. He and Jesse were like Abbott and Costello in that hilarious RV. When they finally came up with their flawless product, they didn’t even know what to do with it right away. But it was the start of something big.
(Footnote 1: how many of today’s wealthy and established families and corporation got to where they are by doing illegal things like running alcohol during Prohibition and bribing government officials (among other things) during the Industrial Revolution?)
(Footnote 2: nuclear weapons were concocted by some of the most brilliant minds in human history, including Oppenheimer and Einstein. There is nothing more destructive on this planet — and dangerous to the entire human race — than nuclear weapons. Yet, we still admire the ingenuity that led to their creation and pretend that they are for our own protection and defense when we know full well that if they are ever used in a full scale world war, we very well could extinct ourselves as a race.)
Over time, Walter slowly evolved into a darker, more flawed, and more sinister character. He became Heisenberg. To me, his was a beautiful and Shakespearean evolution into a tragic character that made me love him more. His story was modern day Shakespeare, up there with Hamlet and Macbeth. It was a modern day western too, which Vince Gilligan himself has alluded to.
Through it all, Walter White came up with ingenious plans to advance his goals, again, using his talents to subdue vastly stronger and more powerful people like Gus. For much of the series, Walter was an underdog. That was probably the biggest pull for me. I always root for the underdog and because of the way they told the story, I never had the sense that Walter White was anything but an underdog, even when he was at his most powerful. He was always one fuckup away from being locked up and you knew that at some point, the evil people he hired would turn on him.
Also, Walter was never satisfied with the size of his empire until the very end, and when he decided to “retire,” it was too late. Hank figured it out. You had to admire his perfectionism, and I did. But even as Walter was becoming Heisenberg, it always felt to me as if he was trying to act like a bad-ass, as if he was trying to adopt a persona that really wasn’t him. He had to put the hat on, squint his eyes, and lower his voice. It was a means to an end, but it never lasted long and half the time was mixed with a seat of your pants approach that was borderline comical. Unlike Tony Soprano, or Joffrey on Game of Thrones, while certainly a killer, Walter was not cold-blooded or a psychopath, in my view. He was a self-compromiser, excuse-maker, and rationalizer who killed methodically and threw away his morality when it suited his purposes. Is that worse than a psychopath because he knew it was wrong? I know a few people who think so. What’s undeniable is that most of the lives he took were of those in his own illegal industry. Not justifiable, of course, but you can’t compare him to Dahmer or Joffrey in my opinion. And other times, like when Hank and Drew Sharp got killed, it wasn’t something he intended, but rather, the result of events getting beyond his control. The randomness of life interfering with well-established plans. Hank deciding for his own flawed reasons not to ask for backup and not to tell a soul besides Gomie that he was going into the middle of the desert to confront a drug kingpin.
This entire morality analysis is another reason why I loved Walter White. He forced you to do it. He forced you to look at him and then look at yourself and your own character. What would YOU have done in his shoes. You can’t help but root for him at different points in time, but what does this say about you? You’re rooting for a fucking killer and drug kingpin for crying out loud. What, you never compromised yourself? You never rationalized anything? Not a single thing? Not a white lie to someone? You’re a completely open book with people? You tell them everything that’s in your head? Yeah, of course you do.
Walter compromised himself into oblivion. But we all compromise ourselves to some degree, don’t we? Walter White showed us how far self-compromise and rationalization can take us if we’re not careful. The show took place over a two-year period, between Walter’s 50th and 52nd birthdays. We now know that Walter was going to die of his cancer, regardless of what he did. He could have gone quietly, with his family by his side, and died in his own bedroom, surrounded by love. Instead, he died alone in a meth lab, surrounded by gutted Nazis and his beloved metal tubes and vats. While condemning Walter White/Heisenberg the criminal, I think it’s worth remembering what he told Skyler at the end, during their last, brief meeting: He did it for himself. He liked it. He was good at it. It made him feel alive. How many cancer patients can say the same during their last two years of life?
RIP, Walter White. It will be a very long time before we see another character remotely like you.
American History 101
(Source: carlboygenius, via )
Goodbye, Breaking Bad.