The Attraction of Walter White.

Sep 30

The television series Breaking Bad recently ended its five-season run having earned numerous, well-deserve plaudits. Many viewers and critics consider it among the best shows in TV history, chiefly because of the show’s main character, chemistry teacher-turned-drug lord Walter White.

Why was the story of his turn from a meek, cancer-ridden high school chemistry teacher into the ambitious, bloodthirsty drug lord Heisenberg so appealing? Why did so many viewers root for this villain despite his despicable actions? Why has he become among the most memorable anti-heroes in entertainment history?

Bryan Cranston’s magnificent performance as Walter was one reason. Another was Breaking Bad’s talented scriptwriters.

The real reason, however, could be a number of viewers actually identified with Cranston’s character.

Those people aren’t about to turn into crystal meth cooks to provide for their families or to garner a thrill they never experienced in their otherwise dreary lives. Many of the show’s viewers aren’t living lives of quiet desperation, like Walter White when we first meet him.

Still,  Walter’s story seems to have struck a chord with a number of viewers on a personal level.

TV anti-hero Walter White.

TV anti-hero Walter White.

When Breaking Bad began, Walter White was a meek Albuquerque, New Mexico high-school teacher. His wife, Skyler, is expecting their second child. She’s taken time off work, forcing Walter to take a second job at a car wash to make ends meet. Their teenage son, Walter Jr, has cerebral palsy.

They have a nice suburban home with a pool and two vehicles in the driveway, though it’s revealed the decor is faded, the pool at times untended, their water heater is leaking and their two vehicles are over ten years old.

Brother-in-law Hank is a brash, brawny DEA agent who teases Walt about his timidity, and whom Walter Jr clearly hero-worships. Sister-in-law Marie likes him but, like everyone else, doesn’t respect him.

It’s gradually revealed Walter is a brilliant chemist who in his youth left a fledgling pharmaceutical company (“Gray Matter”) which went on to greater heights without him.

He’s now an over-qualified chemistry teacher trying to reach indifferent, disrespectful high school students. He’s working a demeaning second job to pay his bills. His pretty wife loves him but takes him for granted. His sometimes sullen teenage son also loves him but has more respect for his Uncle Hank.

He’s stuck with a mortgage for a house he once dismissed as a starter home, driving a battered Aztec (one of the worst cars ever built), laying awake at night fearing the future, with only a couple of plaques in a rec room commemorating what he once was and might have been, tormenting himself daily by checking the rising stock value of the company he abandoned.

Walter White is like many middle-aged men in today’s Western society. His life didn’t turn out as he planned but he can’t do anything about it. He feels trapped and powerless, accepting his lot in life, but quietly pins the blame for his woes on others.

Then he is diagnosed with lung cancer, and realizes he has nothing to leave his family when he’s gone except expensive medical bills for the treatments needed to forestall his inevitable demise.

For most people, that diagnosis would be the final, ultimate insult. For Walter, it’s the springboard toward becoming a drug kingpin.

Walter excuses his behaviour by claiming it is all about taking care of his family, which was true early in the series, but eventually it’s about Walter becoming “Heisenberg”, using his success as a meth cook to perversely achieve a measure of greatness which previously eluded him.

As Walter ultimately admits, he didn’t do it for his family. He did it for himself. He liked it. It made him feel alive.

Breaking Bad fans won’t emulate Walter White, but a number of them recognize themselves in him.

Like Walter, they’re enduring life rather than enjoying it. They’re stuck in a rut, doing jobs they settled for rather than the career they dreamed of in their youths. Perhaps they’re stuck in loveless relationships, or their kids are a disappointment, or their families don’t respect them.

They’re unhappy with where they live, or with their home, or quality of life. They feel they missed their shot at the brass ring.

They either believe they’re too old to try again, or stuck in a comfortable rut they fear losing what they have. They quietly blame others for their dashed dreams.

They root for Walter White, despite the evil things he’s done, because in a perverse way, he’s making the most of an opportunity to truly live again. They’re living vicariously through a television character.

Most Breaking Bad fans don’t condone Walter’s criminal acts but they want him to overcome the odds and succeed. He’s one of them, an underdog forced by cruel fate to become a criminal to provide for his family and finally succeed at something, becoming someone who calls the shots.

But like many people, Walter’s life up to when he’s diagnosed with cancer is one of his own making.

Yes, he’s a brilliant chemist, but his conceit contributed to his decline, creating the volcano of bitterness bubbling beneath the surface of the downtrodden Walter White before his cancer diagnosis.

It led to his fallout with his Gray Matter partners and creates his Heisenberg alter ego. It’s why he won’t accept “charity” from others. It’s why he can manipulate his meth-cooking partner Jesse to do pretty much anything demanded of him.

It’s why making millions cooking meth isn’t enough. It’s why he wants to build a meth empire.

It’s also why, as the series wound down to its conclusion, Walter loses his empire, witnesses the death of Hank, has most of his millions stolen, puts Jessie through unspeakable hell and is left slowly dying from cancer in a cold, musty New Hampshire hideout, unable to help his family, who no longer want anything to do with him.

Despite his return to Albuquerque to put things right before his death, Walter’s no longer a sympathetic figure. He’s a monster who brought misery and death and destruction – directly and indirectly – upon everyone who ever crossed his path. Too many good people either died or had their lives ruined because of him.

Walter White’s two-year thrill ride as Heisenberg came with a terrible price. His family is forced from their home. His actions led to the death of his brother-in-law. Jessie, a wanna-be gangsta who is really just a messed-up kid, is turned over to neo-Nazis to be tortured and killed, though they instead keep him as a prisoner to cook meth.

Two of Jessie’s girlfriends die violently. A boy whom Walter deliberately poisoned is left orphaned. Two other boys are shot dead in separate instances, one from dealing drugs, another from witnessing a train heist.

Unseen for the most part is how many lives are destroyed by people becoming addicted to Walter’s meth.

Many of the consequences of Walter’s actions may have been unintentional, but they took a deadly toll.

A number of lessons can be taken from Breaking Bad. Perhaps the biggest one is life truly is what we make it.

The character of Walter White could’ve had a good life, had he not fucked it up so royally. Then again, if he hadn’t, Breaking Bad wouldn’t have been nearly as entertaining, or brought us a villain so compelling.

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