McGinnis: Breaking down Walter WhiteWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
In the annals of television history, Walter White — the focus of AMC’s groundbreaking series “Breaking Bad,” as embodied by the performance of Bryan Cranston — stands almost without peer as one of the most unique and fascinating characters ever created.
It’s challenging to sum up the chemistry-teacher-turned-drug-kingpin in just a few words. He’s certainly not a hero, yet he’s not simply a “bad guy,” either. But it’s not his position as a villainous entity who we still kinda root for which makes him unique (From “Dallas” to “Dexter” and many more, TV has hosted more than its fair share of antiheroes). Nor is it just that White is written and performed so perfectly, though he is. Nor is it that he’s surrounded by characters and stories that are consistently fascinating and thrilling, though that’s true, too.
No, what has made White — and the show — so incredibly compelling for the past five seasons is the transformative journey we’ve seen the character undergo. Unlike many of the sordid individuals on television, Walter didn’t relish his descent into evil. He never intended to become a murderer and criminal. It just sort of happened. And as we, the audience, have followed along, and can actually understand the choices he has made which have led him down that path, even as we’ve disagreed with every one of them.
Few watching the show would be able to sympathize with White if we hadn’t taken the journey with him — to see what he is today is to see him as the monster he has become. But this is the rare tragedy that has taken the time to show each brick of good intention that Walter’s personal road to hell was paved with.
It’s the sheer audacity of that concept (and others) that has made “Breaking Bad” television’s best show for the past five years. And as the series prepares for its final bow with its last season beginning on Aug. 11, one of the things that uniquely defines the audience’s relationship to “Breaking” is that few are expecting a “happy” ending. Nor do they want one, really. But at some level, many viewers are still thinking that maybe Walter will find a way out of all this — though he certainly doesn’t deserve to by now.
Like most of the classic tragedies, “Breaking Bad”‘s story hinges on a single, unbreakable flaw in its lead character: hubris. Walter realistically could have broken from the path his life has taken at a few points during the series’ run, most recently at the end of last season, when it appeared he had made a clean getaway. But at each turn, the character has been undercut by his quest for validation. Walter had spent the previous 50 years as a nonentity in his own life story. Now that the chance for glory has presented itself — even at such a heinous pursuit as drug dealing — he finds it nearly impossible to resist the chance to revel in it.
It wasn’t always that way. Once he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, White began his descent hoping to earn his wife Skyler (played with long-suffering pathos by Anna Gunn) and kids enough money to survive after his death. The quickest path was the manufacture and sale of the dangerous drug crystal meth. His experience as a chemistry teacher gave him the knowledge, and roping in a former student named Jesse (brilliantly played by Aaron Paul) gave him a foot in the door of the market.
The early episodes were largely about people who were wildly over their heads. When situations ended in violence, it usually came despite Walter’s better intentions. But as time went on and White and his alterego “Heisenberg” grew in prominence, so too did his attitude change toward his actions. It all culminated in the “I am the one who knocks!” speech by Walter to Skyler in season four, one of the greatest monologues in television history and a moment of true transformation. From that moment on, it seemed “Walter White” was the persona. Whoever was left was Heisenberg.
It has been that progression which has made “Breaking Bad” into the most compelling series on the air. The Walter who celebrated his 50th birthday in the show’s first episode wouldn’t recognize the Walter who celebrated his 51st in the fifth season. But we have seen each piece of his journey from one to the other. And now that the journey nears its end, we understand the monster that remains. That’s why, in a way, we’ve known for a while that Walter could never have truly gotten out of the business forever. The pride of Heisenberg wouldn’t let him.