Stories where the hero becomes the villain have always been interesting to me. There’s just something so intriguing about watching a good person become a terrible one. That, and I’ve always loved the villains more than the heroes for as long as I could remember. The very first question I asked in regards to story telling was “Why can’t the bad guy ever win?”
Naturally, when I finally got around to watching Breaking Bad, I was immediately hooked by the character of Walter White. Right away, you could tell where this dude was going. On the surface, he’s an honest and caring family man stuck in a financially straining situation and struck by a tragic diagnosis. But just beneath the surface, hidden out of view, is a pride so firm it borders on arrogance and a temper that is nothing short of explosive.
The story of Breaking Bad is the story of Walter White’s decent into. About the rise and fall of Heisenberg, the greatest meth cook in America. But what makes it tick? What exactly is the story of Walter White?
The Wound: Gray Matter
Little is known of Walter’s origins. We know that his father died when he was very young, which left a lasting impression on him. We know that he was a much more ambitious man in his youth than what we saw at the beginning of the series. We know that he ultimately ended up as a high school chemistry teacher despite being one of the most brilliant minds in that field.
Of all that we know about his history, one point stands out above the rest: the founding of Gray Matter. We know a few things about this event. We know that Walter, Elliot, and Gretchen founded the company. We know that Walt and Gretchen were in a relationship, but Walt suddenly broke it off without warning and she ended up with Elliot.
But most importantly, we know how Walt left the company. He sold his shares early on for a few thousand dollars. Not a bad deal at the time, enough to pay his rent for a few months.
It wouldn’t have made him so upset had the company not become a multi-billion dollar empire.
This had a major impact on Walt’s pride. And if we know anything about him, it’s that his pride is his biggest downfall.
The pain only grew worse later on in Walt’s life. The young, ambitious man we saw when he and Skyler first bought their house is gone. He’s tired, he’s beaten down, he’s working two minimum wage jobs (teachers should get paid more, for fuck’s sake), and he’s got a pregnant wife to worry about. All the while, his two former friends are living in the soft lap of luxury.
Then he got his cancer diagnosis.
The Lie: What I Do, I Do For This Family
Upon being diagnosed with cancer, Walt started living each day like it would be his last. Because… well, they could be. He was more vocal, more sexually active, and his temper would flare far more wildly far more often. The dude was dying and he knew it, so he let go of his fears. He was awake.
Still, as free as he was, he was also a father that was tight on money. He was going to die and leave his wife and two children, one in crutches and the other a baby, alone with little money to handle all the bills. Before he went, he had to make sure that they were well off.
So naturally, he went straight to “Make meth!” Hey, he’s a psychotic chemist.
Initially, Walt’s intentions may have been just as he said. He needed to make a quick fortune for his family so that they wouldn’t be crushed by debt when he was gone. Meth cooking may not have been the cleanest way to get that cash, but it was an efficient one. And given his demeanor in the early seasons, it is reasonable to assume that his heart does start out in the right place.
But as we all know, his heart didn’t stay there.
The Want: I’m In the Empire Business
When Walt tasted true power and success, the hole in his ego finally began to fill. He finally tasted everything he had missed out on by leaving Gray Matter behind. At long last, the ambitions he had in his youth were being fulfilled.
Throughout seasons three, four, and five, we see Walt struggling to place himself on top. To become the next drug kingpin. His pride wouldn’t be satisfied just cooking and selling his product. He had to be the top dog. The man who called the shots rather than the man who fulfilled them.
He summarizes this perfectly with this line to Jessie:
You asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business. The answer is neither. I’m in the empire business.Walter White, Season 5 Episode 6
As time goes on, Walt slowly becomes more ruthless in his attempts to acquire that position. From manipulating people to poisoning children and murdering his enemies, the persona of Heisenberg begins to become more prominent and dangerous. Walt wants to be the top dog, and he will stop at nothing to get there.
Even though it tore away the thing he valued the most.
The Need: I Did It For Me
Walt’s selfish, destructive behavior ultimately backfires on him in the most dramatic way possible. His brother-in-law is killed, his fortune is stolen, his position is taken away, and his family completely turns on him. Suddenly, the mighty Heisenberg is no more. His empire is reduced to ashes and a lonely, dying Walter White is left to fend for himself.
It’s here, in his final few months, completely defeated, that Walt finally admits the truth. Both to himself and his family, Walt admits that he did it all for himself. The lies finally end as he accepts his greed and his arrogance. At long last, he stops pretending that Walter White and Heisenberg are two separate entities.
Which brings him to his end. After setting his family up for a small fortune, coming clean to Skyler, avenging Hank, and freeing Jessie, Walt spends his last moments in a meth lab. Alone, bleeding, dying. There, with nothing left to lose, Walt spends his final moments. But rather than being regretful, rather than mourning, Walt accepts his fate. He comes to peace with the consequences of his actions and dies a relatively peaceful death there. Surrounded by the results of all his madness.
There is so much about Walt that I didn’t have time to cover here. From his eagerness to die that we see in seasons two and three to his feelings of inadequacy compared to Hank. Walter White is an incredibly complex character with so much more going on for him than I could talk about in one article.
This is how you do a negative character arc well. We see Walt at his best and at his absolute worst. From moments of sheer desperation and terror to moments of absolute confidence and power. We watch the monster within him slowly grow until it finally consumes all that the man cared about.
It’s easy to see why so many people consider Breaking Bad a masterpiece. Rarely does a protagonist this well written grace American television. Walter White was a perfect lead for this show.
Although I do think Jessie has plenty of depth himself.