Greatest Fictional Characters: Walter White
I gave up on television in 2010. I was tired of paying an ungodly amount of money when I only watched a handful of shows, especially since there were so many older shows for me to catch up on through Netflix. The first run shows I wished to keep up on I either downloaded through Playstation Network or watched on Hulu.
Then a funny thing happened: TV got good again. I donâ€™t regret my decision to ditch cable, but that decision would be harder to make today. The hour long drama has made a remarkable recovery by merging with the nerdy. The Walking Dead, Hannibal, Bateâ€™s Motel, Arrow, American Horror Story, Game of Thrones, and the list goes on. But there is one show that stands above them all, one that will go down in history not just as one of this centuries great shows, not just as one of the great shows of all times, but as one of the most gripping stories youâ€™ll find in any format, ever.
Breaking Bad is a fucking masterpiece. I ignored it for a long time, not believing the hype on how good it was. Oh how wrong I was. I marathoned the five seasons in about six weeks, always left on the edge of my seat, never let down by a single episode. While there are many factors that led to my addiction (puns!) to this show, one towers above the rest like a great, grizzled beast ready to strike – Walter fucking White.
As played by Bryan Cranston, Walter White begins the show as a lovable loser, a sweet guy who seems about as menacing as a suburban science teacher in tighty whities can be. Working two jobs to support his pregnant wife and disabled teenage son, Walter has just turned 50 and been handed a death sentence – he has terminal lung cancer. He is going to die.
At first Walter keeps the news to himself. He doesnâ€™t want to be treated and leave his family crippled by debt. Then one day, on a ride along with his DEA agent brother-in-law, Hank, Walter watches as a meth lab is taken down and a former student of his, Jesse Pinkman, scurries out the window and escapes. In awe of the amount of money one can make in the drug business, Walter convinces Jesse to work with him. Mr. White will be the cook, using his genius level chemistry skills to make the purest meth on the market, Jesse will assist and handle distribution.
This is where the show will either lose you or grab ahold and never let go. Can you understand Walterâ€™s initial decision to begin cooking? If the answer is no, you despise him immediately, venture no further. However, if you, like me, not only understand his decision but wonder what you yourself might do in his shoes, then buckle up because this train is going off the tracks.
Without venturing too deep into spoiler territory, the brilliance of this show is the evolution of Walter White as a character. In the first episode he looks like the sweetest, most harmless guy that has ever lived. He could be your dad or favorite uncle, or that teacher that really made a difference in your life. So he remains for much of the first season, but the surprise, to both us and to Walter himself, is how good he is at crime, and how much he enjoys it.
As the series continues, a physical and spiritual transformation takes place in Walter. His dorky haircut and mustache are replaced by a shaved head and goatee. His once easy, innocent smile is replaced with a scowl. A darkness settles in behind his eyes, one that never leaves even when heâ€™s pretending to be his old, sweet self. A switch has been flipped in him. In business Walter calls himself Heisenberg, presenting himself as a ruthless, vindictive killer. Over time, this is no longer an act. Walter becomes Heisenberg.
Itâ€™s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when Walter loses himself in his own creation, but for me it comes early on. Walter wants to quit the meth game. Heâ€™s struggling with the ethics of what heâ€™s doing. Then, on a trip to the hardware store, he sees a junkie loading up his cart with the makings of a cheap cook. Walter follows him out to the parking lot, where the junkies much bigger, much scarier looking partner is waiting. Walter and this mountain of a man square off, but the suburban science teacher doesnâ€™t back down. His face changes. You canâ€™t even remember what he looked like before, itâ€™s as if a mask has come off and this is the real man whose been waiting to come out.
â€œStay out of my territory,â€ Walter growls, and the thug shrinks away and flees.
The brilliance of Breaking Bad is that, as bad as Walter gets (and by the last episode heâ€™s done some truly hideous things) we continue to root for him. He destroys his family, destroys Jesse, and leaves a whole lot of dead bodies in his wake. And yet heâ€™s just so damn good at what he does itâ€™s like watching a master chess player. This is a man who started off dead inside, living behind a fake smile while his soul gasped for air. When he takes control and proves himself to be the smartest person in the room, itâ€™s hard not to live vicariously through him.
In the end Walter White / Heisenberg is a villain, not a hero. Yet it is because of how much we like him and root for him and, yes, relate to him that he is one of the most fascinating characters youâ€™re likely to ever come across. As this once meek and mild man says to his terrified wife:
â€œI am not in danger, Skylar, I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think thatâ€™s me? No. I am the one who knocks.â€