Walter White Didn’t Break — He Was Always Bad


We are still two episodes away from learning the ultimate fate of Walter White. But in a way, we’ve known for quite some time. We didn’t even need that first scene of this (half-)season, in which a rumpled-looking Walt freaks out a neighbor, to learn he’d survive. For quite some time, Vince Gilligan has been telling us that the series’ whole raison d’être is to show a person’s gradual moral degeneracy — so we know that this is a story in which Heisenberg will ultimately triumph over Walt, and Heisenberg is a parasite on Walt, who would never be able to make it on its own. With that conceit, everything in Breaking Bad has been about execution: the acting being great overall, the plotting bar none on series television. I have some issues with the way the women on the show have been written but the quibbles are minor, even irrelevant.

But there’s a bloodlessness to Walt’s transformation that I’m finding it more difficult to ignore as we barrel towards the end. I think ultimately the problem is this: I just don’t buy the theory of human nature that Breaking Bad keeps telling us it’s putting to us. All I see is Walter behaving according to the code he’s used since the first day of the series, not gradually falling into moral decay. Which is not an exploration of how someone “breaks bad” as much as it is of someone heading inevitably into the fate he was barreling towards anyway.

I realize I am in the minority in this opinion that Walt was never such a great guy, so hear me out before you comment angrily.

First, I’ll say that I am not sure that the essential continuity of Walt’s character was Gilligan’s design. Bryan Cranston is a really great actor, to the extent that I’ve typed and deleted four different superlatives before concluding that none will quite map the extent of my approval of his work. But as such, you can see that one of the things he imposed on Walt from the beginning was a certain amount of cunning that was not necessarily in Walt as written. For all the blundering of the pilot, the dancing about naked in the desert, there is little evidence on Cranston’s face that Walt is worried about anything other than getting caught.

But even in the writing, Walt’s method has been deception throughout the show. I’m with Tad Friend, who in his really good profile of Cranston in the New Yorker last week, noted that the series is something of a “meditation on performance.” He gets that riff off a remark from Gilligan that Walt’s “superpower” is “to effortlessly lie to everyone. And the person he’s best at lying to is himself.” Re-watching the first few episodes now, you can see this isn’t a skill that emerged with Heisenberg. When he goes to see the beautiful home his ex-business partner has, the envy is there already, behind the smiling facade. In fact, within minutes of meeting him we watch Walt lie to everyone about his illness. And there’s always been precious little agonizing about the deceptiveness in Walt’s DNA. The personality of Raskolnikov in this series is split; Jesse Pinkman got all the conscience and Walt the cunning. Walt slept just fine right after that first murder in the desert.

As the series has gone on, Gilligan himself seems to be coming to the same conclusion. Last night’s episode was just more evidence that Walt’s lying has been the constant in the experiment. Gilligan gave that clue quite directly. The opening flashback showed the ease with which Walt lied to Skyler in the past, and linked it with the way he lied to save her from prosecution now. Which showed us that only character who’s changed is Skyler — now she can tell, with laserlike precision, when Walt’s faking it. And she also knows when he isn’t, which is why she pulled that knife to get him out of her house.

What moral compass Walt may have had in the beginning was about “family,” But Walt’s flashes of benevolence towards his family have been somewhat less than touching. He has, from the beginning, been somewhat at a remove from their day-to-day happenings; he’d never have been able to conceal the cancer otherwise. He may not have wanted Hank killed, but at various times he’s been pretty much indifferent to his fate, most recently with that video he made framing Hank as part of the conspiracy. For Walt, family was always a sort of abstraction, a thing he truly believes he values above all else, but which he has sacrificed at every turn. Walt’s “family values” are all about Walt, not his actual family. In other words: his sense of family is about, and has always been about, Walt preserving his self-image.

In fact, this week, we learned that Walt will sacrifice everything just to keep believing he’s “protecting” his family. Even — though I admit I found this slightly implausible as scripted — Jesse.

And that, I think, is where Gilligan is really hitting the American Everyman. It’s not so much that anyone could be Walter White. But those who embrace a certain version of masculinity — one which makes men the “Protector,” to the exclusion of all other values — are particularly vulnerable. I suspect a lot of these people are the rabid Walt fans. And in a word: they are toxic, and horrifically so. Sure, they use the rhetoric of family togetherness and protection. But they aren’t about true caring. The Walter White protective vibe relies on inattention and neglect. This only became literal this week, as the best thing Walter could do for his family was just disappear — but you just know he’ll be back. He’s still got two episodes to try to save everybody.