Never give up control; live life on your own terms. – Walter White
If there’s anything that the Golden Era of modern television has taught us, it’s that America loves an antihero. The most important television characters of the past decade all fit this description: Tony Soprano, Stringer Bell, Omar Little, Don Draper, and Walter White are all iconic modern antiheroic protagonists. Walter White more than any of those other men, however, best embodies someone who isn’t just defined by his moral shortcomings (depending on your own personal moral and ethical philosophy), but consumed by them.
Over the past five seasons we’ve watched Walter White evolve (devolve?) from the underachieving, cancer-stricken, high school chemistry teacher hoping to provide for his family, to the methamphetamine cooking sociopath with an insatiable greed – I’m in the empire business.
He has murdered, plotted to murder, been an associate to the murder of a child, poisoned a child, cooked and sold drugs, and sexually assaulted his boss, and yet he seems to be far more likeable than Breaking Bad’s central moral figure, that being his wife, Skyler, who has essentially become Walt’s hostage.*
*There’s a strange backlash towards TV wives – Skyler White, Carmela Soprano, etc. – which may be steeped in misogyny, but also in the fact that these women represent the only people potentially capable of stopping their husbands from committing the crimes we love watching them commit on a weekly basis. Whatever your thoughts are of Skyler as a woman who cheated on her husband (or as a woman who slept with her boss), in her marriage, she’s the only one truly looking out for the best interests of her family. As Vince Gilligan told Vulture, “She’s telling him not to be a murderer and a guy who cooks drugs for kids. How could you have a problem with that?”
Walter White’s transformation began with the realization that, if he were to die, his family would be left with close to nothing. Walt’s decision to “break bad” was made with the intention of providing for his family – $737,000, that’s what I need – and yet, through a series of poor decisions, bad luck and pure ego, he was never satisfied with his returns, despite making more money than he would ever need.
What was once an endeavor justified through his own utilitarianism, cooking methamphetamine became an obsession, an obsession fueled by pride, and one which, it would seem, will lead to his demise.
One of my favorite scenes from Breaking Bad is from the season five episode, “Fifty-One,” after Skyler’s “suicide attempt,” as she laments what happened with Ted Beneke (the failed-attempt to get him to pay off his IRS debts, not the affair):