“I did it for me … I was good at it. And I was really, I was alive.” – Walter White (Breaking Bad, episode: ‘Felina’)
Introduction (Breaking Bad Characters)
‘Life is very long,’ and ‘life is very short.’ Both these contradictory ideas are always strongly present in our individual and collective psyches. Two ideas clutching and tearing at each other. The heart of an era can be determined by which of these two prevailing notions ultimately prevails. Because one worships life, the other death. In Breaking Bad, we see this conflict play out in myriad ways amidst a motley of characters, thereby ranking it among the best of TV.
What really appeals to us about the ‘anti-hero’ is that, in them, these confusing denials of life and death are in full, naked conflict. In popular culture, this is a denomination that defines the likes of Jim Stark (played by James Dean), Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron), Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley), and Walter White (Bryan Cranston). On one level, of course, there are many, many differences among them – pertaining to their histories, privileges, actions, or general worldview. Not the least of which is: some of them are straight-up murderers, while others wouldn’t dream of killing anyone (or at the very least, only ‘dream’ of it).
In Breaking Bad,
Walter White may seem an insufferable bully to Jesse Pinkman (and many viewers). Yet Jesse also appears insufferable and frustrating for Mr. White.
Walter White is perpetually manipulative. But strictly in terms of ‘worldly action,’ Jesse isn’t much far off. He deals in drugs, works for the cartel, has killed multiple people. He has been Walter‘s partner-in-crime throughout the show, on and off. While Walter may not have willfully saved Jesse‘s girlfriend from an overdose, but Jesse was the one who took her on a drug binge in the first place. So who is more responsible? If actions are markers of morality, Jesse is at least as reprehensible. Or appears to be on the way to becoming one.
Existential dread in Breaking Bad characters
Behind the generational rage, both Breaking Bad main characters Walter and Jesse are dealing with very similar existential dread. Both are without money, without jobs, without aim. Both hang under an imminent threat of death – from drugs or cancer. However, Walter‘s crisis although seemingly more stable, is – in some sense – more volatile. Jesse has always indulged in a nihilistic, self-destructive lifestyle. Family guy Walter has always (consciously or otherwise) veered away from confronting the dark side. With a son who needs constant emotional and physical help, and an unplanned daughter on the way, Walter is thrust into an unforeseen spiral when he discovers his impending mortality. He is already un-salvageable by the time he gets his hands dirty. The show merely pushes the boundaries of his moral gangrene.
There is also an ambivalent temptation to give himself up in Walter White as his crimes and guilt pile up. From his occasionally impulsive actions, right down to his ‘chosen’ alias: Heisenberg. It is as much an ’embracing’ of his dual identity as sabotage. At the very least, the alias connects him to his passion and profession: Chemistry. Which makes the name as much of a liability as an identity. It may also reveal how he wishes to identify himself. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states that it is impossible to calculate precisely both the ‘position’ and ‘momentum’ of a particle at any given moment. These two variables may symbolically correspond to the ‘ethics’ and ‘actions’ of Walter White himself. This ties to the larger idea of the ‘anti-hero’ in general, that tense tussle of corruption and guilt, that which makes them so riveting to watch.
Dynamics of power and abuse (Breaking Bad Characters)
Beyond the overall pattern of abuse, manipulation, and bullying, Walter White does provide some honest moments as a ‘father figure’ and a teacher to Jesse, who both scolds and appreciates his ward. While Jesse‘s real father, who is caring enough to be cold, denies him that genuine appreciation. Even when he does do something “right,” or makes a real effort to set things straight. This fair validation he receives from Walter despite his general cruelty, which is why he has that pincer-like hold on him.
Walter too feels a level of comfort with Jesse. In the episode ‘Fly,’ we see a rare bit of honest sharing from Walter (with just the ‘necessary’ bit of deception), as he reminisces about a simple moment from his life that meant a lot to him. Walter also genuinely consoles Jesse after Jane‘s death, although again with that same sense of guilt mixed in with deceit. This conflicted relationship – both with himself and others – is what makes Walter so dangerous and destructive. Not just for Jesse, but others too. Including the likes of Hank, Mike, and Saul – all of whom had managed to survive and make a living till they came in contact with Heisenberg.
We begin to see the show has not one, not two, but lots of anti-heroes. Almost all of them deceive, cheat, and reveal nihilistic, sadistic sides in their jobs or in their lives. Skyler, Marie, Hank, Mike, and Saul. The show is about Walter and Jesse, mainly because they exist on the extremes of this combination of ‘control’ (life) and ‘impulse’ (death). That spectrum of blurry confusion from ‘life is short’ to ‘life is long.’
When Millennials were watching Breaking Bad in college for the first time, it was a common question to ask, ‘Walter or Jesse?’ It was an ice-breaker to conversations, to show one’s favorite, and to talk about the show in general. Many of them outright hated Walter‘s wife, Skyler. Most male fans did, anyway. Viewers were frustrated that Skyler couldn’t (or wouldn’t) see Walt’s “good intentions,” despite the series clearly showing what he is and how he thinks. But many still went ahead and ‘bought into’ his fantasy. There is nothing more dangerous than buying into the fantasy of an unreliable narrator. It can be tempting to ascribe amorality to an immoral era. However, it is individuals who corrupt eras. It is also individuals who bring lasting change, for better or for worse. One can either be a reflection of their times or be a challenge to those times.
Now we can see more clearly the very obvious fractures in that misguided heroism of Walter White.
This has partly to do with the fact that a generation has changed. And partly to do with the fact that art can be really deceptive: make one sympathize with the wrong person. Walter White for all his self-controlled, ‘disciplined’ chaos, denies life (including his own). For him, life is short. It has been cut short by circumstance. He denies that life to others to affirm his own.
In a pivotal scene, Walter remarks how he has “outlived” others despite having cancer. It shows how his own ego, insecurities, and intellect – combined with existential dread and a delusional self-image – all boiled up into this utter loss of morality. It is this humanity that ultimately prevails in Jesse over Walter. Jesse embraces his perdition and suffering in a (literal) dark hole to spare the life of a child who is almost a stranger to him. It is difficult to imagine Walter being so selfless. (Especially since he once poisoned that same child non-lethally using his own twisted logic and malleable ethics.)
Or is it really so difficult to imagine?
Perhaps because his morality is so malleable, it is also unpredictable. Walter does come back for Jesse in the finale of Breaking Bad. What is the primary motivation that ultimately drives him into that fatal den of racist, drug-dealing, stone-cold killers? Is it cancer? Loneliness? Guilt, revenge, responsibility? Is it the will to go out on one’s own terms? Or is it just plain drugs, his product, his “Baby Blue”? Guess we will never fully know.