The unlikely heroism of a meth-dealing schoolteacher
On paper, high-school chemistry teacher Walter White is despicable. He cooks up high-grade crystal methamphetamine and sells it to faceless losers. He gassed and suffocated one drug dealer, strangled another, and blew up his distributor’s office using fulminated mercury. He made his business partner Jesse dissolve a dead body in hydrofluoric acid, and forced his 16-year-old son to drink shot after shot of tequila until he threw up in a swimming pool. He tried to rape his pregnant wife. Oh, and he steals chemistry supplies from the school where he works.
On his worst day, Walt went to Jesse’s apartment to find him and his train-wreck girlfriend Jane asleep and strung out on heroin. When she started coughing and throwing up, a decent human being would have turned her over, sat her up, maybe even called 911. But Jane posed a threat to Walt’s business—so he just stood there, watching the poor girl choke to death on her own vomit.
In spite of all this, Walt is our hero. We like his wife, we love his son, and every week during Breaking Bad (which begins its third season in March) we hope Walt doesn’t die. Before becoming a monster, he was sympathetic—a dorky Albuquerque science teacher who took a part-time job at a car wash to make ends meet. He had a teenaged son with cerebral palsy and an unexpected baby on the way, and he’d just found out he had stage-three lung cancer and two years to live. Desperate times called for dangerous measures, and Walt decided to use his chemistry skills in the most profitable way he knew how—making meth. The medical bills were piling up. He did it for his family.
Actor Bryan Cranston (Malcolm in the Middle, Seinfeld) made a seamless leap from his history of comedic roles to this intensely dramatic one. As a sick teacher, husband and father, he’s pitiful; as a chemist gone bad, a ruthless drug dealer known as Heisenberg, he’s terrifying. “I had Bryan in mind early on to play the part of Walt,” says series creator Vince Gilligan. “I knew him from working with him on The X-Files, where I was a writer. I put him in an episode where we had a character who was awful—he was a racist, unpleasant creep—but when he died at the end, we needed the audience to feel empathy for him. Bryan knocked it out of the ballpark. Then and there I realized not just what a fine actor he was, but how likeable he was, and how humanity just seemed to ooze out of him. We needed a guy like that.”
Cranston, in turn, was immediately drawn to Breaking Bad after reading the script. “The first page is the first minute or so of the pilot episode—a middle-aged man drives ferociously in an RV, wearing a gas mask and only tighty-whitey underwear. Behind him, two dead bodies slide back and forth with the motion of the RV. Next to him in the seat is another man, passed out,” he says. “I’m going, ‘What the hell? What’s going on?’ It captures you right from that moment.”
It’s a bold premise indeed—especially for AMC—and Gilligan doesn’t dodge the drug world’s filthy realities. There’s blood and guts, and a decapitated head on a live tortoise. “Every now and then,” Gilligan says, “when I stop and look around from my little office here with my writers, I think ‘How did this show ever make it on the air?’” Sure, HBO has vampires and Showtime’s got a soccer-mom selling pot and a handsome serial killer who targets murderers, but those are premium channels. Plus, marijuana is small potatoes compared to meth, and serial killers and vampires don’t exactly hit close to home. But somehow Breaking Bad does, rarely requiring a suspension of disbelief.
“There is a way to be provocative without being exploitative,” Cranston says, “and I think that’s what Breaking Bad does so well—we pose an interesting proposition: ‘What are the conditions that would make a mild-mannered, nice guy who’d never even got a moving-violation ticket, let alone been arrested, turn into a criminal?’ I think people look at that and go, ‘I’ve felt desperation. I’ve worried about losing my job or paying for my kid’s braces. And this is the avenue that this man chose.’”
Gilligan makes sure that Walt pays for his sins: His wife doesn’t trust him, he has to feign appreciation when his handicapped son creates a website to raise money for his poor, sick dad (savewalterwhite.com, which you can actually visit online), and he’s paranoid that his brother-in-law, a feisty DEA agent, is on to him. Not to mention, his cancer is progressing. It’s a dark world. When Walt carries his newborn baby into the garage, shows her the stacks of cash he scored from a drug deal and whispers, “Daddy did that for you,” there’s a glimmer of guilt in Daddy’s eye.
“I told Vince that if this worked out, our job as partners in this storytelling would be to connect with the humanity of this man, and allow the audience to see his vulnerability, his fear, his hope, his joy, his intelligence, his struggle, on a very real basis,” says Cranston. “And if we are able to do that, we have a chance at a very unique show.” And that’s why so many people watch—Gilligan and Cranston have found our soft spot. We believe that our evil protagonist is good at heart. We know that he’s spun out of control, and we’re caught up in his story. We’ve come to recognize that look in his eye, the one that says, “What have I become?” And when the series ends and Walter White dies, whether quietly in bed or violently outside an RV, we’ll miss the son of a bitch.