Breaking Bad: A Lament for the Soul of Walter White

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We used to want heroes. Sure they had their flaws, but they remained the good guys. Now we’re securely in the Age of the Antihero, particularly in television, where many of the best recent dramas are carried by characters whose moral choices are suspect at best—The Sopranos, Sons of Anarchy, Mad Men. In all those cases, though, the antihero is conflicted about the criminal world in which he lives (mobs, motorcycle gangs, ad agencies). Even Dexter’s title character is aware of his own psychopathy—the serial killer who wants to be a boy. It can be uncomfortable for the viewer when, week after week, the character that you’ve come to know, come to identify with and sympathize with, makes terrible moral choices. We squirm when we realize we’re cheering on a murderer, a gangster or a chemistry teacher who makes meth.

With Breaking Bad, creator Vince Gilligan takes us on his character’s journey from protagonist to antihero, but doesn’t stop there. The revelation at the end of Season 4 that Walter White, the once mild-mannered high-school chemistry teacher, had resorted to poisoning an innocent child to deceptively win back Jesse’s trust, left “antihero” in the dust. We’re now in villain territory. This is a five-season arc of a man becoming spiritually bankrupt. And yet it’s the best drama on TV since The Wire.

Of course, it’s not the only show on TV whose central character is something of a villain. William H. Macy’s Frank Gallagher on Shameless has few redeeming qualities. Weeds even has a similar plotline—the desperate parent who turns to the drug biz to make ends meet and ends up swirling deeper into the abyss. But where Weeds spent so much time taking cheap shots at moral certainty—any character without enormous vices was quickly revealed for his or her hypocrisy—Breaking Bad never gets unmoored from its moral anchor. Gilligan surrounds Walter White with a cast of deeply flawed but ultimately redeeming individuals.

Most importantly, there’s never a question that Walter is a victim of his own hubris. “I won,” he tells his wife after bombing a nursing home to destroy his nemesis. It was a chilling moment that had the audience wondering if it might have been better for everyone if he lost.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to feel sympathy for him anymore,” says Bryan Cranston, the actor who so convincingly plays White, at this year’s Comic-Con in San Diego. “When I first met with Vince, we talked about how this show would be the journey of a man completely losing his soul.”

For four seasons, Cranston had to walk that tightrope as each choice his character made led him down darker and more desperate paths—helping us sympathize and relate to a man who’d been beaten down by life while recoiling at his actions. It was a surprising task given to an actor best known for his comedic turns as the bumbling father in Malcolm in the Middle. But Gilligan had seen his range in an episode of The X-Files, where the former was a writer and executive producer. Even though Breaking Bad lost one of its strongest characters in that nursing home explosion, Gilligan isn’t worried about replacing him.

“Gus Fring had some very large shoes that are very hard to fill,” he says. “My writers and I got together at the beginning of this season and asked ourselves if we should try to find a bad guy that is even worse than Gus Fring. Can we find an actor to portray him or her that is going to do an even better job than Giancarlo Esposito? That set an extraordinarily high bar. Luckily we already have a wonderful actor and character that is even more formidable than Gus Fring, and that is Walter White. I think we’re going to see, as the posters indicate, ‘All hail the king.’ We have our bad guy, and we’ve always had him. Not to say that he won’t face many challenges along the way and that he won’t find himself in some very sticky situations. But he’s it. He’s the king.”

Walter’s first murder in Season One—of Emilio, who was planning on killing both Walt and Jesse—was essentially self-defense. And back then he seemed desperate for an alternative to killing Emilio’s cohort, Krazy 8. Since then, though, killing has become easier. It’s that gradual easing of conscience that’s so disturbing to watch. In a recent episode, he consoles his wife, who’s beside herself with remorse for her part in her husband’s madness: “You know, it gets easier. I promise you it does.”

But even as the audience finds itself cheering for our antihero to evade both his enemies and the DEA, it’s never less than clear that Walt “losing his soul” is the real tragedy.

“I believe we should all try to do the right thing, as simplistic as that sounds,” Gilligan says. “I think the world works best when people of good will try to live their lives in as good a manner as possible. It’s not a morality tale, per se, but as a long-time consumer of television, I’ve watched thousands and thousands of hours of TV in which the good guy shoots somebody dead in the last five minutes of an episode, and then in the next episode it’s like it never happened.”

From the very beginning, Gilligan created the show with the premise that this would be about one man’s journey. “What I pitched to executives was that I want to take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface,” he says, “so we try to abide by that original mandate. To that end, we try to let nature take its course. We don’t work to make him unlikable. That may be funny to say and yes, absolutely, with every episode he is becoming more unlikable. But to me that feels like a natural extension of the choices the character made, to be a criminal. If you’re going to walk that path and go from being a mild-mannered high-school-chemistry teacher to a drug kingpin, your life is going to get darker. The choices you make are going to get darker. You’re going to do questionable things, and then outright criminal and outright evil things.”

But Walt isn’t the only one who’s been changed by the show’s spiraling chain of events. As much Walter has transformed during Breaking Bad’s run, he’s surrounded by characters who little resemble their Season One selves. Jesse Pinkman, in particular, has gone from two-bit screw-up to someone much more complex. He has no less blood on his hands than Walt, but his reaction to that has been more human—the worst of his crimes continue to gnaw at him. And though he continues to be manipulated by his conniving partner, he’s come to look up to Walt.

“I think he’s pretty content with the father figures he has right now,” says Aaron Paul, the actor who portrays him. “I mean, his family completely gave up on him. Jesse wants to be told what to do. He’s striving for that. He’s striving for a father.”

His other father figure, Mike Ehrmantraut, is played by character actor Jonathan Banks with a resigned awareness that Walt’s story isn’t going to be a happy one, and regret that he needs to be a player in it. The 46-year acting veteran calls the part “the gift of a career.”

“Mike lost his soul a long time ago,” he says. “Mike is so lost. But I do believe that Mike knows that he’s taking part in destroying lives, and it adds to his tragedy. And at the same time, I don’t think he takes a lot of pride in himself when he tries to do something good—for his granddaughter or Jesse or even Walt at one point. I don’t think he takes a lot of pride in it, but there is that good in some people. You know, there are a lot of bad guys out there—really bad guys—that you could [ask]: ‘Are you in danger of becoming a good man?’ My answer is, ‘I don’t know.’”

Aside from Walt’s son, Walt Jr., who provides much-needed innocence and light to the dark proceedings thanks to the charming RJ Mitte, the only character who has remained relatively true is Walt’s brother-in-law Hank Schrader, played by Dean Norris. The DEA agent was shuffled to the sidelines last season when he tried to link Gus Fring to New Mexico’s meth trade. But now that he’s been vindicated, the cat-and-mouse chase between Hank and Walt is set to escalate.

For his part, Norris is excited to be something the show hasn’t really had—a hero. “My hunch is that Vince Gilligan, despite what you see, has some sense of a moral compass left in the universe,” Norris says, “and that there is still the good guy and the bad guy, and that there is such a thing as justice. So I don’t know if he’s going to allow the one guy left who hasn’t broken bad to break bad. He might. I think it’d be real bleak. But that’s why I don’t think that’s the way he’ll go. But all those types of things we have yet to film, so who knows?”

When and if Hank inevitably learns the truth about his brother-in-law, Norris allows that it’ll be a little complicated for his character, who’s become obsessed with catching “Heisenberg” (Norris re-read Moby Dick while filming Season Three). “I think that’s part of what Vince has built up,” he says. “It was one thing when in the beginning [Walt] was just a criminal, and then he became a murderer, and then he’s responsible for some of them shooting [Hank]. He’s built it up, and it continues to build up, so by the time he inevitably finds out, there’s so much stuff on there that it’s going to take some time to figure out how to deal with it.”

In the meantime, we still have Hank’s marriage with Marie to contrast Walt’s imploding relationship with Skyler. “I think we were just stronger off the bat,” says Betsy Brandt, who plays Marie. “Dean made a great point the other day; he said, ‘When, even from the beginning, do we really see Walt and Skyler happy?’ Whereas [Hank and Marie] tease each other and have always been really wonderful to one another. I said to Dean during the pilot that I’m glad we’re part of this couple and not that one. There’s a lot coming down the pipe for them.”

“And she’s had to put up with a lot,” replies Norris. “But at the end of the day I feel like it is really one of the sweet cores of the show, that they have that. You don’t see that anywhere else in the show. We have some dysfunction, obviously, but if we didn’t it wouldn’t be real.”

Gilligan says he didn’t have the ending planned out when the series began—he’s just thankful that he’s had five seasons to tell Walt’s story. Only 12 episodes remain, eight of which will be filmed later and broadcast next summer. He’s simply let the characters develop, let Walt’s bad decisions lead to more anxious ones without trying to sensationalize or glorify his downfall. “It has always been a descent down that very grim path,” he says, “but that is a given and that naturally occurs, and we don’t add to that by saying, ‘Okay, last week he pushed a granny in front of a school bus; this week we’ve got to up the ante. He’s got to push three grannies in front of an ambulance.’”

Instead, it feels like the natural conclusion to a desperate idea baked in hubris and rationalized clean: I could cook meth better than anyone; I could be the king.

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