Why Walter White is Breaking Bad

In the past few months, I have greedily devoured Seasons 2, 3, 4 and the first half of season 5 of the brilliant Breaking Bad. Perhaps it would seem necessary to do a review for each season now (Gus Fring is bloodcurdlingly terrific), but I can’t help being oddly fascinated and incredibly drawn to one of the most complex protagonists of contemporary television – Walter White (played by the versatile Bryan Cranston).

“That’s why the show’s called Breaking Bad…it’s not breaking good.”

AMC’s fantastic drama series Breaking Bad chronicles lead character Walter White’s moral downfall and gradual corruption into the power-hungry, proud and possibly purely mad Heisenberg. Walt isn’t a tragic hero of sorts (i.e. Hamlet), he’s no noir hero either, but what strikes me is how the show deliberately blurs the reasoning behind his motivation, just why exactly did Walt break bad?

Like many other crime films (and noirs too) before, the motivation between a protagonist turning towards a life of crime is due to an aspiration or longing of a better life. Be it for love for a girl or love for money, it’s a rational, though ill-advised choice that results in death and destruction. For Walt, it was, well in the earlier seasons at least, to pay for his chemotherapy sessions and to support his family. In later seasons, however, for Walt, the incentive to become some vicious drug kingpin becomes very unclear. The only logical explanation is his deep involvement in the enveloping, consuming chaos that started the very day he began to “break bad”.

The term “breaking bad” refers to:

  1. Walt turning towards the bad or the quick, illegal job that pays more than his steady, but dead-end occupation as a high school Chemistry teacher.
  2. The regional Southern slang, meaning to raise hell.

So, Walt “broke bad” (1) when he started cooking meth and ever since doing so, he has been “breaking bad” (2). I kind of love this dual meaning, it’s all about doubling in this show (how very Hitchcock-ian) e.g. Walter vs. Heisenberg, Skyler and Marie are meant to be foils as well. This emphasis simply highlights Walt being doubly deviant (by defying social norms as a father, a husband etc. and his very own original ethos) and also eventually, doubly damned (never to be trusted and possibly, dead).

This isn’t Dexter. Although both Dexter Morgan and Walter White play main characters who commit terrible crimes, Dexter still is someone you could cheer on (or perhaps less guiltily so). I don’t ever want Dexter to get caught, but for Walter – it’s time. Mainly because Walter no longer has any inherent set of good qualities. Unlike Dexter Morgan, Walt has no “code” that he strictly adheres too or a “dark passenger” that he tries to suppress or rationally deal with from time to time. Walter has now become a manipulative, malicious, murderous monster. Worst of all, this villainous character emerges from his deep-rooted insecurity and pride. He has poisoned a child, allowed Jesse’s girlfriend to die in front of him, lied to his family countless of times and his actions have led to many, many unnecessary deaths.

But where exactly does Walt break bad per se? It seems difficult to determine his exact turning point. Was it only after Tuco’s death? Or does Walt’s “bad” side have even deeper-seated origins? The Atlantic raises up an interesting point:

In “Buyout,” Walter tells Jesse about his decision to sell his stake in science firm Gray Matter, the company he helped found, for $5,000—a company that’s currently worth $2.16 billion, as Walter, of course, knows. Taken at face value, this revelation is a little trite. Walter’s greediness is rooted in the legitimate hundreds of millions he lost by selling his shares in the company too early, and his illegitimate meth business is a subconscious attempt to make those millions back. But in the full context of the series, it tells us something about Walter that Breaking Bad has only hinted at before: that the point at which Walter had the capacity to “break bad” happened long before the series began.

Ironically, Walt gives a memorable quote that aptly applies to his change as well. Like the study of Chemistry, Walt grows – he becomes more confident after “breaking bad”, he believes he’s taking charge of his life as an independent man, but eventually he decays – literally his ethical degeneration – and transforms to a vengeful, monstrous persona. His change is remarkable and hard to ignore, but perhaps we’re never meant to find out the true reason for his commitment to his new “breaking bad” life. It’s all hook, line and sinker once he got involved in cooking meth in a musky, old RV, with his pants down, in the middle of the Albuquerque desert. He knew very well what he was getting into from Day One – to put it crudely, he was getting involved in some really serious shit. It gradually becomes something uncomfortable for the audience to sit with: his dark secrets from Jessie, Skyler, Hank and others have become our dark secrets as well. It’s a mixture of shock, awe and disgust as we watch Walt raise hell, and become the ultimate danger.


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