When people discuss the Breaking Bad phenomenon, beyond the originality of the story, the great characters are mentioned as the key to the show's success. Paul Peditto examines the chemistry of the Walter White character.
TV is dizzying these days, no? I’m watching 3-4 episodes a night of whatever amazing show, and maybe, barely, catching up to my “must see” list. Currently I’m nailing down the latest Better Call Saul.Barry was too freaking funny. Then there's the latest True Detective, Season 3, which supposedly makes us forget the so-so Season 2.The Handmaid’s Tale kicks my ass. Legion freaked me out. Narcos, House Of Cards, Fargo, and did I mention Better Call Saul? Ever see a better spin-off? Speaking of which…
Breaking Bad. Not sure there’s much left to be said, but I wanted to write a character study this month and decided to focus on Walter White. When people discuss the Breaking Bad phenomenon, what do they hone in on? Critics and fans talk about the originality of the story, or the visual aesthetic world, or the glorious weekly gore, or the great characters. OK, sure, but what about a great character like Walter White…what makes him great? Appropriate for Walter White to discuss the chemistry of character.
Walter White is an anti-hero. What's that mean? It means he can be heroic and seriously non-heroic. Yeah, he's a complicated dude. But complicated how? Complicated as in not black or white. As in he’s gray. As in I'm going to pour so much blackness into this good guy that you're not going to recognize him any longer. Gone over to the Dark Side. Jekyll/Hyde shit. The hell's he talking about? Let’s go A to Z on Walter’s arc… There's five seasons so I'm going to have to mash some of this up. I'd say SPOILERS but c'mon, it's been a few years. All right, I'll say it anyway:
S P O I L E R S follow.
Character Point A: Walter White, high-school chemistry teacher, a mousy and soft-spoken fellow, has his world rocked by a cancer-diagnosis (Fate Knock #1). He doesn’t make much money. He’s got little to nothing put away for his family. Walter’s primary motivation becomes the need to find money for his family, to provide for them after he’s gone. His brother-in-law, a DEA agent, casually mentions taking him along on a meth-lab bust, to spice up his dull life (Fate Knock #2). At the bust, he sees an ex-student (Jesse Pinkman) crawl out a window and fall two stories to escape the cops (Fate Knock #3). These are lynchpin moments. If Walter doesn’t develop cancer, or doesn’t have a DEA agent for a brother-in-law who takes him for a ride to a meth lab, or doesn’t see Jesse tumble out that window… there is no Breaking Bad.
Character Point C: Walter is no dummy. He’s the smartest guy in any room he’s in. He puts two and two together, the $$ involved in methamphetamine production, his former student knows how to run a lab, and Walter the master of the chemistry of it. Stars in alignment. He gives Jesse every cent in he has in the world. Jesse buys an RV. They will drive it out to the desert and cook there. Walter is still rather mousy, almost an innocent. Almost. Because it’s here we see one of his great talents, if not his greatest. The man can LIE. What an amazing liar! He tells his wife all manner of BS to cover his late-night arrivals and early morning exits. This is where the complication ensues, the chemistry of the character. There is a nobility to Walter. He won’t tell his wife he’s got cancer. He’ll suffer in silence, risk his life dealing with meth-head gangbangers to raise money for his family. The Pilot starts and ends with a drug-deal going bad, he and Jessie this close to dying, Walter killing the meth-head gangstas instead. In this single hour alone, Walter White has come a loooong way from Point A, the high-school chemistry lab professor.
Character Point P: Mashing this up for lack of space, so bear with me... Walter’s wife Skylar isn’t stupid. She now knows he’s lying but doesn’t know the truth her husband has become the legendary Heisenberg. When she confronts him he continues to lie, long after she ceases to believe him. The marriage is falling apart and, oh by the way, there’s a baby on the way. The Pilot’s meth-head gangstas (Emilio & Krazy 8) are killed by Walt and Jesse, replaced with an even worse psycho meth-head gangsta (Tuco Salamanca) connected to the Mexican Salamanca drug cartel. Tuco is killed too (by Hank), which brings even the worst gangsta of all, Gus Fring.
We, the audience, see Walt not only survive through all these bloody manifestations, but thrive. He adds the titles of master meth-chef and killer to devoted family man. We’ve seen a character who can compartmentalize like this before. Tony Soprano had the same love of family balance out with lust of money and merciless killer inside. How does a guy order the murder of someone he’s worked with for a decade, get off the phone, and routinely sit down to Sunday scaloppini with his family? With Walter White, perhaps we can chalk it up to his... drum-roll please... magnetic personality!
This is the graying of character. What is and what appears to be. Juxtaposing Walter White’s ability to rationalize any action. The complexity we see visually as he analyzes and acts, calculating what to do with devastating brutality, as if it were a chemistry equation.
The arc with Gus Fring is classic. Fring has the not what he appears to be thing going too, hiding in plain sight. The dude runs a string of fried chicken joints. He’s a meek, mousy, soft-spoken, bookworm of a man. He contributes to police charities, is a giving board member of the hospital, is kind and courteous to his workers. He also happens to be a major drug kingpin affiliated with the Salamanca drug cartel. He has killed, or ordered killings, of dozens of men, including cutting the throat of his own second-in-command in front of Walt and Jesse. He’s a bad-ass bookworm fried chicken king! The life-and-death chess match between Walter White and Gus Fring that plays out in Season 4 is some of the greatest drama in the history of television.
Character Point X: By Season 4, according to the Breaking Bad Wiki: “Walt is initially squeamish about the use of violence but gradually comes to see it as a necessity. He also comes to find his new status as a drug lord psychologically rewarding, leading him to become less and less reluctant to resort to criminal acts such as theft, extortion, money laundering, depraved indifference, and murder. Walt’s Macbethian descent into the criminal underworld unearths immense levels of deeply repressed ambition, rage, resentment, vanity, and an increasing ruthlessness which alienates him from his family and colleagues.”
When you hear people talk about character arc, they’re talking about the character change through the course of the movie/TV show. Character change is the journey. Television by its episodic nature plays out over a multi-week period, allowing for greater character depth/arc if only for the sheer amount of time given. A lot easier to play out A to Z in TV’s 13 hours rather than the 90 minutes of a movie.
In Season 4, to quote Walt: “You clearly don’t know who you’re talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skylar. I am the danger.” The high-school chemistry professor we knew at Character Point A, is gone. When Gus Fring stumbles out of Hector Salamanca’s room with half his face blown off (sorry, no spoiler alert. Five years later, you had your shot to see it yourself!) Thus, here we believe Walt when he tells Skylar: “I won.”
Character Point Z: Season 5, how to end it? How to tie everything together? Can you imagine being in the writer’s room, knowing millions of people are hinged on your every decision?! I remember some criticism of the Final Episode. People wanted it less pat, they wanted it all to be a figment of a dying Walt’s imagination (Brazil/Mulholland Drive-style). Imagine the conundrum of Vince Gilligan. If you expect me to do A then I’ll do B, but B is likely implausible and/or morally impossible. Maybe you can give them A, but not the way they expect it. The final episode was a structural marvel, not a wasted scene or moment. Call it a guilty pleasure or obviousness but I enjoyed him wrapping up the loose ends. Walt, the supreme anti-hero, smartest guy in the room, wins again—even in the engineering of his own death. Elegance, bloody elegance.