Chemistry is… well, technically, chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change. […] It is growth…then decay…then transformation.
Such were the words of Walter White – underappreciated chemistry teacher, unrecognised genius and unlucky protagonist of hit TV series Breaking Bad – uttered within the first seven minutes of the show’s pilot, but it would go on to foreshadow events throughout the series’ 62 episodes. Though brief, this monologue carries a portentous message: Breaking Bad is a tale of Walt’s transformation from Mr. White to “Heisenberg” – from mild-mannered family man to ruthless drug lord.
Despite his initial clean slate, all is not well for Walt from the very beginning. In excruciating, cringe-inducing clarity, viewers get to see the reactive elements that bubble just beneath his ostensibly ordinary, stable life: A wife with an unplanned pregnancy. A 15-year-old son with cerebral palsy. Two jobs, one in a school and the other in a car wash, which provide little in the way of pay and pride. At one point, Walt is forced to humiliatingly scrub the wheels of a student’s car.
All that is left to set off the chain reaction of Walt’s dark descent is a trigger, a catalyst – and he receives a violent one after he abruptly blacks out at his workplace, and discovers later at the doctor’s office that he has lung cancer. Faced with the grim prospect of mounting medical bills and a sharply diminished lifespan, Walt teams up with a former student, Jesse Pinkman, to produce and sell methamphetamine so that he can leave behind a nest egg for his family when he dies. And thus begins Walt’s downward spiral.
Because Breaking Bad has Walt’s moral decay as the core focus, it is important that this central plot thread be presented believably. Writers cannot portray Walt as a faultless family man in one episode, and then have him drown kittens in the very next. At the same time, his fall must be swift enough to keep viewers hooked. Breaking Bad neatly sidesteps these two challenges and achieves a golden middle. Walt makes his first kill in the very first episode – but wait! It is done purely out of self-defence, and Walt is visibly traumatised by the deed. But as the series goes on and the body count rises, Walt’s justifications grow increasingly feeble and his reactions ambivalent. In the later seasons, he even orders the deaths of several with casual indifference. But such overt symptoms as a predilection towards murder aren’t the only indications of his corruption.
How Walt’s actions get increasingly informed by less than noble motivations also reveal his growing depravity. Greed features heavily in his decision-making; considering that the entire point of the meth cooking enterprise is the money, this is practically a given. However, greed comes only a distant second to Walt’s favoured deadly sin: pride. Viewers see the first major manifestation of his hubris when he turns down a wealthy ex-colleague and friend’s generous offer to pay for his medical bills. Although accepting grandiose gestures of charity is never easy, by declining his friend’s help, Walt knowingly chooses the life of a criminal over swallowing his pride.
It’s certainly a lot of trouble to go to for face-saving behaviour, and such inexplicably irrational choices become a recurring theme for Walt throughout the series. Bit by bit, we see a worrying shift in priorities. As the tens of thousands he initially earns move up into the millions, Walt’s drug dealings become less of a means to provide for his family and more of a way to keep score. It devolves into nothing more than a game of numbers, whether in terms of meth purity percentages or of dollar figures so absurdly high, he would need several lifetimes to spend it all. Perhaps the problem is that Walt falls in love with his own signature high-quality meth; it becomes a point of pride for him as proof of his genius in chemistry.
But even as Walt’s evil grows and spreads like the cancer in his body, it is unclear how the audience is supposed to respond to this startling metastasis. For every forehead-slapping instance in which Walt gets an opportunity to exit the drug trade but doesn’t, there are many occasions in which his newfound confidence and ruthlessness make him come across as – for want of a better term – pretty frickin’ badass. Surviving in the illegal drug business requires vast reserves of boldness, and while weak, timid Walter White cannot hope to supply this, the legendary Heisenberg is more than up to the task.
Walt’s badass credentials include blowing up an obnoxious lawyer’s car, threatening a drug lord surrounded by henchmen, and intimidating a pair of encroaching meth cooks with little more than a death glare. “No, you clearly don’t know who you are talking to, so let me clue you in…” begins Walt in gravelly tones, during one of the series’ more iconic scenes. “A guy opens his door and gets shot, you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks!” Even viewers repulsed by his moral decay cannot help but watch on in morbid fascination, impressed by Walt’s tough-guy displays. The audience’s schizophrenic response seems intentionally induced on the Breaking Bad writers’ part. Walt gets the best lines, hatches the most deviously brilliant schemes, and even receives a makeover befitting his fearsome persona as Heisenberg; he shaves his head, dons a black pork pie hat, and grows a sinister goatee.
This, of course, couldn’t be more different from the Walt of episode 1, who had an impotent dead caterpillar of a moustache and was dressed in nothing but briefs and an apron during his first attempt at cooking meth. If Walter White is presented to viewers as sympathetic but deserving of little respect, then Heisenberg’s depiction is flipped. The net result of Walt’s dual portrayals and erosion of morals is a character of great complexity who is in constant flux. Whether viewers love, hate or experience some bizarre combination of both feelings towards Walt, if Breaking Bad’s record-breaking critical acclaim is to be believed, they cannot help but be transfixed by the character and the series.
However, his importance to the plot notwithstanding, a Walt-centric evaluation of Breaking Bad is doomed to not provide the full picture, for a single character does not a story make. A character is defined by his actions and interactions towards other characters in the setting. Walt encapsulates this other aspect of the series with an even pithier quote, which he delivers to his partner in crime, Jesse: “Jesse, your actions… they affect other people.” Walt would have done well to listen to his own counsel.