Breaking Bad: When Nice Guys Don’t Want to Finish Last

Walter White, age 50, was a nice guy. Downtrodden, put upon, taken advantage of, but a nice guy nonetheless. He slogged through days of teaching high school chemistry to uninterested students, only to then go and work a second job at a car wash just to make ends meet. His family consisted of a wife who quit work to pursue a career as a writer, a teenaged son with cerebral palsy, and an unexpected second baby on the way. He co-founded a company with his best friend, only to pull out and sell his share right before it became worth billions of dollars. He was the kind of guy macho men and alpha males like to taunt and walk all over. And to top it all off, life gave him one more punch in the stomach – Stage IIIA lung cancer.

That was the Walter White we met at the start of Breaking Bad – but it was not the Walter White we knew by the end of it. Over the course of five seasons of meth cooking, dodgy dealings and amassing more money than anyone could ever spend, Walt transformed from a mild-mannered milquetoast into a steely, stone-cold badass. But this wasn’t some kind of bizarre personality transplant. The person that Walt became was the one he always wanted to be.

I’m going to digress for a bit here to talk about Macbeth. Bear with me, because it’s all going to tie together nicely in a paragraph or two. Like many people, I studied Macbeth at school, and it’s remained one of my favourites ever since. Back in English class, our teacher asked us a question – at what point did we think Macbeth first wanted to be king? Was it when Lady Macbeth persuaded him that killing Duncan and taking his place was a workable plan? Was it when he realised that the witches had been right to pre-emptively name him Thane of Cawdor? Was it when the witches first told him he would be “king hereafter”? In fact, the answer the teacher was looking for, and the one I was thinking to myself (curse my younger self for being too shy to speak up) was none of the above. Rather, somewhere deep down, Macbeth had always secretly longed to be king. The words of a few witches could never have been enough to sway a man who truly had no interest in the role – he would have laughed them off and gone on his way. No, what they did was touch a chord, awaken a secret longing that had always been present, bringing it out into the light and into the realm of the possible.

And so it is with Walter White. Life dealt him a hand that turned him into a downtrodden nice guy, but it wasn’t the life he wanted. As he taught chemistry to apathetic teens and then washed the rims of their expensive cars after hours, he knew he was better than that. He was a chemistry genius, but it was his best friends Elliot and Gretchen who made the billions from the company they co-founded with Walt. Meanwhile, even as Walt struggled to make ends meet, he was beset by further events. An unexpected second child on the way, a cancer diagnosis. This wasn’t what he had anticipated – it wasn’t what he had deserved. Like Macbeth, he secretly wanted to be king, and he too wasn’t above committing a crime to get where he wanted.

For Walt, the opportunity comes in the form of the meth business – by using his chemistry knowledge to cook the purest meth on the market, Walt slowly works his way up the ladder of a dark underworld. Ostensibly, it’s all about the money for him – he needs to pay his medical bills and save up enough to support his family after his death, but even after money ceases to be an issue, Walt continues to stay in the business. No matter what he believes his motivations are to begin with, Walt is driven by a simmering pot of emotions. There’s the resentment at his situation, an inflexible pride that insists that he must be the one who supports his family, a desire to be the best at something – and what’s more, to be recognised for it.

Of course, it takes time for Walt to shed his high school teacher persona and become an out-and-out badass. When he’s first put into the situation of having to ‘take care’ of someone, his understandable reaction is to prevaricate and try to avoid doing the deed. The first time is always the hardest, however, and a season later, Walt watches his partner Jesse’s girlfriend choke to death on her own vomit without lifting a finger to save her – knowing that only through this action can he keep Jesse from leaving forever. Flash forward a couple more seasons, and Walt proves himself not above even secretly poisoning a child to manipulate Jesse into cooperating with his plans. It’s not about morality, conscience and fellow human beings any more. Walt’s always known he’s smarter and better than them – now it’s just a case of getting all the pieces to move in the way he wants. After all, Walt knows best.

Also, there’s a certain glint in her eye generally possessed by those people who have found that they are more intelligent than most people around them but who haven’t yet learned that one of the most intelligent things they can do is prevent said people ever finding this out” – Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies

Humans are terrible at keeping secrets. It’s something I’ll discuss more in a future blog post, but suffice to say, when we do something clever and amazing, we want people to know about it. We want them to admire us and look up to us, even when the best thing we could possibly do is keep quiet and let no one know our involvement. Walt is no different. He wants to be king, and he wants others to know it. Of course, that doesn’t mean he starts blabbing to everyone about his meth dealings. In fact, he goes to great lengths to try to keep the truth from his nearest and dearest. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to be admired for being the genius, the breadwinner, the protector of his family. He shuns charity from others, preferring to be the provider – even if the means of provision is illegal. When Walt’s son Walter Junior sets up a website soliciting donations for his father’s surgery, Walt’s lawyer Saul sees it as perfect opportunity to launder some of the meth money as anonymous contributions from people around the world. It’s a sensible idea, but Walter hates it, because he doesn’t want his family to think he’s accepting charity from people – he wants them to know that he earned the money for the surgery.

Perhaps the most striking example of his pride, however, is in season four. When Walt’s fellow cook Gale Boetticher is murdered, Walt’s brother-in-law, DEA officer Hank Shrader, comes to believe that Gale was “Heisenberg”, the alias under which Walt has been cooking and selling meth. Perfect – Hank thinks he’s got his man, so now that he’s stopped investigating, Walt is free to slip under the radar, right? Wrong. Fuelled by alcohol, Walt cannot allow Gale to take credit for being “Heisenberg”, and whilst he isn’t about to turn himself in, he insists that Gale cannot possibly Hank’s man – the real Heisenberg is a far smarter, superior man. Common sense and the law dictate that Walt must keep his activities a secret, but he can’t escape his desire for admiration and recognition. After all, it’s what he’s always wanted – what he feels he deserves, but has always been denied.

When we start our journey with Walter, we’re largely on his side. We can see how downtrodden he is, how he’s essentially bullied by everyone around him. We cheer when he gets his own back – whether it’s through seeing off the bullies that are taunting his son, or telling his boss at the car wash to fuck off. Yes, his empowerment comes through dubious means, but give the guy a break – he’s dying, and he’s got the US healthcare system to deal with.

Over time, however, things begin to change. In the new Walt we see not only someone we admire for doing what he wants and sticking it to the man, but something uglier. The odd argument here, an exchange there, the manipulativeness, the bitterness and resentment seething just under the surface. Should we really like this man? We’re conflicted for a whle – after all, he is supposed to be the ‘hero’, and many of the villains he acts against are decidedly unpleasant and amoral people.

Ultimately, however, Walt goes too far to hold our sympathies. We might still admire him, but we no longer like him. We see the damage he’s done to those closest to him, the hell his machinations have put them through, and suddenly we’re not on Walt’s side. We want him to get caught, to slip up and have his pride cost him one last, big fall. We want morality and righteousness to ultimately prevail – but how wholeheartedly do we really want that? We may not be Macbeth, and we’re certainly not Walter White, but perhaps deep down we really do harbour our own dark desires – and a secret wish that somehow, at the end of it all, Heisenberg could have reigned supreme as king.

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