It’s Breaking Bad’s final half-season. We’re about to catch up with the show’s troubled, troubling hero. Here’s why you still want him to come out on top.
I’ve been watching Breaking Bad for years. And by that I mean that I’ve been watching and RE-watching Breaking Bad since its first season. I’m certainly not alone in my obsession, nor am I the only one out there who thinks that this is pretty much as good as TV ever got, or ever will get.
So when somebody says to me, “I’ve never watched Breaking Bad—what’s it about?” and I say, “It’s about this high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with cancer, so he hides the diagnosis from his family and starts cooking meth to build them a nest-egg,” I’m aware that it sounds like a show about a guy who’s troubled, but weak. He sounds desperate, impractical, and maybe kind of cowardly.
And truly, when we first meet Walt—panicking in his underpants in the middle of the desert, the sound of sirens starting to fill the endless empty air around him—he appears weak, desperate and cowardly. In his everyday life, Walt is a milquetoast: a soft-spoken, stammering joke of a man who just ASKING to be stepped on by life. He’s bland. He’s colorless. Even his car is beige.
Even so, liking Walt is easy for most of the first season. He’s a good guy (if a little dull), life’s been unkind to him, and he’s trying to do right by his family. But once he starts making ricin, walking away and leaving pretty drug addicts to choke on their own vomit, and growing lilies-of-the-valley in his back yard, he starts to get scary. By the time he tells Skyler he’s “the one who knocks,” he’s full-on terrifying.
And yet, we watch, and we care, and we root for him. Part of what makes this show so great is that even when Walt is almost unspeakably evil, we keep wanting him to win. Here’s why:
- We feel his rage. Right from the start, Walt is quietly seething, at exactly the kind of things that make us all angry. At his crappy students. At the creeps whose cars he has to wipe down. At his cancer. At the pompous douchebag with the “KEN WINS” license plate. I think it was when he blew that guy’s car up that I really started to LOVE Walt.
- Science. Walt’s knowledge of science—and his ability to put that knowledge to use in the real world—is a wonder. Not only does he make the meth equivalent of Chivas Regal, he can make poison and car batteries out of whatever happens to be lying about the house. He makes the Professor from Gilligan’s Island look like the kid who lost the Science Fair.
- Walt loves his family. Which is really what this series is all about, isn’t it? Walt loves his family so much that he sacrifices his soul for them. He loves them so much that he loses them, and then he loves them some more.
- Even the annoying ones. Skylar, Walt Jr., baby Holly—all pretty lovable. But Walt also loves Marie, who is as silly and irritating as any sister-in-law in history. And Hank? He’s like one big fat frat party rolling into the house every time he walks through the door. But Walt is kind, and loyal, and patient with them, even though Hank is always on the verge of bringing the DEA down on his head.
- Walt is a good teacher. In his job at the high school, Walt loves his subject and he cares about his students even when they ignore and disrespect him. Then he turns out to be the best teacher Jesse ever had.
- Walt is practical. See a problem, solve a problem. That’s the Walter White way. Whether it’s a bad water heater or a cold-hearted drug kingpin, Walt’s going to fix it. Count on it.
- Walt is decisive. Walt weighs his options, considers the outcome he wants, and makes his decision. Sometimes, the decision is brutal. Sometimes, it’s downright horrifying. But the decision will be made, and action will be taken. I wish I could be that clear-headed sometimes.
- Walt has integrity. Some of us may consider our values compromised should we commit cold-blooded murder. But Walt doesn’t kill for the fun of it or because he goes crazy with rage. Walt kills because he’s weighed out the options (see #7) and thought through the most effective course of action (see #6) and murder is, unfortunately, part of it.
- Walt’s really got a pair. This is a guy who can walk up to a crazy, violent gangster drug dealer surrounded by his henchmen, and BLOW UP HIS OFFICE. Then walk away. And that’s when he’s just getting warmed up. Damn.
- Walt wins. This may change in the final episodes, but I think the main reason we love Walt is because against every foe, in spite of every risk and whether he’s up against terminal cancer, the Mexican drug cartel or Ted Bennike, Walter White wins. Even when it looks like he’s losing, he wins.
And everybody loves a winner.