Who was ‘Breaking Bad’s’ real hero?
Recently the final season of Breaking Bad reached its conclusion, along with the life of Walter White. The finale, highly praised by most viewers, provoked an array of different interpretations. In particular, the different ways in which Walt’s character and actions within the episode and the series as a whole have been interpreted has led me to wonder whether they serve as something of Rorschach test for understandings of masculinity more generally. Pete Strauss explored some of these themes recently on this site.
The existence of Team Walt, a vocal body of individuals who view Walt’s character favourably or very sympathetically, is an especially interesting phenomenon. The most troubling of Walter White’s fans celebrate him as a sort of Nietzschean Übermensch. For such, Walt is great because he represents the triumph of the will of the radical individual, the person who can shred all social convention and overcome all opposition, living life purely on his own terms. To these persons, Walt is a hero because he casts such a long shadow. Like Ozymandias, after whom one of the concluding episodes was named, Walter White—the great Heisenberg—is unencumbered with morality, provided that he leaves an epitaph that strikes fear into the hearts of men: “My name is Heisenberg, king of kings: look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
The transformation over the course of the series of the unassuming and emasculated milquetoast Walter White into the resourceful, ruthless, and terrifying empire-builder Heisenberg makes for compelling viewing. It appeals to something deep within many of us: our feeling of being chafed by the place and morality that society has assigned to us and our admiration of someone with the nerve, will, and power to shake this off and dictate his own terms.
We want to cheer along as Walt beats up one of lads ridiculing his son, who has cerebral palsy, or when he curses his boss and quits his job. Sympathizing with Walt, we want to see him stand up to Skyler, who seems to be passive aggressive and demanding. We love to see the ingenious ways that he escapes impossible situations and outwits evil and powerful men. We sense how emasculated he feels and relish his growing capacity to take charge of his circumstances.
Part of Vince Gilligan’s and Bryan Cranston’s genius is the way that they retain many of our sympathies for Walt even as he becomes the evil Heisenberg, a man whose name is uttered in hushed tones by others. One of the ways that they do this is by continually presenting the frustrating limitations of Walter White’s life–his cancer, his failure to capitalize on his potential, his inattentive students, his unsympathetic boss, his disabled son, his inferiority in his masculinity next to the macho brother-in-law, his money troubles, his whiny and resistant wife, etc.—as the foil for the development of the persona of Heisenberg. Reading the character of Heisenberg against the emasculation of Walter White by events in his life, his circumstances, and his relationships, we can come to share his resentments and to relish the first stirrings (“I am … awake”) and later growth of Heisenberg as Walt’s masculine victory over all that would hold him down (“I was alive”).
As Heisenberg develops we experience a testosterone-fueled vision of unfettered masculine resurgence, understanding the soil from which the persona springs. We should never underestimate the intoxicating appeal of a ‘morality’ that celebrates radical individual will to power, especially for men.
For others in Team Walt, the celebration of perverse set of family values is central. To them, Walt is a hero, admittedly a very complicated one, who is just trying to do the best for his family. The Walt of the finale is applauded for his ingenuity in getting his money to and protecting his family.
Once again, there is a vision of masculinity here. Perhaps the most powerful articulation of it is found in Gus’s chilling conversation with Walt in the season 3 episode “Más”:
What does a man do, Walter? … a man provides. And he does it even when he’s not appreciated, or respected, or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it. Because he’s a man.
At first blush, this vision of domestic masculinity appears rather selfless. Yet when we examine it more closely we can perceive a subtle underlying narrative of self-asserting heroic masculinity. In Walt we see just how ugly and egocentric this can become.
For all of Walt’s many claims that he was only ever acting in the interests of his family—claims that he seems sincerely to believe himself—his willingness to terrorize, endanger, and psychologically abuse them gives the lie to this. Rather, Walt is living out Gus’s philosophy of masculinity. Instead of putting his masculinity at the service of his family, with all of the supposed emasculation that might entail, Walt puts his family at the service of his masculinity and its attendant pride.
Walt’s chief concern is not his family, but that he be the “man.” In order to be this man, he must provide, protect, and be strong for his family. Ironically, it is his pursuit of this masculine ideal that draws him further and further away from his family and ultimately leads to its devastation. Walt’s vision of masculinity is of the independent and under appreciated hero for his family, a masculinity that ironically finds its fullest expression in being detached, self-sufficient, and even alienated from those closest to him.
One destination of this perverse masculinity can be seen in Walt’s vicious phone call to Skyler in “Ozymandias.” Walt feigns a level of hostility towards her
in order to protect her. In this phone call, Walt passes the greatest test of Gus’s vision of masculinity: he protects, but he also does so in a way that renders him “not appreciated, or respected, or even loved,” completely cutting him off from those closest to him. Of course, if Walt hadn’t been obsessed with being the man for his family, none of this would have been necessary.
Walt’s loving family neither want nor need him to be this man. His son, Walter Jr. complains that Walt is “acting all weird … as if nothing is going on” when he is diagnosed with cancer and isn’t open about it, unable to face the prospect of being weak and vulnerable with his family. However, when interviewed for the television at the end of season 2, Walter Jr. describes his dad as his hero, not because he is the man, but because he is a great father and teacher, patient, always there, decent, because he always does the right thing, and is a character example and someone to look up to.
This is a far cry from Gus’s vision of the familial hero, nor is its muted character enough for Walt. To truly be the hero that his son describes, Walt would have to sacrifice his vision of what it means to be a man, something he is unprepared to do. Unsatisfied with being admired by a loving son, Walt aspires to a self-asserting masculinity of bolder colours.
Walt’s insistence on being the man puts him at odds with his wife too. When Skyler declares that “someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family,” something of the selfishness of Walt’s vision of being the man for his family is exposed. Skyler doesn’t want the protection that Walt offers, a protection that is only necessary because Walt is the danger.
The primary motivating force of Walt during the final episode is not love for family, but a proud and self-serving masculinity (something that should be clearer if we reflect on the final bar scene of “Granite State,” the preceding episode). It is Walt’s final, coercive and selfish attempt to be the man, both for his family and as the one whose will prevails over all enemies.
If his family will not willingly and lovingly accept him as the man, he will force himself upon them in that role. His plan to give his money through the Schwartzes is not out of genuine love for Flynn—who would be disgusted if he knew its true origin—but out of a desire to save himself from the emasculation of not being able to be the man for his family. His visit to Skyler is similarly motivated. He gives her information suggesting that he has no money left, so that she won’t be able to dismiss his ‘provision’ when it comes. His giving her the lottery ticket is another act of perverse protection, giving her the location of the grave of her brother-in-law, in whose death Walt was complicit. His killing of Uncle Jack and his crew is also an act of proud protection of Skyler and his children from their threat.
In a perceptive article, Anna Mae Duane suggests that Flynn is the true hero of Breaking Bad. Flynn is actually the one who comes to the protection of the family. And he does so by calling for help. Flynn knows that being the man isn’t about pretending to be strong or about an egocentric protection and provision. Rather, it can involve such things as a quiet and unassuming courage, a willingness to suffer and to acknowledge weakness and vulnerability, the commitment to stick with the place and morality that society gives you even when they chafe, and the overcoming of one’s pride in order to be patient and gentle with others. The heart of a truly heroic masculinity is not found in the tasks that you perform for your family, but in the faithful way that you are present to them.
Unfortunately, this all felt like emasculation to Walter White.