“Breaking Bad’s” antihero has attained that “admirable” goal, but not in the way he imagined.
The supposed attainability of the American Dream is the goal that drives this country. If you work hard enough, we are told, you can achieve anything. Of course, it’s not always that simple. Hands get dirty. Ask Walter White.
Returning to AMC after a yearlong break this Sunday, “Breaking Bad’s” favorite antihero has never been one to keep his hands clean. His story is a prime example of how harbored feelings of regret and animosity over past decisions can create a monster striving for a dream at all costs.
Walter White graduated from the California Institute of Technology, a promising career ahead. He teamed up with his classmate and friend Elliot Schwartz to create the company Gray Matter Technologies. At the time he was also dating his lab assistant, Gretchen. Things were looking up. The ideas were flowing and Walter and Gretchen were happy, but something happened. For personal reasons, unexplained on the show, Walter left Gretchen and the company behind. He later took a buyout of $5,000 for his third of the company. Years later Elliot and Gretchen got married and made millions from Gray Matter Technologies. Walter harbors a large amount of animosity towards Elliot and Gretchen and he believes his work was stolen from him.
Flash forward to the pilot episode of “Breaking Bad”. Walter is working as a high school chemistry teacher. The job pays poorly and Walter is forced to get a second job at a car wash. While working at the carwash Walter collapses and discovers he has inoperable lung cancer. As a man with a pregnant wife and disabled son, Walter begins to regret past decisions even more and worries for his family’s well-being after he dies.
Heading into the worst midlife crisis of all time, Walter turns to cooking meth with a former student, Jesse Pinkman. As the series progresses, Walter’s past regrettable decisions slowly come to light and prove to be a large factor in Walter developing into his infamous Heisenberg persona. Walter wanted to prosper and be successful — at first not for himself, but for his family. He tells Jesse he still checks the valuation of Gray Matter Technologies every week, torturing himself about how cheaply he sold his “potential,” but more importantly, his “kids’ birthright.” He believes that he is smarter than where he ended up. Walter wanted to pursue the American Dream: work hard, make money, and move up in the world, but life had other plans for him.
Walter is driven by regret and anger, a devilish combination. After beating out several drug lords in the process, Walter reached the top, but it was too late. Walter had destroyed his relationship with his wife, Skyler. He became so power hungry that he refuses to quit the meth business, despite having so much untouched money he needed to get a storage locker. Walter tells Jesse, “I am in the empire business.” Striving for what he once could have had at Gray Matter Technologies, Walter loses sight of his original goal—a better life for his family. In the first episode of Season 2, Walter tells Jesse that he only needs $737,000 in order to sustain his family. Now he has millions of dollars stashed away in a storage locker, and his wife, and now, his bookkeeper, Skyler, can’t launder the money fast enough.
In this past Sunday’s premiere, however, Walter finally tries to get out of the business. Hank, Walter’s brother-in-law and Assistant Special Agent in charge of the DEA’s Albuquerque office, won’t let that happen easily. He goes rogue and begins to investigate Walter without the DEA’s knowledge. Later, Walter finds a tracking device on his car and confronts Hank about it. Hank punches Walter and begins to shout accusations. Walter then tells Hank his cancer is back. Hank, now in shock more than anger says, “I don’t even know you.”
Heisenberg replies with a warning, “If that’s true, if you don’t know who I am, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.”
The problem with the American Dream is that if one is successful, to a certain degree, they may believe they are untouchable — they imagine this buffer separates them from the law, but it separates them from their family as well. But worse, the belief that anyone is entitled to the American Dream’s narrative—where a hard working man becomes a success—can be destructive. It can turn innocent hard workers into power-hungry monsters driven by resentment. Walter White is an extreme example created by Vince Gilligan and brought to life by Bryan Cranston. But though his story is fictional, it doesn’t mean the details are. We can learn from his self-destructive choices. We can reevaluate our “American Dream.”