Brendan Malone believes that Walter White is the total antithesis of vital lessons we need to teach young men.
Several weeks ago the wildly successful cultural phenomenon that was the TV series Breaking Bad reached its dramatic climax.
I have to confess that I came to Breaking Bad rather late in the piece, after the start of season four if I remember correctly. It didn’t take long for me to catch the bug however, and become totally engrossed in the train wreck that was the final days of the terminally ill Walter White, Breaking Bad’s central character.
A lot of people have raved about the acting, the screenwriting and the show’s attention to detail, but I haven’t heard too many people discussing the lessons in manhood offered by Breaking Bad.
Just consider the promotional images for Breaking Bad which featured the byline “remember my name”, and in capital letters, none the less, as if to reinforce the point. Could any other phrase more accurately capture the deepest desire of manhood, the longing to leave our mark on this world?
But just like all men, Walter White is faced with a choice about what sort of legacy he will leave in his wake. Sadly, he chooses wrong and leaves a trail of brokenness and destruction in his wake.
Initially it appears as if Walter White is a desperate man resorting to criminal means in order to provide security for his family after his impending death, an action which, even though seriously misguided, has a certain sense of nobility to it. However, as the show progresses we discover that Walter White actually only cares about his own selfish desires and ambitions.
For Walter White the end always justifies the means, and his primary motivation is not one of love for family, but a desire to be the king of the hill.
Walter White starts out as a man who is lost, angry and seemingly incapable of recognizing the truly important things in his life – his wife and children. He is a man with no real male friends, who doesn’t quite know how to live out an authentic masculine identity and he’s angry at the world because of it.
Instead of admitting his vulnerabilities and clinging to that which is truly important in his life, he moves into the fantasy world of his alter ego Heisenberg and a life of self-gratifying and serious criminal activity.
Heisenberg is a man who is everything Walter White desperately wants to be. He is assertive, he has direction and he isn’t governed by fear. Heisenberg is a man that other men want to be around, a man other men look to for guidance, a man whose name other men respect and fear.
Heisenberg has confidence and a plan to guide him, while Walter White has nothing but fear and manipulation to fall back on.
Walter White is the total antithesis of the four vital lessons we need to teach young men that I wrote about last week. He is a man without a moral code. He does not serve anyone other than himself. He has no sense of true purpose so he begins using his abilities to serve his own selfish desires. His treatment of others, even those closest to him, is purely utilitarian in nature, they are nothing more than a means to an end—according to Aristotle, this is the lowest form of relationship we can ever engage in as human beings.
In the first few episodes of Breaking Bad Walter White reminds me of someone who has fallen prey to the destructive fantasy world of Internet pornography in an effort to try and find lost manhood. The sneaking around, the lying to his family, the shirking of responsibility in order to achieve that next hit of pleasure from power and control. The problem is that it’s all a lie. The pleasure is fleeting and hollow, and the promised attainment of masculine greatness remains always just beyond his grasp.
Walter White is a lost boy desperately trying to find meaning and purpose in all the wrong places.
By the end of Breaking Bad, his wife, his children, and his extended family have all been sacrificed on the altar of his ego, obsession and manipulation. He admits to his wife that his actions were never about providing for her and the family, but his own self gratification. His final moments on earth are not spent with his loved ones, but admiring the cold and sterile lab equipment that he has traded his family for in an attempt to try and give meaning and purpose to his existence.
The great tragedy of Breaking Bad is summed up perfectly in this final scene, and the reality that these cold and lifeless machines will never provide Walter White with the fulfillment and meaning that he so desperately craves. They will never love him, or show him the greatness of what it means to be a man.
Sadly a lot of men have made this very same mistake of trading time spent with family for more work, in an attempt to find true meaning and purpose in a place where it does not reside.
The use of the classic Marty Robbins song El Paso at the start of this final episode of Breaking Bad tells us everything that we need to know about Walter White’s tragic struggle for meaning and purpose. El Paso is a song about a cowboy who is obsessed with a woman who will never love him back. One day, in a jealous fit of rage, he kills another man and then flees the town to go into hiding. It doesn’t take long however before his obsession for the woman causes him to make the ridiculous decision to return to El Paso in search of her. Upon arriving back into town he is shot and killed by the friends of the man he had murdered. The cowboy dies in the arms of the woman with the eyes that are “wicked and evil while casting a spell“. The obsession that will never love him back has cost him his very life.
Breaking Bad is ultimately the story of Walter White’s El Paso, and his abject failure to find authentic masculinity and recognize all of the profoundly important things he had been blessed with in his life before it was too late.
One last thought; just imagine how much better Jesse Pinkman’s life could have turned out if he had been mentored by a Walter White secure in his masculinity, rather than manipulated by a Walter White obsessed with living out his selfish Heisenberg fantasy.
The seriously dysfunctional relationship between White and Pinkman should serve as a stark warning to all of us who are fathers of boys—we need to make sure our own masculine house is in order, because the man we are is almost certain to determine the man that they will become.
This post originally appeared at The Leading Edge