What does a man do, Walter? A man provides for his family.
When fastidious meth manufacturer and Los Pollos Hermanos chicken chain owner Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) recruits Walter White (Bryan Cranston) to run his superlab, Walter tries to break away from drug manufacturing and reconnect with his family. They have the following exchange:
WW: I have made a series of very bad decisions and I cannot make another one.
GF: Why did you make these decisions?
WW: For the good of my family.
GF: Then they weren’t bad decisions. What does a man do, Walter? A man provides for his family.
WW: This cost me my family.
GF: When you have children, you always have family. They will always be your priority, your responsibility. And a man, 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.
This alone doesn’t convince Walter to cook up the best meth on the planet. It’s Gus appealing to Walter’s hubris, by saying Walter’s junkie partner, Jessie Pinkman (Aaron Paul) makes meth just as good. “I simply respect the chemistry. The chemistry must be respected,” Walt retorts.
This is yet another change in Walter White’s transformation from hero to antihero. Up until season three cancer-stricken underachieving high school teacher Walter was motivated by providing for his newborn baby and teenage son, who has cerebral palsy. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan gave Walter a terminal diagnosis of lung cancer to give his character urgency; by season three it is in remission and Walter descends deeper into the drug underworld. By this point, it is power that motivates him.
Comparisons to The Sopranos, its predecessor on HBO, are unavoidable. Gilligan even told Anna Gunn, who plays the wife of Walter White, that her character would be like Carmela Soprano, wife of main character Tony Soprano. Breaking Bad is even better written than The Sopranos, based on how dramatically the characters develop. Breaking Bad begins its final season tonight on A&E.
The characters are constantly evolving, and Gilligan makes it very difficult for audiences to judge the characters as good or bad: like real people, they are both. It is the complexity of the characters, and how the consequences of circumstantial decisions affect their paths that enraptures audiences. It’s why it has been nominated for 42 Emmys in five years, winning seven.
Despite the drug world of Albuquerque New Mexico, the story lines are entirely relatable, leaving viewers asking “What would I do?”
The relatability arises from the family connections. In its sixth and final season, the family stakes have never been higher. At the end of last season, DEA bulldog Hank Schraeder (Dean Norris) discovers that his meek brother-in-law Walter White is the kingpin he’s been chasing, Heisenberg. One of them will have to take out the other.
Even Jesse arouses sympathy from his family backstory. Raised by stern, upper middle class family, his drug abuse gets him excommunicated. You feel for the parents and for Jesse. Walter becomes the father figure. Skyler White (Anna Gunn) is sisters with Marie, Hank’s wife, and Gus Fring is motivated by the murder of his partner (by Tio), who was like a brother. The blood lines run throughout the entire character web of Breaking Bad.
Even the most evil characters are motivated, ostensibly, by family. Tuco, the maniac methhead, takes shelter in a desert trailer with his mute tio, who is bound to a wheelchair. Tio, who communicates yes or no questions by ringing a bell, is probably the best unspoken character in television history. Through flashbacks we learn how evil he was and the power he still holds as witness and carrier of the cartel’s vengeance. In season two, we’re taken to the childhood of the twin psychopaths who end up hunting down Schraeder. One brother breaks the other’s toy, and the aggrieved brother complains to Tio, saying he wants his brother dead. Tio sticks the other brother’s head in his beer bucket of ice water, nearly drowning him, until the aggrieved brother fights him off and saves his brother’s life. Tio says, “la familia es todo.”
Lies, revenge, greed, power, love, hate—Breaking Bad is all about family.
Click here for where season 5 left off.