The character of Walter White did what he did for the survival of his family. Ron Mattocks wonders what lengths he must go to.
First allow me to apologize for the “Breaking Dad” portion of my title. I realize it’s a bit cliché, and thousand of dad bloggers and journalists have probably already worn it out. Hopefully, though, by the end of this you’ll agree it still applies.
By admission I was a latecomer to the television phenomena that was Breaking Bad. I resisted the hoopla for as long as I could, but left with nothing substantial to entertain us, my wife and I binged our way through all five seasons in a matter of a few weeks.
Naturally, as a father and husband I was drawn to the show’s premise: A once world-class chemist, turned teacher, manufactures methamphetamine to secure his family’s financial security after learning he is dying of cancer. Simply put, the man wanted to provide for his family, and debate me if you want, but I believe this is an inherent instinct men are wired with.
Walter White, the central character for those of you not familiar with the show, is faced with a desperate situation, a desperation that compels him to extreme measures. But the illegal drug trade, as Walter and his under-achieving partner, Jesse Pinkman, find out is a slippery slope, and the two continually find themselves crossing moral boundaries as they lie, steal, and murder to protect themselves.
Walter’s predicament is more than unfortunate; it’s unfair. He’s a good father with a son and baby on the way. He loves his wife. And he works hard, taking a second job at a car wash after school to make ends meet. It’s tragic then that a man who seemingly is doing the best he can should be suddenly stricken with cancer, the treatment of which will leave his family saddled with insurmountable debt.
Walter is understandably angry, but the root of that anger stems, not from his diagnosis, but from events well in the past. Earlier in life he was a gifted chemist who help found a company that would go on to be a multi-million dollar corporation. Walter, though, never reaps the benefits of its success. For reasons, whether pride or ego, Walter leaves the partnership abruptly, a decision that leaves him with a simmering rancor.
Everywhere he turns Walter sees men with more money, more power, and more confidence than him. Yet here he is emasculated, his talents wasted as a modest high school chemistry teacher. His cancer is only the final straw. Walter’s plight is quintessentially unfair and undeserved, his anger justifiable.
It’s this anger and frustration, though, that taps into a dark side of Walter, something we get an early sense of after he tells his boss off at the carwash, and then later sabotages the BMW belonging to a rude and arrogant lawyer. Soon he embarks on a journey of transformation from Walter White, mild-mannered family man, to Heisenberg, ruthless drug kingpin.
Walter and Jesse’s exploits are comical early on. It’s hard to forget the image of a pasty-looking Walter standing desperately in the New Mexico dessert wearing nothing but a button down shirt and sagging briefs after trying to poison two thugs trapped in a dilapidated RV being used as a mobile meth lab. However, as the story progresses Walter increasingly relies on his wits, intelligence, and skills to become a major threat to the Mexican cartels and a legendary, mythical figure to the DEA, all of whom he managed to either elude or eliminate.
By season five, Walter is no longer Walter, he is Heisenberg, producing meth with complete impunity, and making a fortune his family could never spend in their lifetime. As Heisenberg, the man who has conquered a drug empire, he soon becomes brash and full of bravado. Each time the situation begins to fray, Heisenberg, through manipulation or force manages to reign in back in, all the while justifying his actions as being in the best interest of protecting and providing for his family. The great irony in all of this is that in the process he eventually loses everything including his family.
Predictably Walter becomes of victim of his own undoing as Heisenberg. A single tiny detail causes his world to unravel quickly. In the end Walter attempts to right some of his wrongs the best he can, but the damage is far beyond repair, and he cannot escape the inevitable outcomes.
As my wife and I devoured episode after jaw-dropping episode, I was surprised at how much I could identify with Walter. And with Heisenberg. I found myself asking over and over to what measures would I go to in order to provide for my family?
I recently finished two books set in turn-of-the-century America, E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, and Dreamland by Kevin Baker. Both recount with chilling detail and haunting imagery the measures taken by the poor in the struggles to feed their families as they lived in the rundown tenements of NYC. To say that these conditions were deplorable and horrific is an understatement. Again, I wondered what would I have done living under those same circumstances.
The thing is, today isn’t so different from the 1890s and early 1900s with our flailing economy, inept government, and our entitled elite. Many historians and economists have made this same observation, and based on their arguments, it’s hard for me to disagree. The frustration is palpable, the solutions thus far, untenable.
Many people, good, honest, hard-working people and their families are suffering because of decisions and circumstances beyond their control. I know. I am one of them, and like Walter White, I am angry.
Seven years ago I was at the top of my game career wise just as Walter White once was. I made good money, I provided for my family, and I had a bright future. Then came the recession. I lost my job and with it went my self-confidence. Since then life has hammered me until I’ve become like a bent nail that can’t be driven any farther.
I’ve watched my family suffer, and I’ve questioned what I did that they should deserve this. Like Walter I love my family, and I’ve done the best I could to make ends meet these past seven years. As the saying goes, the universe it feels has conspired against me.
It seems as if the mailman delivers a new bill every day. I skip meals so my kids can have the food we can afford, and our medical expenses are out of control due to multiple trips to the ER from major asthma attacks. What’s more, we have to jam in as many doctor’s visits in as possible before January 1st after we were informed by my wife’s publicly traded employer that we should probably look into the insurance offered through the Affordable Care Act because what the company plans on offering next year is shit.
Some CFO is getting a big holiday bonus, and you can be sure if I see their BMW idling unattended at a gas station, well … angry? Yes, but what I’m more concerned about is the similar desperation Walter White felt in providing for his family.
Recently I lost my job, again because somebody else wasn’t doing theirs. Another set of circumstances beyond my control. And thus far, despite all efforts I haven’t been able to secure even part-time employment, so with many bills already overdue it’s a real possibility I won’t be able to provide a Christmas for my children.
Am I being dramatic? Not at all. Thousands of men, if not more are in this situation. It’s reality. It’s my reality, one we as men are not supposed to talk about openly today because to do so is to admit to our ultimate failure as a man.
Mind you, this is no pity party or plea for charity. I still have too much pride for either. I only share these details to put into context the question I’m about to pose.
For the most part we as dad bloggers talk about the safe and easy topics, cute anecdotal stories, universal paternal truths, and the occasional moral outrage over some issue of slight. Transparency and authenticity are buzzwords we throw around as we make ourselves the heroes of our own stories, all the while ignoring darker places and harsher realities. Would you traffic meth, or even kill another person if you felt it was the only way to feed and protect your family? Could you be the antihero of your story?
As I sat on the couch weighing the actions of Walter White I asked my wife what she would think of me if I did something illegal, but only because I needed to provide for the family. Given the current set of circumstances, I actually entertained the thought for a moment. The thin line that keeps me from ever acting on it, though, is the same principle I try to instill in my children—decisions have consequences, both good and bad, and you have to be willing to live with them.
For Walter the consequences were painfully inevitable. He lost it all, yet at the same time an argument could be made that Walter did achieve his original goal of providing financially for his family. In the end he died knowing his family was taken care of as a result of something he had worked for and earned. Because of this he died a man, an imperfect and flawed man yes, but one whose sense of pride had been restored.
Whatever the future holds, I want to die a man. All I ask is for is a chance to stand in the middle of some wind-swept desert where I can plant my feet in the rocky sand, look life in the eye and demand, “Say my name.”
Say. My. Name.
…You’re goddamn right.
Image: Ron Mattocks