No one denies that Walter White, protagonist of the recently ended TV series Breaking Bad, is evil. He’s a drug dealer, he kills lots of people who get in his way, and he’s mean and manipulative toward the people unfortunate enough to be in his life. In the last weeks of the show, however, there was a media frenzy that appeared driven by the fear of not appearing to condemn him enough. An anti-ideal viewer was posited, apparently a composite of annoying online commenters and presumed weirdo stalkers, who thought Walt was a real hero, and coverage was strangely tilted toward the project of curing those people. (I won’t deny people like that exist. I’m sure media critics have met some of them. There are people who think the protagonist of Grand Theft Auto is a hero, too. I do doubt that enough people saw Walter White as a true hero that discussion of the show ought to have revolved around those who did. A few examples of the phenomenon might have merited a news story, maybe.)
Those people were assured that it was wrong to admire Walter White—presumably in any way at all. We were all assured that there was a moral point to the show, and that the point was that Walt was evil and always had been. It was black and white, and there was no room for grey. Say something about any of his actions other than it was morally bad, and you were missing the point. You were “watching wrong.”
But Walt was always largely an ordinary guy. The moral questions come in at the points where he makes bad choices. No one would have watched the show, and the character wouldn’t have worked, if he hadn’t been either sympathetic in many ways, or sufficiently typical that many people would recognize him as like someone they’d known, or both. If Walter White had been all evil, like a character in Grand Theft Auto, nearly none of those critics would have been writing about him. There had to be a contrast between good traits and bad ones, and this means there had to be good traits to begin with.
And the show wouldn’t have gotten so much word of mouth, or so much critical attention, if there weren’t something going on thematically, above and beyond the tried-and-true “criminal drug dealer.” To look at these, it’ll be necessary to see Walt as not 100% evil. The points that follow will look at him as a character in a kind of workplace drama.
1. There’s a sense in which Jesse is the narrator of the show, the point of view character through whose eyes we see Walter White, though this isn’t carried through consistently. Walter is, at the beginning, the Bad (Mean) Teacher, and at the end he’s the Bad (Mean) Boss. I don’t mean to say that Walt’s actions are evil only in Jesse’s opinion. But he’s a fantasy figure of an evil person. And to a pretty big extent he’s the kind of evil person who’d be imagined by someone who was his student or his employee. He berates Jesse for buying the wrong kind of bucket. He tells Jesse he’s stupid. He orders Jesse to carry out unethical acts. He makes it so that Jesse has to work hard every day in order to protect the woman he loves. He is responsible for Jane’s death (though, while that is in fact the case, Jesse was largely responsible for Jane’s taking up drugs again, because he wanted to be with her and he wanted to do drugs, and he made it clear to her that she couldn’t be with him unless she didn’t only tolerate his use but used with him). He got his DEA agent brother-in-law on Jesse’s back. Every bad thing that has happened to Jesse, and increasingly so as the series came to its end, was Walter White’s fault. If Walt’s the Devil, in some sense he’s Jesse’s personal devil, not a universal one.
But this fact is tied intricately to the fact that Walt is in many ways a typical science teacher and a typical technical middle-management boss. We don’t see as much of the direct harm caused by illegal drugs (when we do it’s a personal concern of Walt’s wife and child, and of individual police officers), possibly because that’s a harm Jesse doesn’t care much about. Rather, a lot of Walt’s behavior is familiar to us from teachers, scientists, and managers we’ve known, or even from ourselves if we are teachers, scientists, or managers.
2. At the beginning of the show, Walt really is a caricature of the college professor. He’s a pedant, disrespecting Jesse for not caring about his class and not understanding or remembering the material. He knows a hundred different types of glassware and insists each must be used in precisely the right way.
Jesse, like the viewer, overlooks this because Walt’s finickiness really does work, but it is very funny when it occurs in the first several episodes. It’s something a lot of people might do, but it gets laughs because it’s exaggerated and it goes on at such extreme length.
Walt is like the college professor who decides to go into business, to use his knowledge in the real world, and can’t accept that he still has anything to learn about the way theory maps onto the real world. He knows that meth production is a chemical process, and he believes that as a chemistry Ph.D. he knows everything about it. What he sees in the industry appalls him, because it doesn’t follow any of the rules he believes are necessary. He’s convinced that he’s smarter than the people actually in the business. He would have done it a different way than them, and he believes his way relies on science and theirs doesn’t. He believes that if they did things his way, everything would be better. Some writers have seen Walt’s racism in this attitude—the people actually in the business, for the most part, are Hispanic—but at the beginning it’s associated with Walt’s pride in being a real scientist. He’s furious that someone like Jesse, who slept through class and knows so much less than he does, can make a living off of his science.
In these ways, Walt is totally normal. These aren’t monstrous character traits. Many are quirks and at most are minor flaws. Walt is characterized largely through the kind of thing many viewers will recognize with some fondness or at least familiarity, and may identify with.
3. Walt is also like a scientist or engineer who wants to start his own business but doesn’t know anything about business. The first couple seasons get a lot of black-comic mileage out of Walt’s total ignorance of the business side. (Ignoring the fact that, by rights, he should have been dead the minute he invented a better method and allowed the current market leader to get wind of it.) He thinks sales and marketing are going to be a piece of cake, and that Jesse (who he thinks is a moron) can do them without help. When Jesse runs into problems, he assumes that the problems arise solely out of Jesse’s incompetence, and decides he can do the work himself without help.
Unlike with the conflict between academia and industry, where Walt’s ideas about applied science create a super-drug and have no ill effects (except oversupply of product and undersupply of qualified workers), Walt’s ideas about business don’t work out—at least for him, personally. The business grows, and his independent ventures are in some sense a success, but the result is always catastrophe, and he gets pulled in more and more to a world of immorality.
Walt thinks the “businesspeople” he encounters should listen to him because he’s smarter than they are, because he’s the one who knows the product and knows how to make it. He has no idea how to interact with a crime boss and thinks he can just make demands, and get himself listened to, because he knows he’s right. He can’t get out of a business relationship except by violence against the other partner, because he’s always the weak one in the relationship, regardless of the merits as a non-criminal might see them. He runs through distributor after distributor until he decides he’s learned enough to do it himself again. Then he micromanages Jesse and imposes unrealistic quotas on him. Finally, he teams up with Gus Fring, whom he apparently sees as a “white knight,” a real businessman and a gentleman, who promises to make the operation run smoothly. This is pretty typical (violence and so on excepted, and inability to end contracts except by way of the death of either party) for a technical guy trying to make it in the business world, who might seesaw between wanting to be the boss and recognizing that he has few management skills, between wanting everything focused on the technical end and recognizing that things run better (and are better capitalized) when finance- and sales-oriented people are in charge.
And at first, Walt loves working in Gus’s operation: someone else is taking care of all the details and he can spend all his time on the kind of work he loves. The problems arise when he runs afoul of Gus’s operation’s red tape (especially in the form of Mike, Gus’s enforcer). More specifically, problems arise when Walt decides to take on Jesse (because he’s come to see his Jesse as a kind of a son, and presumably because he feels guilty about what happened to Jane). That raises the question of what to do about Gayle, and eventually brings Walt into conflict with Gus over Jesse himself (see below). Eventually, Walt decides that he doesn’t like working for another man, after all, even a man like Gus Fring who seemed at first to be so much like him. He decides once again that he’s learned enough from Gus, the more experienced operator, to strike out on his own.
It’s not the worst thing in the world to be bad at business, especially when the business is drug dealing. It can be ridiculous, though, and become a matter for comedy. But these are real flaws, because Walt’s failure to recognize his limitations leads him both to make terrible business decisions and to refuse to quit. Breaking Bad portrays these flaws so well that, as a result, some viewers apparently cheer for his opponents in these transactions: despising him just as Mike does, for example, because he doesn’t understand Mike’s code and the way he believes business has to be done.
4. For Walt, the corporate world was represented by Gus Fring. Walt wanted to be a part of the corporate world, to belong to an organization that worked. He admired Gus and saw him as someone he could work with, someone whose values he shared. But when Gus pressured Walt to treat Jesse more harshly, Walt tried to avoid that pressure. This was the point at which a breach opened between him and Gus, setting him at odds with corporate discipline, and forcing him, eventually, out of the corporate world entirely. Some of the best scenes in the show involved Walt’s efforts to deal with Jesse in his own way, and his sense that Gus stood in the way of that. A scene might be staged so that Jesse faces both Walt and Gus, with Walt in the middle between the two other men: Walt wants Gus to recognize that Jesse will be dealt with only by him. But the arrangement doesn’t last for long.
Jesse is trained by Mike to find a place in the organization outside Walt’s control. Tragically, it was only when working for the evil but competent manager, Gus Fring, that Walt could behave with even minimal care for Jesse. And it was only by apprenticing himself to a cold-hearted muscle man who denies himself the right ever to take a decision on his own that Jesse freed himself from submission to Walter.
5. There are also some interesting things to look at, with regard to Skyler and her employment as a bookkeeper by Ted Beneke. It’s disappointing that while the writers come up with an intricate, original version of a boss/worker relationship for Walt and Jesse, when it comes to a female version of the scenario, they fall back on the clichéd story of the boss who wants to sleep with his subordinate. However, it is interesting the way Skyler sees herself as more competent than her boss—at either following the rules or covering up embezzlement successfully, whichever you prefer—in the same way that Walt sees himself as more competent than Jesse and his competitors. It’s just that the way the situation plays itself out isn’t as intriguing: it ends when she gives in to Ted’s sexual demands (to take revenge on Walt), deciding to stay on the job and help cover things up. That ends when she decides she isn’t really happy in the relationship. It plays a little more engagingly than I’ve made it sound, but in the end the only boss of an employed woman (portrayed in the show, that is, not counting Skyler’s sister, who’s a radiology technician, and not counting Hank’s and Saul’s secretaries) is trying to seduce her.
6. By the end of the show, it’s true, Walt’s dilemma was morphing, from something specific to his character as a scientist, to something more general. The show became more focused on the question whether Walt could respect himself when he wasn’t the one making the ultimate decisions, when he had to answer to a boss who told him what to do, when he wasn’t able to claim full responsibility for everything that happened around him. A lot has been written on this question already. But it isn’t a question that’s specific only to people who are like Walter White in one way or another, whether it’s his trust in science or his contempt for salespeople. And the desire to be “the one who knocks” rather than the one whose door is knocked on isn’t something anyone should organize their life around, but the dilemma that underlies it—the conflict between independence and lack of full control—is not pathological. This dilemma may have drawn a different kind of fan base for the show, but to reduce its issues to questions of a generic “manliness” erases the specifics that were gradually set up in the earlier seasons, and clouds a lot of the questions being raised.