Grits and Tamales

Life in the Deep South, by Gabriel Aguilera

There is a Soul of Goodness in Walter White

I was satisfied with Breaking Bad in almost every way. It was gripping, unconventional, fresh, and authentic. The narrative and cinematography propelled the story and developed textured characters with relentless speed and acuity. Epic Southwestern landscapes, rural and urban, set the stage for action. Violence and capers, together with crisp dialogue, breathed life into characters.

We watched Walter White became a genius at the criminal craft of cooking meth. Though extremely clever and competent in most other aspects of the business, we watched him repeatedly get in his own way as he established himself as the underworld’s premier meth chef. His dizzying transformation into a ruthless villain is understandable only in light of his towering obsession to be acknowledged as the best at his craft, embodied in the mythical Heisenberg.

Before he exploited the opportunity to cook meth Walter White was marching towards ignominious and, worse, anonymous death. He had failed as a scientist and entrepreneur and was, at best, a mediocre father-cum-husband. What’s worse, he had failed his family economically. He was, in short, the poster boy for underachievement and pusillanimity, a man who had buried his talents far deep into the ground. The meth business provided the perfect outlet for unearthing those talents, but it was never really about the money or protecting his family. Working with Gus, as Mike points out — would have provided enough for his family ten times over. Walter White takes egregious risks with his family’s safety. Cooking meth was a way for him to live life to the fullest before cancer caught up with him. Along the way he argues that it was about his family and, later, that it was about empire-building. By the end, Walt confesses the truth: “I did it for me.” Precisely what this means is revealed in the story’s final scene as he surveys his great creation one last time.

Unbounded ambition cost Walter White his soul. By the end, even though it was manifestly clear that he had lost it by then, we foolishly hoped for some final act of redemption that would mitigate the harshness of his long-overdue reckoning. The authors and directors of Breaking Bad resisted this temptation because everything he did and attempted in the end was manifestly hollow.

The great paradox of Walter White is that he is a model of hard-work, dedication, thoroughness, and strategic thought. Together with an industrious spirit and will to succeed, these virtues evoke admiration and explain why we root for him. Indeed, and this is the hard lesson for those who pursue greatness, Walter White was willing to do almost everything that necessity demanded. Two things tripped up his ultimate success. One is sentiment. His feelings for his family and friends, however contrived, slowed his attempts to tackle two deep reservoirs of risk, Jessie and Hank, until it was too late. The other was hubris, which led to mistakes, most notably murdering Mike and leaving Walt Whitman laying around. In crime, as in politics, even iotas of goodness are landmines on the road to glory. Walter White failed because he was incapable of being thoroughly evil. Usually, a virtuous hero fails because of moral weaknesses. He fails because of lapses in depravity. He failed to break completely bad.

Through its eclectic cast of fleeting and enduring characters, Breaking Bad holds up multiple mirrors for us to examine ourselves and society. Walter White is the blurriest and most important of them all. Most disturbing is his perverse Quixotic ability to twist reality into fiction to feed his race to glory. Early in the series we believe, or want to believe, that he has a noble objective, mainly, to set up his family financially before cancer takes his life. Soon, however, Walt’s overweening ambition is in charge. Altruism and familial love sugarcoat his real agenda, for the viewer and for himself.

Affable Walter White is Breaking Bad’s main delivery vehicle for a profound moral message.  His story begs us to interrogate the blueprint that provides meaning for our actions. The life of Walter White suggests that it is likely a tendentious lie that fails to acknowledge our deepest desires and fears, one that sugarcoats these with religion, family, or other social constructs to avoid the suffering — and freedom — that comes with embracing our raw selves.

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