Is Walter White a Bad Guy?: A Conversation
I spent the first 25 days of August watching the first 5 1/2 seasons — 54 episodes — of AMC’s “Breaking Bad.” I’m sure many have beaten that in terms of time, but for me, the marathon viewing of one of the better TV dramas to ever air was fairly consuming. I can’t stop thinking about the show and what it says about morality and human nature. Fortunately, my brother is always game for a bit of analysis, so I emailed him out of the blue with a prompt. Here’s the exchange. — Sarah Carlson
Sarah: Theory: Walt and Skyler White are not monsters. They aren’t evil. In fact, most if not all of the decisions they have made are understandable given their circumstances. Of course, it isn’t a question that Walt chose most of his circumstances by getting into the drug game, but now that he’s in it, he is playing the one way it can be played — kill or be killed. Skyler is joining the game because she wants to survive, too. Makes sense.
Write me back.
Daniel Carlson: I don’t buy it. That would mean that there are no individual moral consequences for actions, and that murder and deceit become acceptable at a certain level based on rationalization. They’re fighting to survive, sure, but they’re not waging a just war here. They did dirt, and now they’re paying for it.
Sarah: Individual moral consequences, sure, because they aren’t mentally unhealthy and will have to live with what they’ve done. Walt certainly is on the track of being able to rationalize most anything, which has me thinking a lot about the codes we set for ourselves and our communities. I don’t think he’s religious, but that isn’t necessary to have morals. I don’t think Walt is without morals, either. I think he’s too human to live up to them.
Most people aren’t self-sacrificing enough to choose death or surrender (and a ruined life, which they may see as worse than death) instead of doing something immoral. So you kill the drug dealer chained in your basement because you want to live. You kill the drug dealers about to kill your partner, because you want him to live. (And I still believe Walt cares abut Jesse.) You ramp up your plot for vengeance once someone threatens your family. In that way, Walt really reminds me of Michael Corleone and what brought him into the family business — family. It’s fascinating, though, that characters such as Corleone don’t receive the same level of anger and condemnation that characters like Walt and Skyler do. (Or maybe he did in the ’70s, or would have had the Internet been around then?) Is it the oh-so-normal setting? That these “bad guys” look and live just like us?
Daniel: I think what’s absent from Walt’s life now, and what would give weight to his rationalizations, is regret. He doesn’t regret killing people; he regrets the trouble it’s currently causing him. The weirdly cold way he talked about how poisoning Brock was something that “needed to be done” says a lot about where he is and what he’s prioritizing. There’s definitely a continuum here, though, which is why Walt’s journey has worked as well as it has. He started out middle class and broke and scared, and he wanted to see what would happen if he broke a certain number of rules to try and get some money. (Leaving aside for the moment that he wanted to get that money by distributing a drug.) But as he kept returning to the game, as he kept telling himself he needed just a little more, that just a little more was worth doing, his reasoning sounded less rational and more like justification. Walt’s got an addict’s personality. The addict never thinks he has a problem. He thinks he’s one step away from a problem, but that he’s got his monkey under control.
Walt might be too human to live up to his morals, but he’s also determined to keep moving those morals to fit his desires. He doesn’t want to live up to anything; he wants what he wants, and his m.o. is to find ways to square his wants with his ethics.
I think Michael Corleone eventually becomes a sick and awful human being, too, but his story and Walt’s are riveting precisely because they let us play out the thought experiment of how far we’d go in their shoes while also telling ourselves we’d never be that bad. But maybe one of the points is that we would be that bad. We just don’t have to face the decision.
Sarah: You’re exactly right — we don’t know what we’d do because thankfully and hopefully, we’re not facing the same decisions. “Breaking Bad” is a great thought experiment/morality play. I feel that viewers who easily judge these characters aren’t thinking things through, or really, aren’t taking in and processing the art in a beneficial way.
Also, thinking about my own reactions to fan reactions, I’m reminded of getting defensive about “Girls,” because I can relate to it. I relate to parts of Walt — his desire to not only be great at something, but to be recognized for being great at something, and recognized in a manner in which others will give him a wide berth to maneuver. It’s his ego that is his undoing — Mike laid it out for him right before Walt shot him — and Walt made his biggest mistake by bragging to Hank that Heisenberg was probably still out there. Based on his personality and life circumstances — he didn’t get the big career and glory that he wanted and arguably deserved, he’s working two thankless jobs, and it seems like he didn’t get the girl he wanted, either — he was perfectly conditioned to become addicted to power and notoriety once he got a taste of it. The easy money is addicting, too, but power is his ultimate master. He’s a cautionary tale. It’s a tragedy.
Daniel: Total tragedy. And I relate to his addictive personality. The thinking that, hey, one step isn’t that bad, and it’s not like I’m doing something really bad, just this thing, and what’s even the harm? I heard a great quote and used it in a “Breaking Bad” review last season about how nobody starts out in the room where you commit murder; you walk through a series of doorways until you find yourself there. And it’s all about how many doors are between you and that moment.
I’d like to think I don’t judge Walt as harshly as some of the people you mentioned, though my earlier comments might make it seem otherwise. That is, I don’t look at him and wonder how he got there. I know exactly how he got there. I’m not rooting for him, but I am pulling for him. I guess it’s a fine line between condemnation and hoping for redemption.
Sarah: Agreed. I don’t think he’s a lost cause yet, but we’ll see.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.