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Sympathy For The Devil: Why It's Crucial That You Still Like Walter White

By Joanna Robinson | Think Pieces | September 28, 2013 | Comments ()


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In old article for Lingua Franca about the visceral pleasures of a good book, literature professor Frank Lentricchia wrote the following:

When it’s the real thing, literature enlarges us; strips the familiarity from the world; creates bonds of sympathy with all kinds, even with evil characters, who we learn are all in the family … I confess to never having been able to get enough of the real thing. I worry incessantly about using up my stash and spending the last years of my life in gloom, having long ago mainlined all the great, veil-piercing books. Great because veil-piercing. Book propelling me out the narrow life that I lead in my own little world, offering me revelations of strangers, who turn out not to be totally strange; a variety of real worlds, unveiled for me, for the first time.

By Lentricchia’s standards - by anyone’s standards - Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad is the Real Thing. This is the Classic Coke of television drama. Because is there anything more uncomfortable, more veil-piercing, than our lingering sympathies for Walter White? The entire series serves to explore what would happen if an ordinary guy, a sympathetic downtrodden man, makes a series of choices that turned him into a monster. And a monster he is, make no mistake. I am constantly shocked by the Breaking Bad fans who seem to view Walter as their conquering hero dragged down by a nagging wife, a duplicitous junkie partner and any other reprehensible person who gets in his way. God forbid Hank do his job, Marie feel betrayed, or Walt Jr. defend his mother. So when I say “sympathy for Walt,” I don’t mean the myopic, deluded fanboy kind.

When we ended last year’s finale “Gliding Over All,” I was prepared to write Walt off as entirely monstrous. He had Jane and Mike’s blood on hands, not to mention all those guys in prison and, well, just look at the chart. He’d alienated Jesse, bullied his wife, and lied every chance he could - all in the name of “family.” But throughout these past six episodes, ever since we saw the return of his cancer, Walter has been slowly worming his way back into my sympathies. It started in earnest in episode 10, “Buried,” when Skyler asks Walter if the cancer is back and Walter, looking so vulnerable, so sad and so small asks his wife, “Does it make you happy?”

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This season keeps delivering gut-punching moments like that, aided by Bryan Cranston’s dazzling, faceted portrayal. But for every sympathetic moment, for every time Walter defends Hank or Jesse or plays the benign paterfamilias, there is a moment of monstrosity. The morally bankrupt Heisenberg’s tentacles keep unfurling, and so we’ve spent the last six episodes in this uncomfortable limbo, torn between the Walter we first met and the devil we know.

There are, to my mind, four essential ways to tell a story. The combinations are as follows: 1) relatable circumstances/relatable reactions; 2) relatable circumstances/unrelatable reactions; 3) unrelatable circumstances/relatable reactions; and 4) unrelatable circumstances/unrelatable reactions. Here’s a visual aid.

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Quadrant 4? The Game of Thrones quadrant? That’s where we have the most fun. How do you react to the (unrelatable) circumstance of being imprisoned by a shape-shifting magi in a nightmare tower? Dragon fire, naturally. The emotions are relatable (Arya’s loss of her father, Robb’s ill-advised love affair), but the environment and the wealth of options are so foreign that we don’t ever need to worry about feeling too close to the story. So go ahead, root for the evil queen or her mangled brother/lover. Your sympathy for Cersei won’t trouble you. Quadrant 3, The Walking Dead quadrant, is pretty fun, too. I don’t know how exactly I would react to a zombie invasion, but jabbing sharp things into brains is something I could definitely see myself trying to learn.

Quadrant 2 is the trickiest one to pull off. How do you keep a story about everyday people reacting to everyday problems interesting? That’s the genius of Parenthood and Friday Night Lights creator Jason Katims. He keeps the stakes low but meaningful, and he somehow manages to make these ordinary heroes, these coaches and dads, quarterbacks and war veterans, extraordinarily compelling. In fact, it’s universally acknowledged that the only time Friday Night Lights went off the rails is when our nerd hero, Landry, accidentally murdered someone. Those were the wrong stakes for this world, and the whole plot rang false. But let’s take a look at the highest stakes in the last excellent season of Parenthood. When diagnosed with cancer, wife and mother of three Kristina Braverman reacted how most of us probably would. She wept, she railed, she vomited, she shaved her head and, most touching of all, she recorded this message for her children.

That brings us to Quadrant 1, the Breaking Bad quadrant. This is where the magic is made. Walter’s circumstances are similar to Kristina Braverman’s. He’s diagnosed with cancer. He’s also afflicted with other highly relatable problems: financial trouble and frustrated potential. But his reaction? That is what sets off the powder keg. If you or I were Walter White, we would have taken that pity Grey Matter money in episode 5 and run with it. End of series, end of conflict. But Walter isn’t us, and he isn’t a Braverman. Kristina is our unalloyed hero. Compare her legacy for her children (that video) with what Walter tries to build (or the videos he leaves behind). And this is where things get difficult for us. We relate to Walter more than we’d like. We understand the very human emotions behind his inhuman actions. Walt’s worldview is uncomfortable but at times sympathetic. As creator Vince Gilligan recently said: “It’s complicated. You should have ambivalent feelings about who to root for here.”

So as we gear up for the final two episodes of this phenomenal series, we’re faced with a dilemma. Do we still root for Walter White? Do we want him to succeed with that M60? Does it depend entirely on what he plans to do with it? There is no better distillation of this conflict than that final scene of “Ozymandias” when Bryan Cranston managed to be both Heisenberg and Walter at the same time. The way he growled, lashing out at Skyler with the Id words his fanboys have been spewing for years all the while dripping tears from his goatee? It was stunning. So me? I’m with Walter. I think he’s gearing up to face down Jack and Todd who, in my mind, aren’t just run-of-the-mill villains but represent Walt’s inner demons. That shot below of Todd as the Devil on Mr. White’s shoulder is one of my favorites of the series. So that’s where I think we’re headed. Walt’s gearing up to annihilate the worst parts of himself. What’s more relatable and veil-piercing than that?

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • d123

    I lost all my sympathy after the Pathethic Walter killed Mike lol I do not understand how anyone can still have sympathies for this pathethic manipulative piece of shit.

  • daw

    I lost all sympathies with this pathetic Character after he shot Mike, in my opinion Walter White is one of the most well written pathetic characters ever in TV history.

  • orourkeda

    I hope he kills Jesse like a dog

  • Arco

    Thank you, Joanna. Even this site has recently done little but produce 'Walt's Evile!!' articles, that have been major letdowns to some of us. The whole thing that makes this show so good is that apart from the Neonazi's, it's all shades of grey. It saddens me to see how many people continue to reduce it to ridiculous good vs evil terms.
    "I like Walt so I hate Jesse/Skyler/Hank/Marie and hope they DIE!!" or
    "I hate Walt and root for Jesse/Skyler/Hank/Marie and hope Walt DIES!!"

    Usually partnered with "You have another opinion than me, so I hope YOU DIE!!"

    Just sad, is all.

    Oh and for the record, everyone does realize by now that Walt's phone call to Skyler was a deliberate thing for the police, right?

    Right?

    That's why he's crying? Because it's killing him to do that? You notice how the things he says, about how he was to her the last year were untrue? He never said those things he pretends to have said, and he never treated her like that. He's saving her, creating evidence that she was a complete innocent in all this which she hadn't been in quite a while. That was the genius of that scene. For a moment the viewer thinks Walt's lost it, and is just going apeshit on her. Then we realize (along with Skyler) that he's putting on an act for the cops to protect her.

    They even have Saul confirm this in the next episode to make sure everyone gets it. Which was probably good because it's amazing how many people actually didn't get it.

  • StefJam

    Frankly I don't understand this WW sympathizing. Right from the beginning he has been very unsympathetic - actually downright pathetic. With too much misplaced pride, he would rather die than accept freely-offered financial and emotional support from loving family & friends. He ends up treating his son & wife like shit, repeatedly (far from being a "harpy", she is an abused spouse who unfortunately cannot break from Walter - all too common in spousal abuse cases). The rest of his overweaning pride regarding drugs & crime are just icing on the cake of his doucheness. Pity for the devil more like (I reserve my sympathy for those he ends up hurting).

  • The quadrant visual is genius.

  • John M

    Joanna -- Why do you believe the cancer is really back? Because Walt says so?

    Walt lies.

  • Mrs. Julien

    They showed him receiving chemotherapy and the show does not have a history of that kind of bait and switch.

  • Rob Grizzly

    Very nice. Does Homeland fall under Quadrant 3?

    Even at his worst, "Heisenberg" was always an act. A man without control, trying to flex muscle to gain it. I never saw him as a monster because that would be to take the persona too literally. It's not a split personality. Many if not all of Walter's acts were justified in one way or another. Sometimes to desperate degrees. He doesn't do the things he does, and he goes to jail. Or he dies. Period. (Also, there's no show). Is it terrible? Yes, undoubtedly. But I don't condemn him for surviving, out-smarting, and out-lasting, the sh*t thrown his way.

    When he nods at Jesse's execution, that's not Heisenberg. He isn't putting on a show for anybody. That is simply one angry man blaming another man for the death of a family member. That's where there's such a misconception about this Walter that I don't understand. It's as if any time he does act nice, (like how long he tried to spare Jesse, and his genuine love for his kids) people are surprised. That doesn't sound like "the devil" to me. So to me, there was almost something cathartic about seeing him fully assume the monstrous "Heisenberg" role in this episode, since everyone thinks the worst of him anyway. Naturally the tragic irony is he did it to save his family. We know he never wanted this.

  • Thank you! Everything I read lately comment-wise seems to be either "hate Walt with all your might" or "Walt's a victim." It's not black and white and as much as I despise Walt for the lives he's destroyed, I still feel awful that he lost the one thing he was (originally) trying to keep safe.

    I want him to destroy Todd and the Nazi Tweeker Band (dibs). I want him to also save Jesse and then get on his knees and beg Jesse to forgive him. Jesse wouldn't believe him, as he shouldn't. I still don't know if I want Walt to die. He would deserve it sure, but maybe he deserves to live with his knowledge of what he did to everyone around him more.

  • B84

    I LOVE the grid--but even more, love the clear explication of intense feelings I've been having this past few episodes of BB too. My god, I've been hating Walt a long time-- since he let Jane die, really, and the hate built to a mad climax when he killed Mike. But dammit, dammit, dammit--Vince Gilligan and his crew of geniuses have made me feel for Walt again, and see the human scarps left in him. And you've helped me understand how this is happening. And the Classic Coke reference--bringing to mind Heisenberg's cheesy little reference to his blue meth awhile back--made me smile.
    I enjoy your writing so much, and have done for about the past six months, since I discovered Pajiba--thanks for what must be a huge amount of sweat and time you put into it. Your posts are pure pleasure to read.

  • St

    Well of course people will automatically root for main character. Because this is main character. Everything is basically happening from his point of view. And very often he seems like a scared man who cares about Jesse, Hank and his family. And often he is chased by very, very bad guys. People can’t watch show for years and wish main character to die every second. Of course people will automatically root for him. They were making movie about that Hannibal Lecter monster. And even there people had to root for him because he was MAIN character.

    If things would come from Jesse’s point of view or Hank’s and we would only see Walt occasionally then no one would root for him.

    Also that cancer thing. I hate when they do that. At first it’s all: "Our hero has cancer. He is absolutely dying people. 100% that he will die It’s terminal. So enjoy his story and feel sorry for him because soon he WILL DIE". And of course then our hero will maliciously will be healed from those diseases he has. Walter was 100% dying in few weeks at the beginning. Then cured. And now again. His cancer is back, he will absolutely die in few weeks/months, like he told Hank. He even coughs sometimes people. But of course we already saw that 1 year later he will be perfectly fine and won’t be dead or dying in some hospital. Why they even bring that cancer back?

  • Seth

    Probably shouldn't have watched that Parenthood video. My father died of cancer yesterday.

  • BarbadoSlim

    Fuuuuuck, dude. For real? That sucks.

  • Seth

    Yeah...

  • Becks

    Sorry Seth. I hope all of the bickering and bitchiness on Pajiba can keep you distracted because I know from experience that not much can comfort you at a time like this.

  • Interview with the episode writer, who addresses Walt's character issues, both monstrous and human. http://insidetv.ew.com/2013/09...

  • junierizzle

    I feel for the White Family. It's hard to feel sorry just for Walt because he brought this all on his family but how could one not feel for Walt Jr and Holly and yes even, Skyler and Marie. Marie lost her husband and now so has Skyler. Walt Jr. lost his hero.

    As for the whole "rooting' for Walt thing, I never have. I never hated the guy either. Yes he did horrible things, along with Jesse, but it was all just so fascinating to watch. They way the stories unfolded and how they fix one problem only to have that fix lead to another problem.

    Vince Gilligan put it perfectly in last week's Entertainment Weekly: "I've lost sympathy gradually for Walt in bits and pieces over the years because liars aren't my favorite people in the world and that's his real superpower. But there is a difference between rooting for someone and being interested in someone, and I've never lost interest in Walt. He's only become more fascinating as the seasons have progressed."

    I agree.
    If you hate Walt then hate him, if you root for him, root for him. Either way it is fascinating.

  • Three_nineteen

    I haven't liked Walt since somewhere in the second season. A lot of my sympathy/ friendly feelings for Walt went away in the 1st season, when he refused the money from his old partner at Grey Matter. When he went up to that corner guy in front of the hardware store and said "Stay out of my territory", that was it.

    I'm fascinated by Walt, and entertained by him, and I even root for him to win from time to time. But I don't like him, and hope he dies in two episodes.

  • GDI

    Him turning down the Grey Matter job did have me explicitly say, "That was a dickish move", but I realized that the show had to go on and I just accepted it.
    When I felt that he crossed the line of no return was with Jane's death. It did seem like he was being parental to Jesse, but at a terrifying and overbearing cost. I was more creeped out by his interest in Jesse, rather than grossed out by the action.

    Walt dying gives him an easy way out.
    Jesse was sent to hell a bit sooner (which I believe has been a long time coming), but Walt will probably suffer the same sort of fate. He already is, somewhat. But his situation as of the latest episode is more of a purgatory, rather than an infernal comeuppance.
    I do believe that time is nigh, however.

  • DB

    I have always thought that in several ways, one of the saddest parts of the show is that Walt was actually closer to Jesse that his own son and the rest of his family. I think there is some substantial evidence in this upon seeing episodes such as "Fly", "Half Measures", "Box Cutter", "Sauld" and even "Say My Name" where he seemed legitimately enraged that Jesse would leave the business and end the partnership.

  • googergieger

    "I am constantly shocked by the Breaking Bad fans who seem to
    view Walter as their conquering hero dragged down by a nagging wife, a
    duplicitous junkie partner and any other reprehensible person that gets
    in his way. God forbid Hank do his job, Marie feel betrayed or Walt Jr.
    defend his mother."

    ^This is why my posts have some hostility to them. I know this isn't exactly aimed at me or other people that don't like Skyler for valid reasons, and say Walt is bad, and point out Hank could have walked away(doing his job is a good argument though, seeing as him using Jesse even if that meant Jesse dying was by the book), but seriously. It is things like that, that make it really hard for people to give a counter point/different opinion. When anyone that doesn't just say Walt bad/everyone else good is called a sociopath. When anyone that says they don't like Skyler is called a woman hater.

    Or when people just have a totally revisionist version of Breaking Bad, solely to help their Walt bad, everyone else good point of view...

    Meh, have fun I guess peeps.

    *leaves thread/article*

  • Wigamer

    I seriously, no fooling, think you may have reading comprehension issues. No one here is reducing the show to some "Walt bad/Skyler good" or "Walt bad/Jesse good" binary thinking bullshit. Except in your imagination.

  • Kate

    I don't think I ever had sympathy for Walt past the first 20 minutes or so of episode one. Even in that first episode you get his number. By the time we learn about Gray Matter, I would have thought it was clear that his actions weren't just an out of nowhere reaction to the cancer, that he's always been like this and now he's just found an outlet and an excuse. He failed at life, but his gigantic ego is barely hidden beneath the surface. He's extremely manipulative and just a massive asshole from day one, and six episodes later he's pure evil.

    I'm amazed that anyone could have any sympathy left for Walt after that phone call. I'll just assume the people who still think he's redeemable have never had the pleasure of coming across a dangerous sociopath in real life.

    Walt doesn't love his family, he loves the idea that they love him. If he really cared about his family he would have quit cooking meth or completely cut contact (and paid for security for them) at the end of season 1, when things ramped up and his life got dangerous. Ever since then he's just been putting his family at risk, always in service of his ego. When he breaks into the family home in a rage, he brings the twins with him. When he's in the grip of what was essentially a pissing contest with Gus, he's practically asking for his family to be killed.

    If the money was really for his family, he could have cooked just enough to pay off the mortgage. That's a manageable amount, an amount that would help a lot but would only require a simple lie and that wouldn't draw too much attention. Even his original idea of leaving them over $700,000 without them ever knowing what he did to earn it was idiotic. Now he has/had 80 million dollars. What were his family going to do with that, really? Skyler couldn't launder all that money. It would have just created huge problems and most likely ended with Skyler in a jail cell one day. The money just feeds his ego, it stopped being about his family almost as soon as he started earning it

    I've been hoping BB ends with Walt dying a terrible death since Season 2. I was rooting for the twins when they were in his house and later I was rooting for Gus. It hasn't stopped me enjoying and appreciating the show. I watched for Jesse, for Saul, for Gus, for Mike, and to see where things went next.

    If he does go after the Neo-Nazi's, it won't be revenge for Hank, it won't be some righteous crusade to destroy old demons . It will be because they defied him and took his precious money, and Walt cannot deal with anyone disrespecting him. Everyone is below him, and everyone needs to know it.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    That's an excellent post and I agree with just about everything you wrote. Circumstances didn't change Walt, he was always this bad but he never had the opportunity to 'become'.

    And jim88's comment about "most believe the phone call was to take the heat off..." is a bit presumptuous unless he's actually taken a poll of all the viewers of the show. I certainly didn't think that. I did think that Walter must know the police were at the house but I honestly think he was raging mad at Skyler telling Walt Jr about him and then neither one of them following his orders to leave with him. Angry and frightened and grieving for Hank but still a raging psychopath.

    Walt has never been a sympathetic character.

  • Becks

    It seems obvious to you he knew the police were listening though, right? So with that in mind, if he wasn't attempting to absolve Skyler of blame and make her seem like a bullied, terrified wife then why did he conveniently leave out everything about her helping him hide the money and suggesting he must kill Jesse? If he was so angry with her then why didn't he implicate her instead of doing the exact opposite and blatantly stating that she had absolutely nothing to do with any of it?

    I hate Walt but I still think he made that call to try to protect Walt Jr. And Skyler. That's also why he said that if she doesn't "toe the line she'll end up like Hank." He wanted it on police record that they're in danger and need police protection because he fears for their safety since they won't disappear with him.

    I'm not trying to change your mind about Walt but I feel like you're missing out a little if you fail to recognize that call for what it was.

  • knockloud

    In theinterview with EW Moira Walley-Beckett, one of the co-producers of the show, makes it clear it was intended to be Walt giving Skyler some leverage. Really, he has no reason to imply responsibility for killing Hank except to try to eliminate any link that might make the Nazis come after Skyler and the kids.

  • jim88

    I think you seriously missed a couple of points.

    "I'm amazed that anyone could have any sympathy left for Walt after that phone call."

    Most believe the phone call was to take the heat off of Skyler. We'll see.

    "If the money was really for his family, he could have cooked just enough to pay off the mortgage."

    Neither Gus nor the cartel were ever going to just let him walk away. That was explained when he told Skyler that an organization making enough money to be listed on the NYSE wouldn't just cease to exist without repercussions.

  • junierizzle

    AHHHH, but Gus did let him walk away at Jesse's request. Walt didn't have to poison Brock or kill Gus.

  • Technically, Walt didn't know about that. Had he, though, it probably wouldn't have mattered.

  • junierizzle

    That's my point, he didn't need to know Jesse saved his life, but his life was saved. But Walt did what he did anyway.

  • Ruby

    I don't think Walt was a monster prior to the series. He was a deeply depressed person who resented where his life was.

    I see him as an addict. Suddenly for the first time in his life he is praised (board line worshiped) for his genius and he has millions of dollars. But he needs more -which is what lead to the conflict with Gus. It's similar to what happens when people become drug or gambling addicts. They lose their grip on reality and they're world is just a pinpoint focus on getting their drug. For Walt his drug is power and money, which is sees are representing his love=protection of his family=proof of how godlike his ability to make meth and defeat his enemies.
    As Walt does more horrible things he keeps justifying it like an addict would. It's why I always found his disgust with Jesse's drug addiction to be completely hypocritical.

  • Kate

    That phone call won't take the heat off Skyler, she had clear opportunities to leave and her fingerprints are all over the books of the car wash. Either she comes completely clean and gets a deal, or she claims he forced her to stay and do his bidding, which given all the terrible things Walt's done would be perfectly easy to do without that phone call.

    It also echoed their previous fights. That wasn't the first time he's behaved like that towards her, he's been filled with rage towards her ever since she first kicked him out of the house. Plus he was extremely menacing towards her and Flynn at their home just hours before that call, and he took his baby daughter while Skyler begged him not to, just to spite her. That behavior had nothing to do with protecting her from the cops, and it was just as disturbing.

    As to your second point, he never would have come into contact with Gus, never would have stepped on the cartels toes, if he'd aimed for a much smaller sum. Just selling with Jesse for a month or two would have earnt him enough to leave his family a helpful sum. But once he realized he had a great product, he became obsessed with success. Tuco, the twins, Gus, it all came about because Walt kept pushing for more. By the time Walt went to work for Gus he had more money than he originally wanted.

  • tracey8051

    Personally, I feel like Walt has always been a monster, it's just that before his diagnoses he kept the monster locked up tight. Afterward there was no reason for him NOT to let it out. I have never seen him as a sympathetic character. In fact, from day one I thought he was a manipulative bastard who I could not root for. That doesn't mean I haven't enjoyed the series. I have, but I have waited all this time to see him get what he deserves, and also to see who he would drag down with him. Jesse is a career criminal who has allowed himself to be manipulated and used, and even though he is haunted by his conscience, it doesn't make him any less of what he has chosen to be. Skyler is despicable for not leaving the second she realized what was going on. She chose to put the lives of her children in danger for the sake of money, so she deserves whatever she gets. Hank allowed himself to be pulled down to Walt's level by hatred and self loathing. He's the freaking boss. The second he realized that Walt was Heisenberg he should have gone straight to his people and started working on a case against him. Him not doing that was ego, and it was stupid. He allowed Hank to drag him down to his level, and looking at his eyes at the end, he knew it.

    This is not a show about likable people who deserve sympathy. It is about how one bad decision leads to another, to another, to another, until you are so far down the rabbit hole you can't even see where you started. It is about consequences, and whether escaping them is possible. Anyway, that is what this show has always been for me, but I've always known I'm weird.

  • Three_nineteen

    I don't think Skylar stayed for the money. I think she couldn't bear to burst her children's bubble about their father. It's a different kind of cowardice. Then, once she accepted the situation, she went all in.

  • apsutter

    Agreed. It was never about the money for her. She has been pretty much constantly miserable since Walt started sneaking around cooking. She hasn't spent any of that money except to get a new car and isn't ostentatious in any way. The cold open bummed me out because it showed that even though they were broke before they were happy within their marriage and they really loved each other. Once he decided to cook and lie to her it was the beginning of the end.

  • Fredo

    I think part of the brilliance of the show is that it hasn't allowed for a happy ending to occur. Let's face it: the show could have been wrapped up after Walt made his first million. Job done. He's achieved what he set out to do. The show could have wrapped after Walt beat Gus -- the typical macho-hero fantasy. He's standing as the new king and lord of all he surveys.

    But Gilligan and his team have kept the show going by showing what would happen next. Of course Walt wasn't going to stop even after he made enough to save his family's well-being. Of course, Walt wasn't going to stop even after beating Gus. And each action would have a consequence that was natural to its story.

    The other thing I think is brilliant is that the show is honest about the complexities of the situation. Walt loves his family. He also loves the money, power and influence he has gained as Heisenberg. Jesse is a bright, honest kid who is also a junkie and a fool. (I loved the scene at the start of yesterday's episode: Skyler and Walt talking about the future with no idea of the train that's coming to run them over). If they were clear-cut, good guys or bad guys, it'd be easy to root for them to live/die. (Is anyone rooting for Todd or Uncle Jack today?).

  • jon29

    This is how I see the show. Most of the characters are pretty deeply flawed. For my money, the "Walt's an evil guy and always has been" crowd miss the point just as fully as the "apologists" do.

  • GDI

    Thank you. Both camps are at the polar end of each other without realizing that their rationale is just basically just an inversion of the other side.

    This series is great for having such wild variance in character development.
    It's quite interesting seeing motivations change on a whim, while staying true to the characters and true to the show.

  • emmalita

    What makes Walt fascinating for me is that he is a very human evil. We can't really predict which of his impulses will win at any given moment. In Ozymandius he was both selfless and selfish. His grief resonated with me, but so did his moment of petty revenge. Who hasn't wanted to twist the knife on occasion?

  • Mrs. Julien

    a. Amazing article.
    b. I find Walt compelling and I admit to being very curious about whether he summons enough humanity to save Jesse, if he even knows that Jesse needs saving and isn't already gone.

  • Sars

    One of the strangest things for me is people putting the blame on everyone other than Walt. As if WALT is the victim here.... I mean yes Jesse fucked up in the end, but really Jesse workign with Hank is the RIGHT thing to do. HE believes Walt is dangeorus and wants to bring him down...so he goes to the cops... .a member of a drug dealing gang, dealing a dangrously addictive drug, goes to the cops and wants to help them bring down the kingpin- if that happened in real life we'd all (well most people) would be cheering him adn seeing HIM* as at least brave enough to face the fucker...
    The thing with Skylar makes the littlest sense of all. Imagine you are married to someone, and the next thing you know, the person is a drug dealer, killing people, putting your family in serious danger and threatening you. What would YOUR reaction be? would you be understanding? I know I wouldnt. I know I would freak out. If my husband came home and told me we needed to dash it out of there, and then all but admitted that he KILLED my sister's husband, I would certainly not follow him in to the desert-- even if that would have been a logical decision.
    Again, back to jesse, and people calling Jesse a rat who had it coming. Jesse would not have had this coming if it wasnt for Walt.
    Walt is a MONSTER- he was always a monster, it was just festering below the surface, waiting to pop like a juicy pimple. And last night, it finally did. He is not good. he cared for Frank, yes, but not enough to not rag him into his shit. Walt is SOLELY responsible for his own actions. He was given an out on numerous occasions. He didnt have to start cooking meth, and he didnt have to continue cooking meth, and he didnt have to call the NNs, and he didnt have to bring on Todd the psycho killer, and he didnt have to make a deal with the devil to get Jesse killed.

    Walt uses his family to justify his actions. he victimizes himself. Last night, the phone call was to save Skylar, but also to redeem himself in his own eyes. his tears were for HIM* and no one else.

  • supergwarr

    his tears were for the man he once was. all in all walt always thought he would get out and if Hank had not taken a big stanly steamer he would still be.
    the whole point of Breaking Bad (like many great shows these days) is that every small action has a reaction.

  • Sean

    I don't think he is a complete monster. If he were, he wouldn't have begged for Hank's life. He wouldn't have tried to get his family to leave. He wouldn't have played that game on the phone to clear Skylar in the eyes of law enforcement. He still has some humanity left. That is what makes the whole thing so tragic. If he were a monster, we wouldn't care.

  • I agree. I have no sympathy left for Walt; as he evolved, so did our feelings. He blamed Jesse for Hank's death, he screamed at Skye and Walt Jr.--"What are you doing? We're a family?" And regardless of that phone call, where I did indeed feel his pain, I felt zero sympathy.

    I've never been a Skyler fan, but in that moment when Walt took Holly, I did feel for her.

    The monster thing, yeah--that's been festering inside Walt all his life. He got the opportunity to let it out and boy howdy, did he run with it.

  • Washington Irving

    What kind of monster takes what he wants (Holly) and then gives it back when he realizes it's wrong? How is that the behavior of a monster?

  • The kind that took her because he couldn't deal with not having a family, and then later realized he a) wasn't in a position to take care of her or keep her safe, and b) that Holly needed to be with her mother.

    Having feelings for one's daughter doesn't preclude one from being a monster.

  • Sean

    Actually having feelings for others at all is the point. If he were a true monster, he wouldn't have those feelings. They would get in the way. Which is the point of the whole thing.

  • Monsters are not incapable of feeling anything. A monster and a psychopath aren't the same thing. I don't think Walt's a psychopath, but he's been pretty damned monstrous.

  • DB

    I actually disagree. A monster would not of offered to give his fortune away to save the life of a demeaning jerk who has done nothing but try and emasculate him for years and then try and take him down. Nor would he have openly wept upon seeing said person get killed. Walt has saved Jesses's life on countless occasions as well, examples including stepping between him and an angry, high Tuco, as well as stating that he would not betray him to save his own life when faced with Gus in the lab with the box cutter. Is Walt a terrible human being? By this point, absolutely. But it would be incorrect to try and grossly simplify him to the point of aying that he is a monster.

  • Mel C.

    YES EXACTLY. You have summed it up so perfectly. Walt has ALWAYS been a monster. Festering below the surface.

    I really don't think we're supposed to still like him. Any notion of that ended a long time ago.

  • Mrs. Julien

    Has he always been a monster? I wonder sometimes if we think that because it is more comfortable than to think we could become a monster in the right situation. We can tell ourselves that we would never be like Walt because it's not our innate nature simmering below the surface waiting to break free. Would he suddenly have become that guy because of another provocation? He lived a life of quiet desperation when he started, and not even exclusively that, but he used his intellect to solve a problem and all it did was backfire and snowball so that he had to compensate and escalate until he was the reprehensible person he is now.

    The "monster" argument reminds me of when people end their marriage or long term relationship and there is always a friend or relative who says, "Oh ya, I knew that would never work out," or, "They were never really in love" because it is more comforting than to think, "Look at them, they were so in love, but sometimes things fall apart. Maybe my relationship could fall apart."

  • L.O.V.E.

    I think there is a real Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde sense to Walt. There is a monster within him, and there is a constant struggle within him. That scene where he is in the firehouse and he is yelling at Skylar was almost like Walt learning to channel Heisenberg. Then you have that scene in the dessert and he goes from Walt to Heisenberg in the split second it took for him to shake Uncle Jack's hand and point out Jesse.

  • ZbornakSyndrome

    Let me start by saying, I think if any of us let our ego go unchecked, we'd become monsters.
    My problem with Walt has always been that he had an out: the job offer with the life insurance at Gray Matter. But his ego wouldn't let him do that. So instead of sucking it up and doing it "for his family", he chose to make a drug that destroys families and lives. That's pretty monstrous, and that's before he starts killing people as Heisenberg.

  • rio

    He didn't use his intelligence to solve his problem, he realized he had nothing left too lose and decide to let his giant ego finally take over. He was always a man who was blaming everyone but himself. He was supposed to be millionaire but he decided to not be part of his friends company, he was offered a job and healthcare coverage but he decided that he rather make meth than swallow his pride. Hank died and he blames Jesse for it. His son is told who is father is and he blames Skyler for telling him not himself for being the cause of it all.

  • Mrs. Julien

    I think for the first little while he did use his intelligence. Things just spiraled quickly and the more things got out of control the more he moved from intellect to emotion. Even letting Jane die was, in its own way, a logical choice to make. That's the part about "stepping through a series of doors" on his journey from downtrodden guy to the villain that stands before us. I might be able to do perfectly awful things in an untenable or unimaginable situation, but that doesn't mean it is my essential nature, just that circumstances determine behavior.

  • I agree with everything you've been saying, Mrs. J., I just think that "first little while" only lasted through the Pilot. Maybe up to killing Krazy 8 or turning down Gray Matter, if we're being charitable.

  • Kate

    He made terrible decisions right off the bat. For starters, his family didn't need to be left a big chunk of money. If Walt had died, they would have struggled for a while, they would have lost the house, they would have needed some financial help from Hank & Marie, but it wasn't the kind of desperate situation that would cause a normal person to think 'hey, i'll make and sell meth'. They would have been safe, they would have had the essentials, and they would have been fine in a few years time.

    Walt was already up to his ears in the meth business and had lived longer than expected before he started thinking about how to launder the money, how he would actually get the money to his family without some kind of explanation...he had no actual plan beyond 'make a shitload of money fast'. That's not an intelligent plan.

    Walt is very, very smart in some ways, but he's very, very stupid in other ways, hence why he ended up as a high school teacher instead of a Nobel prize winning millionaire. He failed at Gray Matter, he failed in the research lab, he basically failed at life, over and over, again and again. He can cook great meth, he can manipulate a certain type of person, he can make bombs and come up with cunning plans, but in the end he's always missing something. He wants to be Gus Fring, he wants to be Gretchen and Eliot, but he's not capable of that. Instead he's constantly reacting, constantly cleaning up his own mistakes, constantly on the verge of losing everything. And now he has.

  • raphcoulthrust@gmail.com

    that would have been a short show

  • Mel C.

    I agree with your last paragraph, but I just don't think Walt's circumstances made him into who he is. That's the constant debate around the water cooler, and I'm sure everyone sees it differently, but I don't think the goal of the writers has been for us to empathize with him.

    I hope Jesse kills him in the finale.

  • Sean

    I actually think Walt comes back to free Jesse. That Walt's guilt makes him do one last good thing before the cancer overwhelms him.

  • Sars

    I thinkl he'll come back to finish off everyone he blames for Hank's death- Jesse included. The interesting thing would be if he ends up offing himself as well, realizing his role in all this. Also wonder if the ricin he took was the real thing or a placebo placed there by Todd.

  • Gistine

    Me too. I watched it again last night (I am a masochist) and I felt like it wasn't happening. Like, it has all come to THIS in one horrific episode? However, Red Toyota Van Identity-Eraser Man or not, I am convinced Walter will not go qently into that goodnight. He cannot help himself. And seeing Jesse chained and beaten again (I must have blocked that out), was akin to one of those heart-wrenching ASPCA commercials. :(

    Plus, one should never trust a quiet, reluctantly- acquiescent Walter White. Like, ever.

  • Wigamer

    I agree--he's never been a monster. Amoral? Absolutely. Able to rationalize away things most could not? Yes. Manipulative, grandiose, insecure. Gilligan's always said he wanted to "turn Mr. Chips into Scarface," but Walt was never Mr. Chips, and he hasn't turned out to be Scarface, either. He's simply a deeply flawed individual who made one bad decision after another. At some point along the way he felt he regained some agency over his life and liked the way it felt to be powerful. It doesn't mean he never loved his family, and it doesn't mean he lacks humanity. I'd argue that he manifests everything that is horrible and that is beautiful in humanity.

    It's why we can't stop watching. (Also, Bryan Cranston)

  • knockloud

    To be fair, even Tony Montana ultimately met his bad end because even he wouldn't help blow up that dude's wife and two little kids. Which is two fewer dead/poisoned little kids than Walter White has justified. I think Walt is a complicated character and I love the show for that, but no, he is a monster. He made that turn when he stood over Jane's body and watched her die because he was jealous, and cemented it when he killed Mike because he saw him for what he was, and told him so. He's got some redemptive and sympathetic qualities, but the dude is terrible human being.

  • Wigamer

    I agree, he's awful. Horrible. I think everybody has the potential to be awful, though. A "monster," to me, is someone who manifests the worst aspects of human behavior most of the time. We forget that for 50 years, Walt might've been a passive-aggressive asshole, but I don't think child-poisoning or dissolving a 12 year-old's body in acid was a daily occurrence in his life. Did he choose a course of action that enabled him to do monstrous things? Absolutely.

  • knockloud

    Power corrupts, absolute power etc etc.

  • Dennis

    You said clearly exactly what I was thinking. I am not a Walter apologist, but neither can I dismiss him as a monster, which always seems a way of saying "You are not human." I always think "There but for the grace of God go I."

  • BarbadoSlim

    Good people can be compelled to do horrific things by any number of circumstances. I only try to base my experiences with them on how they treated me.

  • Mrs. Julien

    His circumstance is "There but for the Grace of God go I" and what hooks us in, but, for me, his response to it is not. I could not be that person. Being that person is what makes him so fascinating for me to watch.

    ETA: And maybe Jesse is the person we think we would be, if we got dragged into this kind of situation in terms of reacting like we have a soul. His initial motivation was greed and stupidity.

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    I have to say, while I don't know that his reactions wouldn't be mine, I do wonder, if I were as capable of the things he is, if I wouldn't be slightly more likely to go down that road. As it is, however smart I might be, I'll never be able to offer some magical super drug that everyone would want, so it's not something I need to worry about. If I were, if I had the capability to do that so easily, to snake in there and provide a superior-- maybe in my mind safer-- product that's going to get sold anyway, while believing I only have months to live....

    I think, while I can say that's something I'd never do, I'm not entirely certain I believe it. I think there are many other things Walt has done that I would never do, but I think whatever his many, many other failings, provided the technical wherewithal to do the same thing, and those same circumstances... I can understand that. That first step. And if I am capable of conceptualizing being capable of that first step, might I not also be capable of the second, however much I might believe I'd never do that? I think, when the show is asking that question, it's often at its most powerful.

    It's not that I ever would make the same choices Walt does, but I'm quite capable of considering the world in which, at the very least, I can see how he would, and I think it's that which had me along for the ride in a sympathetic way for awhile, despite the egotism, the spitefulness, the needless felonies. Walt was always an asshole, but that wasn't necessarily relevant in the question of, "If you could, would you?" that had me on his side for awhile.

    That said, it kind of only lasted until "Gray Matter." After that, the empathy never quite worked in the same way. It was always, "Maybe, if no billionaires offered me help, sure," or something to get back to that place. And after Jane, there was really no going back.

  • DarthCorleone

    Excellent job, Joanna!

  • Jezzer

    Well, this should end well.

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