The captivating tragedy of Walter White


Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Talia Winiarsky , Staff Writer

Most chemistry teachers do not keep a gun and hundreds of thousands of dollars in their lab-coat pockets. But in Breaking Bad, timid, meek chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) becomes a machine-gun slinging murderer, standing in his white briefs in the middle of a rural New Mexico highway, within the first episode.
At the beginning of the first season, which aired in 2008, when you think Walt’s life cannot get any worse, it does. His family in the suburbs of Albuquerque struggles to pay bills on his salary, his overbearing wife (Anna Gunn) is pregnant, and his teenage son is battling cerebral palsy (RJ Mitte III). Walt works two jobs, as a chemistry teacher and washing cars, and his bosses and even students bully him. After he collapses at the car wash, Walt learns that he has terminal cancer– he has never smoked. Thus begins the plot of the show: Walt teams up with his former student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), and transforms an old RV into his methamphetamine lab to make money to sustain his family after his death.
From then on, the plot accelerates. It’s not the kind of show to watch while mindlessly doing your homework or scrolling through your phone. You need to pay attention to every detail, every character, even if they might not seem meaningful at the time. They will reappear, seasons later, just when you’ve forgotten them.
The 62 hour-long episodes are packed with action, and rarely an episode goes by without violence or excessive drug use. There are many gruesome murders, and as the show progresses, Walt becomes more capable of violence and of taking someone else’s life without being fazed. He is able to return home to his family in his drab, neutral-colored wardrobe, and easily put on a facade that he did not just murder a man.
But perhaps the best element of the show is Walt’s transformation from protagonist to antihero. As creator Vince Gilligan put it, the show aimed to turn “Mr. Chips into Scarface.”
In the first episode, Walt gives a prescient lecture about the study of chemistry. “It’s solution and dissolution, just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation!” Just like the molecules he studies, Walt is always changing.
There comes a point where your allegiances switch, and you are no longer hoping that things will work out for Walt; for me, it was the end of the third season, when Walt decides to make a trade: kill an innocent man so that his own life would be spared. His partner in crime, Jesse, advises him against it, pleading for Walt to turn himself into the Drug Enforcement Administration instead and enter into a Witness Protection program. But by the end of the episode, the innocent man lays peacefully in a puddle of his blood, tea kettle still whistling and his music playing.
If you look up the show’s synopsis, it may make the show seem like a suspense or thriller. But when you watch the plot, you understand that the show is a tragedy more than any other genre. A good man turns bad.
In the fourth season, when his wife, Skyler, tells him, “You are not some hardened criminal, Walt. You are in over your head,” he angrily spits out, “You clearly don’t know who you’re talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger.”
One simple mistake causes Walt’s reversal: he chooses to cook meth in the first episode. At that point, he isn’t expecting to end the episode as a murderer. One decision causes a spiral of events that lasts five seasons.
And yet, even after I saw the first episode, somehow, I was not outraged at him. I justified my support for Walt by thinking that the other man deserved his death, since he tried to kill Walt. Besides, the only reason Walt cooks drugs is because he wants to provide for his wife and disabled son. But there comes a point when the viewer continues to grasp for a justification but cannot find any.
Walt seems unexceptional: he lives in a modest house, despite having millions of dollars, drives an old car, often with a broken windshield. Yet he represents what ordinary people, under the right circumstances, are capable of. And that, even more so than the stabbings and gunshots, is the scariest part of all.