By Luke N.
April 5, 2020
I just finished watching Breaking Bad (2008-2013) for the very first time, and I felt I had to write an essay about it. The show was hands-down the best I’ve ever seen. The acting was phenomenal, the directing was innovative and nuanced, the cinematography was gorgeous, the soundtrack was fantastic, and the writing, from plot to character development, was unprecedented. I could write for days about the countless number of themes and visual devices the creators of the show used, from foreshadowing to irony to genius metaphors. I could write for several hours on the Orson Welles-like directing style. However, the one thing that I truly want to discuss is the one thing that engrossed me and so many others. That is, of course, the character of Walter White.
The “man who knocks” is manipulative, selfish, greedy, arrogant, and utterly despicable, yet I found myself rooting for him the whole way. I knew I shouldn’t root for him, I knew I should have hated him with my guts, but I couldn’t help myself. The thing is, I’m not the only one who feels this way. In fact, it seems that many fans of Breaking Bad find themselves experiencing what I’ve come to call “The Walter White Phenomenon”. The creator of the show, Vince Gilligan, in an interview with Conan O’Brien, said that even his mother, a sweet, kind old lady, wanted Heisenberg to succeed and get away with all of his wrong-doings. Conan himself admitted to rooting for the former high-school chemistry teacher. So, in this essay, I’m going to attempt to get to the bottom of why so many people find themselves siding with Heisenberg.
Before I begin talking about “The Walter White Phenomenon”, I want to discuss his character arc. At the beginning of the show, Walt is getting his butt kicked by life. He is an extremely over-qualified high-school chemistry teacher who has terminal cancer and very little money. Later in the show, we find out that Walt had helped start a multi-billion dollar company only to get in an argument with the friends he had started it with and walk away with a mere 5,000 dollars. He has spent his whole life being scared and timid, never really taking action and improving his life when he had the chance. But, suddenly, Walt is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, which sparks a new sense of fearlessness and confidence within him. The cancer brings him to decide that, in order to pay for his treatment and to leave some money behind for his family, he is going to apply his knowledge of chemistry to cooking and selling meth. Walter White takes his first baby steps into becoming Heisenberg. At this point, Walt’s actions do have justification. Sure, cooking met is not necessarily the route many of us would have taken, but you can understand what led him to the decision. However, this quickly changes when Walt is offered a job back at the multi-billion dollar company he helped create. Not only that, but the friends he helped create it with offer to pay for his cancer treatment. Surprise, surprise, Walt says no. Suddenly, there is no more justification for Walt’s decisions and now he seems to be acting purely out of pride. Walt believes that accepting the job and the money would be taking the cowardly way out of life.
From here, Walt begins spinning his never-ending web of lies and manipulations. He lies about where the money is coming from, he lies about his second cell phone, he lies about where he was when Tuco Salamanca kidnapped him, he lies about poisoning Brock, he lies about killing Mike, and he lies about Gus Fring. He lies so much that it got to the point where I sometimes couldn’t tell when he was telling the truth and when he wasn’t. He begins manipulating people, too. He manipulates Jesse into working with him and killing Gus, he manipulates Skylar into believing he’s a good man, he manipulates Hank into thinking he wants to know about his work and help him catch Gus, and he manipulates Saul into continuing to work with him. He also begins his murderous tendencies. He lets Jane, the love of Jesse’s life, choke on her own vomit, he kills Gale just to save his own neck, he poisons a child, he kills Gus, he blows up part of a nursing home, he kills Mike and his imprisoned co-workers, he almost kills Jesse, and, finally, he kills Todd and his Nazi friends. It is clear by season three that the good man that Walter White used to be is disappearing, and Heisenberg, a monster, is taking his place. Yet, I still rooted for him. Let’s talk about why.
I believe the primary reason I root for Heisenberg is because I’m a sucker for underdog stories, and Breaking Bad does that beautifully. As I said before, at the beginning of the show Walt is getting his butt kicked by life. In the beginning, you can’t help but feel sorry for this sad, weak old man. But Walt begins to turn the tables on life. He suddenly gains a whole new level of confidence and self-satisfaction that he never had before. At the end of the show, the audience is finally met with the realization that Walt actually loves cooking meth. Not only does he love cooking meth, he loves being the best at it. In the final episode, he admits to Skylar, “I did it for me.” Finally, he has total control over his success. For once in his life, he has the utmost confidence in himself and his ability. He is finally putting his genius into something that will make him an abundance of money. As he puts it, “I feel alive.” He takes life by the throat and says, “You know what? No, it’s my turn now.” I suddenly realized that this was the moment that I had truly been waiting for. I had been rooting for Walter White because I wanted to see him finally come to terms with who he is, what he does, and why he does it. Maybe, just maybe, many of us root for Walter White because we wish we could be like him. No, I don’t mean many of us wish we were murderous meth cooks. I mean many of us dream about being more confident with ourselves and our abilities. I think many of us wish that we could turn the tables on life. I think, deep down, even subconsciously, I wanted Walt to finally just be a villain. Because, somehow, I found it easier to root for the villain instead of the man who was on the fence about who he really was. Maybe I’m just a sicko. Nevertheless, Walt undoubtedly becomes a bad-ass, not only against life, but against all of his enemies. He concocts a genius and perfect plan to finally destroy Gus Fring, and he comes back and brutally kills the Nazis, who, months before, had taken millions of his dollars and killed his brother-in-law, Hank, right in front of him. The timid, scared old man becomes a bad-ass, unstoppable kingpin. I think, at the end of the day, many people couldn’t help but root for the underdog.
The second and final reason I believe many people rooted for White (and this is not necessarily why I rooted for him, this is simply why I think others rooted for him) is that they could still see traces of a good man within him. “The man who knocks” still had his moments: when he cried and begged for Hank’s life, when, despite being the cause of his tears, he comforted a crying Jesse multiple times, when he took one last sorrowful, loving look at his children before his ultimate death, when he gave Jesse the choice to kill him, when he told Skylar she shouldn’t have to suffer the consequences of his bad decisions, when he finally stopped lying to Skylar and told her the truth about why he did what he did, when he decided not to kill Jesse in the final episode, and the countless times he desperately tried to protect not only Jesse’s life and his own family’s life. Through all the villainy and evil acts, the audience could still see traces of a good man, the underdog, someone they could truly root for. At the end of the series, Walter White still never truly became Heisenberg, and a sliver of a good man was still left in him when he died.