Saturday, August 10, 2013

Why Do People Love Walter White?

I'm on a "Breaking Bad" kick. Over the past two weeks, thanks in no small part to Netflix, I've seen all of the first three seasons, and Ashley and I have just begun the fourth. Intense, dramatic, suspenseful, all that stuff. It keeps you guessing, keeps you interested in the characters and their always present humanity, and it does so in a way that doesn't condescend to the audience. (So please, if you do decide to leave a comment NO SPOILERS, I beg of you.)

Here are thoughts so far...

But I realized something recently. Why had Walter White, the mercurial lead character of the show, seem to resonate so well in the times we're living in, finding an easy niche in the zeitgeist? Sure, we love our anti-heroes. That's been true since forever. I know there's something satisfying about the underdog taking the bull by the horns and changing his/her circumstances. It's an idea most of us have little trouble relating to. So that Walter White manufactures the purest crystal meth the world has ever known, a drug notorious for its power to ravage its users / abusers so completely that they are often unrecognizable (something the show hardly ignores, e.g. Wendy the meth-head prostitute), is something we're readily willing to forgive. I would say there's more to it than that, though.

What makes "Breaking Bad" and its anti-hero unique is the way in which this storyline seems so closely tied to undermining the American mythos, namely "The American Dream." Walter White embodies the extremes we're now required to go to achieve the so-called success of a more than comfortable life. Think about it, as the story begins, Walter White is a high school chemistry teacher. He pulls in somewhere around 43,000 dollars a year, so paltry he needs a second job working at a car wash to support his family. In what time in place has that been true? That a man with a job that should comfortably place him in the middle class cannot afford his very average lifestyle. Mortgage payments are too steep. And what's worth, while his wife is pregnant with his second child, he is diagnosed with lung cancer, "inoperable," they tell him. His employer provided insurance is so insignificant that it won't scratch the surface of the cost for his treatment. So he decides he must operate outside the law. It's the only way he can provide for his family in the way they deserve, as he sees it. It's the only way he can leave them not only debt free but in a situation that could allow them to flourish -- college tuition entirely paid for, as one thing he finds himself calculating (adjusted for inflation, or perhaps a little bit above the rate of inflation as is the current trend).

Many people identify with Walter White because he exposes the American Dream, the speciousness of the idea in a modern context. Look at how hard I work, and look at what I'm forced to do, the evil wicked things I'm forced to do, if I truly want the financial success so inextricably tied to the notion of "making it" in America. What a bleak but terribly true television program. And so we want Walter White to succeed.

1 comment:

  1. Very cool analysis. I know you said no spoilers so I'll restrain myself on that count. But another great thing about the show is that it won't stop with this level of complexity. Can you continue to root for Walter White as his misdeeds tick upwards? Hank's character in the show mimics ours in a way. As Hanks searches for the mysterious Heisenberg, the viewer too is slowly learning about Walter White and what he is ultimately capable of. Unlike Hank who presents a very black and white notion of morality and manhood, the viewer will be charged with picking up the investigation that Hank does not pursue, questions of morality and existentialism. The show deeply questions the dichotomies of our values and the relatively shallow ways in which we typically explore them. Walter White, much like Tony Soprano, expresses a moral dualism that Americans have been fascinated by. Like Tony Soprano, Walter White does some fairly heinous and harmful things for money. Also like Tony Soprano, he loves his family. It's quite possibly this duality that Americans seem to enjoy. Much as we love our heroes, we also like to see them get dirty because this better represents our potential as human beings.

    But let's get back to Hank for a second. I know I said earlier he was a "black and white" character. In actuality, his character is very interesting within the story of the show. Hank, in his honesty and forthrightness, expresses a vulnerability that we also love. Perhaps the greatest betrayal in the series is the way Walt dupes and tortures Hank, a man whose very values keep him from discovering Walt as a drug kingpin. Perhaps this is where the show deepens your point about American economics. In the end, the man who does everything "right," who pursues nobility like Hank, ultimately suffers an equally stunning betrayal, a far more embarrassing betrayal in some ways than Walter's lowly job or even his cancer. The cancer is Walt's own body attacking him. Hank's betrayal is is his own family. I'm not sure which is worse in the end.

    It's a great show. Perhaps what I love most about it is that Vince Gilligan never shies away from where his story takes him. There's an old rule in writing that says, "if you lock a character in the trunk of a car, he has to find his own way out." In other words, it's cheap to have a lightening bolt miraculously strike the car's locking mechanism and free its captive. Vince Gilligan has always had his characters find their own way out, or conversely, deeper into their prisons.