When writing character you strive to make them feel realistic. You want them to have good, strong, relatable sides to them, but also flaws and sharp angles. You want to surprise your characters with situations they have no possible way of being prepared for, but you also want them to surprise you with how they deal and overcome the obstacles put before them. Because then they will feel human, and that’s what makes the audience relate to them, root for them and want to watch them for a two hour movie. Or five seasons of television.
I would like to talk to you about a character that showed me the rather subtle art of how rubbing me in all the wrong ways can feel quite right. His name is Walter White and he is a chemistry teacher turned meth cook in the recently ended series Breaking Bad.
This text will contain major plot spoilers and so I urge you to leave off here if you’ve yet to watch the show.
A colleague of mine pointed out to me before I sat down to watch the first season – because he couldn’t quite contain his eagerness – that Walter is not a classically sympathetic character. And he really isn’t. He’s a supplier of hard drugs. He’s a menace. His product ruins lives. But what my colleague thought was so brilliantly done by the writers was how they gave him an incentive that is indisputably relatable: he is dying of cancer, his insurance won’t cover his extremely costly treatment and he refuses to leave his family – his pregnant wife and disabled son – destitute.
He comes up with the plan of partnering up with a former student of his – Jesse – when he spots Jesse fleeing the scene of a methlab bust. Jesse can help Walter, or so Walter figures, with the ins and outs of the dealing aspect, while Walter knows he has the chops to cook pure, nearly undiluted crystal methamphetamine due to his long background in the art of chemistry.
I am going to jump straight into what is so annoying about Walter White – and it’s a calculated type of pretty amazing annoying, still it’s what’s so annoying about him: he is, at his core, an arrogant, self-righteous, selfish, proud, ignorantly stupid ass.
Also, He’s Dislikable
The first time I realized that I didn’t believe his shtick about everything he’s doing he’s doing for his family was in season three, when he’s half-desperately trying to convince his wife Skyler about this very fact. I listened to his voice and knew that the trembling emotion and conviction I heard in it I had heard so many times before when he was bull-shitting his way out of dire or unwonted situations that I couldn’t tell anymore if he was being honest or actually doing what seems to come so naturally to him: lying.
It was in that moment in season three that I understood I actually didn’t like Walter White. I didn’t relate to him anymore, the way I could for most of the first and part of the second season, when his slow change from meek ordinary man to ball-buster with a shaved head came to its full fruition. I rooted for him then, in spite of all his faults.
It was also in that moment in season three that I understood that I hadn’t believed his shtick for a while. Actually, as far back as the first episode. Because cleverly enough the writers planted this character trait in him very early on, as early as the scene where he’s watching the news and sees a ton of money collected at a methlab bust and he asks his DEA brother-in-law Hank if that’s the kind of money they confiscate every time. He looks as though he’s had an epiphany when Hank tells him “more or less”.
Even though Walter – probably – wouldn’t have acted on it if he hadn’t gotten the news of suffering from lung cancer, the seed of possibility was planted before cancer was ever a factor. The fact that he gets such an amazing excuse to go down that avenue and explore it is almost an afterthought.
Walter suffers from the fact that he feels he hasn’t gotten to make any real choices for himself. He signed off on what is now a multi-billion dollar business and missed out on the chance for greatness once before, he will not be that dumb again. And so his own ambition clouds his judgment again and again, starting early on in season one when Jesse, a hell of a lot more street smart than stuffy chemistry-teacher Walt, tries to make the point that they can’t simply expand their territory where they sell their product, there’s a hierarchy. Walter discards this, as he does most of the advice he gets throughout the seasons, and because of his actions one of Jesse’s friends gets shot.
Walter is volatile, foolish and oftentimes downright stupid. It’s not even that he has a hot temper that gets away from him over and over – though it also is that; it’s that he believes himself to be right without question and so he never questions himself. And he never listens. Even with things going up shit creak more often than not, there is no humility.
Now, a word I’ve already used is calculated. And clearly this is all very calculated and, as such, it’s is quite beautifully written. How would an ordinary man make the journey from a classroom to the ordering of the murders of nine witnesses? It’s believable, but – and here is the thing – it is believable because Walter has always carried this around in him. The bitter regret at where he’s ended up, the jealousy of the success of the business he left behind, the feeling that he is better than this life he’s leading, that he deserves more, that he has wasted his talents.
He is an artist when cooking meth. Jesse states it in the first episode, excited by the class of the product. And Walter knows it. And it becomes a badge he wears in scorn of anyone attempting to outdo him. His ego is immeasurable because the truth is that no one cooks better methamphetamine than he does. No one in the whole world. And damn anyone who might try to contradict him, including Jesse, who ultimately is his disciple and laps up the chemistry lessons he’s getting as though there always was a repressed student in him simply waiting for the chance to rear his head.
Is It Bad If You Want the Main Character to Die Horribly?
Walter White is designed to win you over so that he can then begin to act like the biggest jerk alive and you still cannot simply leave him to his fate and go cook dinner or do laundry or some other mundane everyday task. Because where’s the fun in that? No, I chose to stay. And I quietly waited to root for him again, all the while beginning to hope that he’d get seriously injured, possibly a little blown up. Just to get taught a lesson.
I had a hard time deciding, while watching the final two seasons, if it’s a good thing to root for the main character to get killed or if it’s actually quite tiresome. Crashing towards the end of this journey with Walter, following his struggles to steer clear of the DEA, the drug lords, the pitfalls he kept creating for himself by making one mistake after another, I began to wonder if not caring about him was actually doing a disservice to the show. Because wasn’t I supposed to want Walter to be okay in the end? All I wanted was for Jesse to be okay. The scenes with Walter in the last half, if not all of season four became an exercise in patience. One that, to be perfectly honest, wasn’t that easy to take even though I binge viewed the series and didn’t stick by it loyally for the duration of its airtime.
The anchor of the show, and as one reviewer called him – the heart, is Jesse Pinkman. If Jesse hadn’t been there, sharing in the perils of Walter’s rash decisions, I would have terminated my viewing a long time before ever reaching the final handful of episodes. And those final handful of episodes – though I would say the entire fifth season – were well worth the wait. Because here the writers slowly begin to peel back the layers they have created for the show.
No, it’s Not Bad When the Main Character is Designed For You to Want Them to Die Horribly.
In season five characters finally begin confronting Walter about his behavior, about his lying and his selfishness. There is a nice sense of slow catharsis starting with Mike calling Walter out, painting him in his true colors. There is a rushing feel to the momentum in the final episodes, where the rupture Walter suffers with his family is something final and irretrievable.
But as a proper sucker I also feel an enormous sense of compassion for Walter when he aids his wife Skyler and takes away every last suspicion that she has been his accomplice, raging at her over the phone of how she never had a clue as to what he was doing while the DEA are listening in. In that moment I began to feel a little more respect for him again. Because it is the first selfless thing he has done in a very long while and it is also, in a way, him releasing Skyler. It is his acknowledgement that their marriage and life together is truly over. Walter White is dead.
Of course, the irony of it all is that he told himself that he started on this path for the love of his family, and though he succeeded in procuring a fortune and securing a way for his children to take part in it once they come of age, he also alienated himself from those he loves completely. It is a poetically tragic and fitting ending to a rampage that was never about anyone else but himself. The Heisenberg legend may live on, but Walter White will slip into obscurity and will not be remembered fondly by anyone, not even by his family.
On that note, I am ending this short character study. I could write three more pages on the relationship between Walter and Jesse, but I’m not gonna, yo. I’ll save that for another day.
Authored by Annelie Widholm