Sunday, July 28, 2013

Walter White is not a badass.

Breaking Bad is coming back. At long last, the story of Walter White is coming to an end. I could not be more excited and neither could you. Unless, of course, you haven't watched the show yet. Let me be clear about this right up front: I make frequent, wholehearted recommendations to watch Breaking Bad on a fairly regular basis in my day-to-day life (as of approximately one year ago, when I began watching). Whenever people drop a casually cynical "TV just sucks nowadays", this show is my go-to counter-argument. It's a laser-focused, filler-free character study concerned entirely with its own artful and carefully crafted depiction of one man's slow yet steady self-destrucion. It's also one of the most important shows of the last decade. If you've been following some of the other stuff I've written around here, you know that I'm a sucker for moral ambiguity. Well, that's kind of Breaking Bad's entire thing, so naturally I ate it up.


Okay, let's do this. You probably saw the title of this entry up top. At some point in the show's run, during Walt's rise to power, there's been this viewpoint gaining a lot of traction that Walt has somehow morphed from meek and mousy into a stone-cold badass. I have never agreed with that stance, at least not entirely. Oh, Walt has certainly changed, no doubt about it. He's been very deliberately pushing every last boundary in the little world he's built for himself, all the while desperately trying to convince everyone around him (including himself) that he has no choice but to continue for the sake of his family. But has he learned anything in the past year of his life? Is he half as good at lying to others as he is to himself? Has he separated himself entirely from that meek yet slow-simmering cauldron he was when we first met him? I submit "no" to all of the above. And he is certainly no more of a badass now than he was the day he began cooking meth.

Walter White is many things, but first let's talk about what he is not. There are two instances that I frequently see being singled out as examples of supposed badassery. The first comes when his wife Skyler implores him to abandon his criminal life and come clean to the authorities. Walt is having none of it, and dives headlong into a heated and largely inaccurate speech about how untouchable and indispensable he is in the meth business. In an effort to convince his now-terrified wife that he is not in danger, Walt goes too far, inadvertently revealing just how much of a part he played in murdering the only character in the show that didn't have it coming. He immediately appears to be ashamed of himself, realizing he didn't mean to say it so badly when he just wanted to appear intimidating. Even Walt's not impressed by his own faux-macho posturing.

That's the clearest example of how Breaking Bad, on numerous occasions, will juxtapose Walt's proclamations of being in control of his life with how little control he actually has. The second alleged badass moment comes when Walt is at the height of his power, drunk with overconfidence and self-satisfaction:

This scene serves as the culmination of Walt's power fantasy. He sees himself the same way a Hollywood crime thriller movie would idealize the drug kingpin lifestyle, and he puts on a show hoping to project that very image. That's really the crux of this whole scenario. Walt may have been able to convince himself that he's a badass, but he's not convincing those around him, and he certainly isn't convincing us. That's part of what makes him so pathetic. It's not a recent development, either. As early as the first season, Walt has this false image of how drug dealers do business, adopting a shady alter-ego complete with a pork pie hat and sunglasses. Somewhat understandable, as the only frame of reference a squeaky clean guy like him could possibly have for criminal life are movies and television. Right away, both his partner and his enemy chastise him for wanting to do deals in cliched deserted areas with no witnesses instead of, say, at the mall. Walt eventually admits he has a lot to learn, but the foundation for his little fantasy world has already been set. For all his talk about wanting to remain cautious and professional, Walt is very resolutely neither, and everyone around him knows it.

So, if not badass, then what is Walter White exactly? He is weak, impotent, egotistical, hypocritical, arrogant, selfish, greedy, prideful, stubborn, volatile, self-sabotaging, paranoid, manipulative, deceitful, cowardly, and pessimistic. He has cripplingly low self-esteem. He takes incredibly dangerous risks. He possesses a defeatist attitude, readily taking the easy routes and always jumping to the worst possible conclusions. He has a dangerously fine-tuned self-preservation instinct that trumps all else. He refuses numerous golden opportunities for help from those closest to him, and he has thoroughly earned everything he has coming to him. None of those qualities strike me as being particularly positive or ideal.

Maybe it's just a pet peeve of mine, but the word "badass" has become overused to the point of redundancy, especially on the internet, where words like "epic" have already been distorted beyond usefulness. On a show like Breaking Bad, where there are no moral absolutes or one-dimensional characters, a word like "badass" seems awfully reductive.

I will say, however, the one point when I was genuinely impressed by Walt came during the final two episodes of the fourth season. His careful machinations were awe-inspiring as he worked to rid himself of his biggest threat, not so much in a way resembling a typical badass but in a manner that struck me as the surest sign yet of his manipulative, sociopathic nature. Remember watching Alien for the second time, when you already knew what Ash's deal was, and it lent his every scene an extra chilling quality? That's precisely the effect of watching these two episodes, terrifying in just how completely that knowledge changes the tone.

All I knew from outside sources before diving into Breaking Bad was that the protagonist is supposedly this awful, evil human being. Upon first watching, and seeing this hunched and sniveling old man that I instead just felt sorry for, I remember keeping an eye out for the heel turn, the point of no return when he would suddenly become someone to root against. This singular moment never comes. Walt's transformation is gradual and virtually silent, as he keeps taking progressively bigger risks and makes increasingly flimsy justifications for his actions. That hesitant "this is wrong" look in his eyes slowly disappears. He stops weighing the pros and cons of murder. Before long we begin to hope for his destruction simply because it would be a kindness, a relief to see him put out of his misery. He's a car wreck you can't look away from. To my amazement, he is now such a thoroughly unsympathetic monster of a person while still possessing nearly all of the traits that defined him at the show's outset. I don't know how it happened, but Breaking Bad manages to accomplish through Walter White what almost no other character arc in recent memory has.

Brief tangent: Did you ever notice how if this were any other show (say, a procedural cop show), Hank would be the gruff protagonist and Walt would be the recurring villain constantly eluding capture? Hank even goes through an arc that fits your typical flawed hero, going from puffed up and overconfident to dangerously obsessive, then to the lowest he's ever been, and ever since then he's been diligently building himself up into exactly the sort of man he needs to be to bring down the bad guy. His character's progression mirrors Walt's exactly, and makes him the perfect foil for his brother-in-law, exactly the "endgame" final boss that, quite honestly, we should have seen coming since the beginning.

And so here we are, with Walt standing right on the precipice with nowhere else to go but down. Finally, the game is up and it's entirely his own doing, just like Mike told him it would be. As the fifth season opens, we see a brief glimpse of what becomes of Walt in the future (and only now do we have some context for how he reaches that point). Something awful has clearly happened, but beyond the scruff, has anything changed in him? Has he taken away some small lesson from his experiences? And then we see him refuse a hostess' offer to pick up the tab for his meal, and we realize: Classic Walter White, always unable to accept a handout. He hasn't learned a damn thing, and now he's about to do something incredibly stupid.

I recall some part of me wanting the series to end on a sobering note, a reminder that, though we may root for Walt's demise, somewhere deep down inside there is still that sad sack of a family man who just wanted to do right by his wife and children, someone who may see even the merest hint of redemption. Is that still remotely within the realm of possibility? We'll find out soon enough.

"To W.W., my star, my perfect silence."
Full Post

No comments:

Post a Comment