Trying to be a good little culture vulture, I recently watched seasons 1 and 2 of Breaking Bad and a bit of season 3. But when I got to the season 3 ep where Walter goes to Skylar's office to confront her boss (with whom she's started an affair), I couldn't take it any more. I could not watch one more hour of this asshat and his passive-aggressive asshattery.
Walter White is a terrible character. I don't mean "a complex mix of good and evil, deeply layered and conflicted." I mean terrible. The stylishness of the show—its great cinematography and direction—plus the soap opera nature of its plotting threaten to obscure just how big a jerk he is.
Let's take his marriage. In the first two seasons, his wife Skylar knows he's up to something. He disappears for hours or days. She catches him in lies big and small. She realizes he has a second, secret cell phone. He occasionally turns aggressive and hostile to her and others. She does the right thing: asks him to please tell her what's going on. Over and over. And over and over he dismisses her, makes up outlandish stories, acts the rational husband to her paranoid wife-ishness.
I'm a fan of the advice columnist Carolyn Hax, and Carolyn Hax says one of the most destructive things one person can do to another is to vitiate their inner voice. Wives and girlfriends write to her about suspicions that their partner is having an affair, which the partner denies with either eyerolling or anger, turning the tables with "I can't believe you're accusing me of this." The wife becomes the bad guy, the one on the defensive. Carolyn always directs the letter writers to their inner voice: "You don't trust this person. Face that fact." Sometimes the letter writer will later have found out that the guy was indeed having an affair and feels ruined by the months of denial.
Having someone attempt, over a long period of time, to discredit your inner voice, your instincts, your perception of reality . . . it's one of the worst things someone can do to another. It's the heart of abuse, what allows abuse to continue. It's why Carolyn doesn't recommend that people harass an abused woman about leaving or try to talk someone out of a relationship that looks to be bad news. They should ask questions and make their support clear, but never tell them that they don't know what they're doing or that they need to ignore their feelings and simply do what others are telling them. This, Carolyn points out, is exactly the message of the abuser: you're stupid and can't trust yourself.
Walter replays this scenario over and over with Skylar. And what's worse, he drags others into his power play. After he finally admits that he's making meth and she tells him to leave and stay away from their children, he moves back into the home and dares her to take action. Their teenage son Walt Jr. is a clueless observer, angry at his mother's coldness and rage toward the calm and patient Walt Sr. "This isn't your mother's fault," he'll say, his sweetness in the face of her hostility giving lie to his own protestations. When she calls the police in an attempt to oust him from the house, they come upon him with an apron on, feeding their baby daughter while watching the pasta pot, the picture of good suburban fatherhood. All the while secretly telling the world: she's crazy, she's crazy, she's crazy.
And if this seems like the only way out, it's not. He could sit down with his son and say, "Listen, I've done something really terrible. I can't tell you what it is, but trust me, your mother has very good reason for her feelings. But despite this terrible thing I did, I want to try to rebuild our trust." That's a far different thing than what Walt Sr. does, and the only moral response.
Then there's his role as a teacher. He's a high school chemistry teacher who hooks up with a past student, the fumbling Jesse, to make meth. We admire Walter's competence, his seriousness, his bad-ass way with chemicals, which allows him to make bombs on the fly and improvise when they run out of gas in the desert. We are meant to understand that Walter is one of those teachers, slightly dowdy but dedicated, whom students remember with affection. Long into their new relationship as meth producers, Jesse continues to call him "Mr. White," a nod to Jesse's essential boyishness and innocence as well as Walter's essential goodness.
But the reality is that Walter is terrible to Jesse. Right from the start, he shows not one bit of compassion or patience or affection for this lost kid. He yells at him when he makes mistakes, treats him like scum that he's forced to deal with, won't give an inch of warmth in the face of Jesse's stabs at friendliness or schoolboy nostalgia. In one episode Walter and Jesse watch a demented drug lord murder one of his underlings, the two of them united in horror at what they're seeing. And the next episode Walter is in his face, telling him to do the same.
At moments like this, Walter reveals a cold-hearted cruelty that we are supposed to be able to reconcile with his basic decency and love of family. This dichotomy is crucial to the series. We are supposed to understand Walter as a complex, deeply flawed character of the type that peppers American culture and is generally so fascinating. We are meant to respect his knowledge of science, this competency a newish trope in nerd culture that asserts that the people who have skills really will inherit the earth. And there may be in Walter's character a bit of vicarious thrill for all of us bland, office-job-holding suburbanites: we may look harmless, but there's a lion just beneath the surface. Push us too hard, and you'll see. You'll see.
But there's a fine line between complexity and contradiction. Not every incongruity of a fictional character can be reconciled by appealing to human complexity. At some point, you can't claim to love your family and then manipulate them. You can't lie to them and put them in the sights of Mexican drug cartels. You can't be brutal to your teenage student and then be the soul of understanding to your teenage son.
This is particularly true with Walter's refrain that he's making meth for the good of his family. He has chemotherapy bills, true, but he also has many ways of paying for his chemotherapy that don't involve meth cooking. But these other ways involve taking charity, a notion that seems to make Walter psychotic. When his son sets up a donation site online, the camera shows Walter's eyes becoming more furious with every $10 donation that appears: he wants credit for providing for his family. When his former business partners offer to pay for chemo outright, he politely declines, all the while raging that he was cut out of the business right as it took off, making the others multimillionaires and leaving him a lowly public school teacher. Did he ever approach his former partners about fair compensation? Did he ever talk to a lawyer? There are responses to such a situation that lie between being a doormat and being a psycho.
The nature of Walter's socioeconomic status is another tripping stone for the series. He split from his business partners ten or fifteen years before, but there's no indication that Walter has come to grips with what happened. He's angry that his friends ended up rich, as if no time has passed. Perhaps he could have faced his own mistake in leaving the company. Perhaps he could have decided he has a legitimate claim to some of the company's profit and sued for compensation. Man up, buddy. Tell your friends you want money not out of charity but because you are owed it.
At the very least he could embrace the life he has with gusto and appreciation. The series wants us to perceive his life as (initially) homey and sweet and yet somehow sad: the lighting is always dim inside their home, and he and Skylar always look a little dumpy. But if these design and costume choices are supposed to reflect how Walter and Skylar feel about their life, I'm not sympathetic. He has a nice home, a good job, and a wife who doesn't work. Grow up; millions of people live, literally, in garbage piles.
I understand the show's popularity. Not only is it well made but it appeals to something primitive in us: our desire to have the ability to dominate our circumstances. Movies like American Beauty and Falling Down celebrate the conformist who rebels and is revealed to be a formidable force of nature. Breaking Bad represents the absolute worst take on this theme because Walter White finds his strength, his manhood even, not in virtues like endurance and honesty but in rage and violent daring. That's not what even an antihero looks like.