Kayla Upadhyaya: Stop calling Walter White an anti-hero

By Kayla Upadhyaya, Daily TV/New Media Columnist
Published September 9, 2013

Vince Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad” is well into its final season, and the Internet is alive with a general sentiment of “WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO WITHOUT IT?” I’m among the many “Bad” fans unprepared to let go. But first, I have a few things I want to say about Walter White and why I cringe every time I read a tweet along the lines of “Heisenberg is such a boss!”

Early on, I viewed “Breaking Bad” as another player in the anti-hero game. As the show tore through its explosive arc, I started to understand it more as a critique of “anti-hero” television. Critics love to draw comparisons between Walt and the iconic anti-hero Tony Soprano (arguably the man to spark the trend), but place them side-by-side and you’ll see that they function in entirely different ways. After the series-defining fifth episode of the show, when we see Tony kill a man with his bare hands in between college tours with his daughter Meadow, there’s little doubt that Tony’s a murderous monster, capable of inflicting harm upon everyone around him in an unflinching, almost mundane fashion. But when you look at Tony’s ongoing character arc throughout the series, it’s flecked with crises of conscience and moments of moral clarity. Tony was knowable, even charming at times, defined by boring little humanizing qualities we all have.

That’s been the general formula for most TV anti-heroes today. Their creators push them as far as they can into corruption and villainy and then snap them back with moments of vulnerability or selflessness or compassion. “Mad Men” ’s Don Draper manipulates, cheats, neglects. But he’s also haunted by death and pain, and it’d be hard to build a case that Don’s a villain.

Walt’s story moves differently. It isn’t marked by the same kind of moral oscillation of Tony or Don. The most commonly used descriptor in any review, interview or conversation about Walter White is “chemistry teacher turned meth maker.” On the surface level, it’s a correct assessment of the character’s trajectory. But it also reiterates this somewhat misguided notion that Walt underwent a complete character transformation with his occupation change. People love to talk about Walt’s “turning point.” When was the moment when Walter White truly broke bad? For some, it’s when he murders Krazy 8. For many, it’s when he lets Jane die.

I don’t see Walt’s journey in terms of a turning point or a transformation. It’s more accurately characterized as a linear descent that sometimes varies in how fast it plummets but never deviates from course. We’re not watching a hero lose his way. We’re watching a villain’s origin story and, as the eerily apocalyptic flash forwards insinuate, his eventual demise.

I can’t point to one murder or lie or twisted manipulation and say: “There. That’s where Walt crossed the line into unredeemable territory.” You have to zoom out to see that all of his wicked actions compound, as Heisenberg tears through his path of destruction, pulling others along with him. You can sit down and tally up everyone he has killed, lied to, or hurt, but you still wouldn’t be quantifying his villainy. How could you? Like any great villain, Walt operates in insidious ways.

When Walt refuses to let his longtime friend Elliott pay for his medical bills — which would effectively give him an out of the drug biz — he’s showing the true colors of his relentless hubris. Jesse may have pulled the trigger, but Walt is just as culpable for Gale’s death, and not only because he gave the order. Up until Gale’s execution, we always understood Jesse as the quasi-moral compass of the duo, simply because he seemed incapable of murder. Jesse was always uncomfortable with any of Walt’s plans that involved taking life. But Jane’s death changed Jesse. He blamed himself, became convinced he was a Bad Guy, and self-fulfilled the prophecy by showing up on Gale’s doorstep. And Jane’s death goes right back to Walt. Hank’s life started spinning out of control at the hands of Walt when he was still just the elusive, mythical Heisenberg to the DEA agent brother-in-law. And now that Hank knows the truth, he’s descending further into his obsession with trapping Walt, manipulating Marie, Skyler and Jesse in the process. I don’t wish to argue that the characters on “Breaking Bad” — who are all flawed in real, textured ways — aren’t responsible for their own actions. I’m just saying that Walt has a hand in almost everything “bad” that happens on the show.

The defining, noxious qualities that make Heisenberg the terror he is were always in Walt, just under the surface. In an early episode, we learn that Walt’s former business venture Gray Matter Technologies achieved huge success after Walt sold his share of the company. His partners made millions while Walt walked away with nothing. Even though it has been decades, Walt confesses to Jesse that he checks the company’s valuations weekly, torturing himself with what could have been. That’s obsessive behavior. Walt’s obsession, pride, megalomania — they didn’t magically appear when he stopped being a chemistry teacher. These traits just heightened when mixed with the high-stakes chemicals of the meth industry.

Think about it: Walt’s most empathetic characteristic is his cancer, and that has nothing to do with who he is as a person. It’s just a condition that, yes, impacts and informs some of his actions, but it’s not a human quality. In fact, he sometimes uses his cancer as a weapon to control others, like when he uses his relapse to earn Walter Jr.’s sympathy. If you’re still convinced that Walt’s top priority is his family, you’re just as delusional as he is. The cancer diagnosis triggered something potent within him: a desire to live. But that desire is only partly about protecting his family and mostly about preserving his own legacy. Have you ever heard Walt describe himself as a family man or a loving husband or a caring father? No, he’s in the empire business. He is the one who knocks. He is the danger.

Walter White is not an anti-hero, so let’s not call him one. It suggests that he’s deserving of our laud and empathy. Call him what he really is: evil. Gilligan has geniusly made his protagonist a villain, offering a critique — an antidote, even — of the anti-hero trope. As viewers, we still want to root for the protagonist, because that’s what television has conditioned us to do for so long, which is why so many “Bad” fans end up cheering for the sociopathic drug lord and viciously hating his trapped wife. This final season has made it all the more clear that we really don’t have any heroes on “Breaking Bad.” Gilligan tricking us into believing we ever did is a manipulation of Heisenberg proportions.