So I’m really getting into Breaking Bad from the start. It is the show about a brilliant chemist turned failed entrepreneur, turned high school teacher, turned drug lord. Walter White has a disabled (and sweet) son, his wife is pregnant with an unexpected baby. He turns fifty and finds that he has inoperable lung cancer. Walt goes into the meth business so his family would have financial security after he is dead, Walt starts cooking meth with a former student. We later learn that Walt had sold off his share of a company that would be end up being worth billions. Walt is an embittered genius settles into a meek middle-class life. He becomes the drug kingpin Heisenberg. It is a slow Aristotelian descent into evil. It is very good – kind of like Groundhog Day run backwards with a lot more murder.
On twitter, Ross Douthat wrote that it was implausible that a man of Walt’s brilliance and will to power would be a sad sack teacher rather than a frustrated genius-type teacher. There is something to that. There is something more literary than real about how Walt channeled his need for recognition and accomplishment. For years, Walt turned all of it inwards, poisoning what, from the outside, should have been a reasonably satisfying and even noble life of a man working for a living and taking care of his family. He keeps it all inside and makes himself a kind of miserable no one else even senses. When all that frustration is directed outwards he becomes an awesome force of (sometimes inadvertent) destruction.
Douthat is right that a real Walter White would have exploded in smaller ways that would have made his later transformation more plausible. He would (sometimes) be the guy who found reason to belittle others, to one-up them, to make gratuitous displays of his knowledge, to complain about all that he could have been. It does make for a better story that he channeled his will into burying those aspects of his character such that, when he becomes Heisenberg, no one he knows ever suspects that Walt might be the new meth guy with the amazingly pure stuff – even though equipment that could be used to cook meth was stolen from Walt’s school.
One thing that interests me is Douthat’s characterization of Walt as a sad sack. That is definitely how Walt sees himself at the show’s outset, and we are invited to share Walt’s perspective. Walt interprets or ignores events to maintain that self-perception. But if you look at how other people treat Walt, it isn’t clear that they think of him as a sad sack. He is the head of the schools science department. His fellow staff members treat him with respect, concern, and trust. They all treat him as a good guy who does something that matters. Because of Walt’s bitter and buried pride, he looks at the concern as condescension, the trust as the perception of cowardice and weakness. Having failed to live up to his own expectations of greatness, he can’t see that other people see him as a productive and decent man. His pride and self-loathing destroy, in his own mind, the value of all that he does that is right. His pride propels him to do horrible things, and yet he finally feels a real sense of accomplishment even as he becomes a plague.
At one point, Walt is in the bathroom at work throwing up from his chemotherapy. The school custodian says he will clean up since Walt has to teach the kids. The custodian becomes a suspect in the theft of the chemical equipment. The custodian is cleared of the theft, but the discovery of some pot in his car and his record of marijuana possession leads to the custodian’s firing. A good and useful man’s life is basically destroyed. Walt quickly puts that out of his mind, but a central tragedy of the show is Walt never being able to accept that he was a better and more useful man when he was doing right.