According to Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, Walter White is a man having the worst mid-life crisis. Ever. He’s certainly having a bad hair day – after all those chemicals and bouts of radiation that he’s having pumped into his system. You know, those kill-or-cure treatments that his teacher’s health insurance policy won’t pay for…. If ever there was a poster boy for Obama Care, Walter White must be it.
Breaking Bad is currently gripping viewers in the US but if you want to watch it in the UK, you have to either view it on Netflix, blinkbox or buy the series on DVD. I expect that many of you reading this will have seen way more of the series than I have. At the time of writing I am still on Season Two. But, given the dearth of decent TV on during the summer holidays, it won’t be long before I catch up.
Is Walter the greatest monster, currently on TV? I thought that, until a friend pointed out, that before Walter, the greatest anti-hero on TV was Tony Soprano, from The Sopranos, also broadcast on cable. Walt, in his alter ego as Heisenberg is as violent towards the people who cross him as Tony is. While Tony physically abuses women (a particularly disturbing aspect of his character); Walt’s abuse is psychological. He treats his wife Skyler with contempt: manipulates her, and lies to her face, while telling her he loves her. There is a turning point in Season Two when Skyler asks Walt about whether or not he has a second mobile phone. And what does he do? He looks at her tenderly and then proceeds to lie through his teeth.
Like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Breaking Bad is a story for its time, broadcast during the longest recession of recent times. It mirrored the collective gloom and struck a chord with those supporting families and struggling to make ends meet.
Walt and Skylar’s economic fortunes were perilous at best, as their son, Walt Junior has cerebral palsy and he will no doubt need care and support for the rest of his life. Walt is forced to take a particularly humiliating second job at a car wash, where his students bring their cars for him to clean. Then the family are hit by the double whammy of an unplanned baby and Walt’s lung cancer.
Walt’s transformation from mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher to Heisenberg, meth cook and then drug overlord evolves gradually. The term ‘breaking bad’ is a euphemism from the American South, when a person steps off the path of the straight and narrow and goes astray. In Walter’s case he’s gone so far off the right path that there is no turning back. Or is there?
The implied justification for Walt’s bad behaviour has been the need to pay his medical bills and provide for his wife and family after he’s dead. Even Jesse, Walt’s co-cook, sidekick and partner-in-crime believes this. And Walt never corrects him, despite every opportunity to do so. Because if Jesse knew the truth, he might not be so keen to spend hours at a time, locked away in the middle of nowhere, with a monster.
Because if what Walt is doing is really about the money, he would have accepted the offer from his friends Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz to pay for his treatment. After all, this would have been what Walt was owed, anyway; as he co-founded their company, Gray Matter Technologies. When Walt he left the company he sold his share for a measly $5000, when Gretchen and Elliott subsequently went on to make a fortune.
Vince Gilligan said, in a recent interview on Channel 4 News, that Walt’s diagnosis is the real motivating factor, as, for the first time in his life Walt has freedom from fear. The worst is going to happen – and soon. So why waste what time he has left by worrying what people think? And in Season Two, when Walt counsels his brother-in-law, suffering a bout of work related post-traumatic stress (indirectly caused by Heisenberg’s antics), Walt tells Hank that his own diagnosis has been incredibly liberating. Before he knew about his cancer, Walt would like awake at night, worrying about how he’d meet his mortgage payments or what people thought of him. Oh, how deliciously ironic it is, when Walt tells Hank he should stop worrying about the responsibilities of being a DEA agent.
In a perverse kind of a way, Walt is an aspirational role model for men, in particular, going through their own mid-life crisis, during these tough economic times. The aspiration is, about being able to do bad things, rather than wanting to emulate Walt’s life style. He’s not exactly able to enjoy the fruits of his ill-gotten gains, is he? You don’t see Walt swanning by the pool in the Caribbean, sipping on a mojito. I don’t imagine that the chance to cook up crystal meth in a RV in the middle of a sweltering New Mexico desert is on many bucket lists. It certainly isn’t on mine.