Why do we care about Walter White?
Because someone made it impossible not to.
While no one seemed to be watching, we have been quietly assimilated into a new creative age. Following the noted shifts from early 20th Century modernism to the later post-war break into postmodernism we have found ourselves hovering in the ambiguous space known as post-postmodernism.
Much as the millennial generation itself was known for a long time as the Gen Y following Gen X, we can now start to see the flesh on the bones of where our creative juices are moving. A recent interview on NPR highlighted the new book Difficult Men by Brett Martin. In the book, Martin argues that James Gandolfini (may he rest in peace) launched a “golden age of television” dominated by the anti-hero with his portrayal of Tony Soprano. He goes on to highlight the recent string of hit shows that feature leading characters that are as human as we come.
While Conrad found the heart of darkness and while Vonnegut was fire-bombed in the middle of it and even as Palaniuk beat it out of people, we now find ourselves feeling empathy for the darkness (and humanity) itself; there is no right way or wrong way, there is simply the characters we connect to.
The creation of Don Draper, Dexter, Walter White, and, on the opposite end of the genre spectrum, Liz Lemon, notes an important shift that has been a slow change coming in the perspective we have of what a leading character is supposed to be, what they are capable of doing and, most importantly of all, how we feel about them. There is a new humanity being found in the darkest/unlikeliest of places and it is important to note that we are feeling for it.
We find ourselves wanting to see the triumph (or downfall) of the character that the creator places her or his emphasis on despite knowing who is being truly good in a given plotline. We want to see Don Draper succeed or watch him fall (the direction doesn’t matter) and the fallout around him doesn’t matter. It is the story that matters. The same holds true for Walter White on the run in New Hampshire. The story of the individual woman/man transcends what is right or wrong and they remain free from our judgment.
Dexter kills people? I barely noticed.
We find ourselves emotionally invested in anti-heroes in a transformed, new light. Arguably, this shift in perspective has been a slow-train coming (as most cultural things are). For the latter half of the 1990s and into the 2000s we have been seeing the increase of the word “gritty” attached to our television, movies, novels and the arts in general.
Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club from 1996 (and add David Fincher’s 1999 movie on top of that) features the train wreck of a narrator/Tyler Durden free falling throughout the novel while we anxiously wait to see what happens when someone shakes everything to its core. In the mid-2000s, Junot Diaz brought us The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in response to the hero epic. Oscar was never going to succeed, we knew that, but we loved him enough to watch him anyway.
The contemporary narrative concerns what happens on the way down or what happens with no promise of going up.
Characters have become free to exist with or without their redemption, free of titles or attachments or expectations (on our part), who are simply themselves in what they do and we find empathy in the way we see them and feel for them.
The characters transform mostly in a downward spiral, but it is our personal redemption for them that keep them afloat. The new creative age is marked in the forgiveness we show the characters for the sake of the story, the story itself doesn't have to redeem them.
Bear with me.
Watching a character such as Walter White or Dexter or Liz Lemon comes with the promise that they will do nothing inherently "right." Maybe they will have a brief shining moment that lets us relax and picture a happy ending, but we know that they will be falling again very soon. We can’t help but continue to watch them until the end.
(Liz Lemon is a slight exception to this, but she does have elements of the modern anti-hero that cannot be overlooked)
It is what we owe them as a good character. We want to see them through because they simply existed for us.
This is what is striking in our new creative age.
We are given characters that we can’t help but care about because they are compelling, not because they are the “hero.” They are what we expect as humans and how we expect the world to be; independent and full of stories that speak beyond right or wrong.
We care about Walter White because we are beyond wanting anything from him. We are beyond a happy ending or a tragedy; we want to see him be Walter White, wherever that leads him.
Let’s call it, “Renewed-humanism.”