Walter White is quintessentially American, but not because of his home in the suburbs with a pool, or his beautiful wife, or his job as a chemistry teacher, or even the countless wholesome family breakfasts he ate. No, he’s quintessentially American because of his delusion and narcissism, which manifest themselves in Walt’s (and our) notion of what makes a hero. He’s the everyman antihero. Walt's Mr. Chips-to-Scarface transition has shown us the danger of a 50-year-old man who both believes in superheroes, and that he, himself, is one.
The giveaway for me, was the underwear. The first time we see Walter White, he’s wearing only his underwear and a gas mask as he frantically drives his RV meth lab through the Arizona desert. Only superheroes wear their underwear in public, right? And then there’s the evil Indiana Jones-like Heisenberg hat.
Photo courtesy AMC.
Let us not forget Walt's terminal lung cancer, the catalyst for the entire series, which becomes less of a death sentence for the protagonist and more of a radioactive spider, as it prompts Walt to harness his intellect, capitalistic instincts, and sheer desperation to "save" his family. Those, along with his steadfast conviction that what he’s doing is right, could be considered his powers. They're also what made him so dangerous.
The underwear episode was appropriately titled "Box Cutter." It featured Walt’s boss, Gustavo Fring, slitting an overeager henchman’s throat with, yep, a box cutter, in front of a horrified Walt and Jesse in their meth super-lab. Remember? Not a minute earlier, Victor, the henchman in question, was replicating the process Walt used to make himself the Google of meth, revealing how replaceable Heisenberg really was. Victor wasn't killed by Gus or the box cutter, but by Walt's chemistry knowledge, business acumen, determination, and moral convictions. Walt sat in a chair, completely unarmed and vulnerable to the whims of a drug lord, and not only saved himself but had someone else killed. That’s power.
Walt doesn't believe he's bad. That's what makes him so dangerous, and causes us to sympathize with him. He continually convinces himself that no one will get hurt, and never acknowledges the fact that his enterprise — cooking meth — inherently damages people's lives. He is quick to cast blame on everyone but himself, chiding everyone because if only they’d done what he said, everything would be OK.
Yes, Walt successfully built a drug empire worth millions of dollars. Yes, the motive for his doing so — to provide for his family after he’s gone — is understandable, even if his chosen method isn't exactly practical. But the man with cancer became a cancer to others, fueled by the powers his illness unleashed in him. He tried to be a hero for people who didn’t need saving, and the less help they needed, the more he resented them.
The most poignant and wrenching scene in a series filled with them comes in season three, in the episode titled "I See You." Hank has been shot by Tucco’s cousins, and Walt's family — Walt, Skyler, and Walt Jr. — are sitting in the hospital lobby, comforting a distressed Marie. Walt talks about the day he hit every green light on his way to the hospital for a major surgery. In doing so, he provides exactly what his family always needed from him. They didn’t need a drug lord; they needed a hand to hold. Walt’s actions were inadvertently responsible for Hank’s injuries, but for that one moment, when his family needed a hospital-lobby hero, they got one. Unfortunately for them, it wasn’t the hero Walt wanted to be.
It’s a testament to Breaking Bad that, for all of its focus on a single man, the story is open to so much interpretation. What Vince Gilligan and his crew have done is nothing short of remarkable, but their most impressive achievement is to highlight how all of us, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, have a bit of Heisenberg in us. We’re not all aspiring drug lords looking to poison innocent children, but we all have times when we think we can fly, and fail to acknowledge the fact that we may fall. Gilligan hasn’t been breaking bad. He’s been breaking us.