Every Breaking Bad fan I have spoken to can pinpoint the moment that they lost all sympathy for Walter White, the show’s ruthless protagonist. Shortly after his fiftieth birthday the struggling chemistry teacher is hit with a shocking diagnosis – terminal lung cancer – and has subsequently reinvented himself as a manufacturer of crystal methamphetamine, ostensibly so that his family will be able to support themselves on drug money after he’s gone. After various misadventures Walter pulls off his biggest score to date – £1.2 million in exchange for a consignment of his trademark ‘blue meth’ – but there’s a problem. His business partner, unruly twentysomething stoner Jesse Pinkman, is entitled to half the cash, but Walter is reluctant to hand it over as Jesse has recently entered into a chaotic, heroin-fuelled relationship with beautiful relapsed addict Jane Margolis. ‘I will not finance your overdose,’ he tells Jesse, but his girlfriend Jane has other ideas, and tells Walt that she will expose him as a drug dealer if the money is not delivered forthwith.
Walter delivers the money as promised, but later on that night breaks into Jesse and Jane’s home – to talk, we don’t know. The young couple have fallen into a restless, dope-addled unconsciousness and, as Walter approaches the bed, Jane begins to overdose in her sleep. Automatically Walt tries to go to Jane’s aid before realising that this is the perfect out for his problems – if Jane is dead, there’s no blackmail threat. And so he watches her choke on her own vomit. The scene is harrowing because of the facial torment Cranston projects. You see Walter’s pain and indecision on his features – he’s still human enough to be affected, but degenerate enough to ignore his human instinct.
The show begins almost as sitcom pitch – bumbling suburbanite decides to break into the drug game – and the first two seasons have a light comedic feel to them as Walter and Jesse attempt criminal enterprise and street negotiation in their inept middle class way. By the time we’re on seasons three and four, things have grown tense as Walter’s transition into the terrifying gunslinger Heisenberg kicks in, his success builds, the risks are higher and the people he’s up against more serious. Series five shifts the tone way past the crime mode, into a kind of gothic horror.
By this point a meth kingpin with no competition, Walter becomes Caesarian, almost Ozymandian in his criminal grandiosity; the montage where he has ten witnesses murdered in three different prisons within the space of three minutes is especially chilling. In the second half of series five, characters are openly referring to him as ‘the Devil’. The man’s very appearance inspires dread: waiting in a restaurant, the businesswoman Lydia Rodart-Quayle shows visible terror when Heisenberg’s grizzly shadow appears in the doorway. Stephen King is a great fan, and no surprise, for the show is perfect for an aesthetic such as his. Cartel sigils appear among the hopscotch grids on the sidewalks. Take a vacation and men will break into your house and concoct mysterious potions. The hide in plain sight. The horror in the suburbs. There’s an opening scene where Walt, having been on the run from a national manhunt, returns to his family home. It is a blackened husk with ‘HEISENBERG’ sprayed on one wall in gaudy graffito. It has become a haunted house.
‘Chemistry is a process of change,’ Walter tells his students in the very first episode. The new wave of serious US dramas – Mad Men, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under – were mainly about changelessness: protagonists who refuse to change, or strive for change and fail. As Brett Martin put it in Difficult Men, his study of the HBO era: ‘Recidivism and failure stalked these shows: Tony Soprano searches for something to fill the gnawing void he feels: he fails to find it. Jimmy McNulty swears off the twin compulsions of booze and police work; he goes back to both, while the rest of The Wire’s most zealous reformers find themselves corrupted.’ Conversely, Walter does change, but most of the changes are negatives – he crosses every moral line he ever knew, until Breaking Bad is a world where the poisoning of a child becomes a viable business strategy. There is a telling flashback when Walter remembers a younger, better version of himself, explaining to an old flame the elements that make up a human body. He recalls this while cleaning up the remains of a rival dealer that he has reduced to blood and bone through a bathtub of hydrochloric acid. From outlining the chemicals that comprise the human form to… uncreating a person.
Tony Soprano, despite his crimes, always came off as a genial, clubbable fellow – his relative liberalism, his love of family, his indulgence in good food, designer suits, wine and women always made the big man seem all too human and loveable. We are also inclined to judge Tony less harshly because he was born into the mob – it’s all he’s ever known, and circumstances have conspired to keep him there. Walter by contrast gets into the high end of his own volition, and ignores repeated opportunities to get out. He lives a frugal lifestyle and, while he enjoys the odd glass of whisky, displays almost no interest in the luxury trappings of the drug tycoon. In particular, Walter’s appearance and wardrobe – the zero-shaved head, goatee beard, and interchangeable array of pastel shirts, bomber jackets and slacks throughout the series create the impression of a focused, ascetic and obsessive personality. Walter White doesn’t need cocaine, bottles of Kristal or Swedish callgirls – the buzz of criminal adrenaline is more than enough. He has the zeal of the convert. ‘I feel awake,’ he tells Jesse at the beginning of his journey. ‘Because I felt alive,’ he confesses to his ex-wife Skyler at journey’s end.
‘Your characters do not have to be likeable,’ the writer Tom Fontana was once told by an HBO exec. ‘But they do have to be compelling.’ And isn’t there something compelling about Walt’s restless and compassionless new nature – something that stirs a strange beast in all of us? Walter is arrogant, pedantic and bullying. He is a near-genius who could have made a contribution to the world but instead chose to sell crystal meth, an evil drug even the most passionate legalisation advocates would struggle to make a case for. And yet part of us warms to the crafty old devil: he displays true ingenuity and spontaneity, he’s always got a plan, he has a certain style. (I have met women who confess a mild sexual attraction to Walter White. ‘It’s the voice,’ they say. ‘And he’s kind of enigmatic.’) The story becomes increasingly horrific but we follow Walter into the abyss because we have so much invested in the characters and the narrative.
HBO drama is preoccupied with masculinity (‘A man provides. Because he’s a man’) and after a lifetime spent in compromise and counted cost, Walter White embraces his frustrated aggression and a simplistic, shoot-first solution to life’s inconveniences and problems. If, as Martin suggests, people watch The Sopranos for the vicarious thrill of watching someone do the things they’ve dreamed of but would never dare do – then with Breaking Bad they are watching someone who has escaped that vicarious dream. It is the call of the abyss, as hollow and tempting as the New Mexico desert that defines the show as much as its characters. It is the deadly curiosity that we feel when we walk across a high bridge. It is what King called: ‘the lure of emptiness and the pleasures of zero.’
Walter’s colleague Gale Boetticher – an intellectual dreamer, like Walter himself without the aggression – explains that he got into the meth business because he was sick of the straight academic world with its petty vendettas and shallow intrigues. He recites Walt Whitman’s ‘The Learned Astronomer’:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
That is Walter’s story – and also the story of the American new wave of TV writers who took risks on slow-burn, complex stories with deep character development and narrative values. If publishing were prepared to take such risks, we might again see the novel as a popular art.