Redeeming Walter White
Walter White is such an insufferable asshole.
Maybe that’s not strong enough language. He’s become a monster, a sociopath with the ego of a super villain intent on world domination. Wouldn’t characters in the Breaking Bad universe now be better off if Gus Fring hadn’t taken a half measure and instead killed Walter when he had the chance? In retrospect, wouldn’t that have been a happy ending?
I can’t stand Walter. Like Skyler White, I’ve begun dreading his every move. It’s gotten worse since Walter managed to bump off Gus. At least with Fring around I could root for Walter as an underdog. Now, that rat-like desperation to stay alive has been replaced by a callous and constant need to dominate.
Walter doesn’t need to do what he does anymore. I don’t just mean the meth cooks. (But speaking of those, in the past I would’ve celebrated Walter’s awesome idea to cook in houses being fumigated with a ‘Yeah, Mr. White! Yeah, science!’ Now, seeing him come up with a brilliant business idea rankles.) He doesn’t need to wax criminal philosophy while grinding against a creeped out Skyler. He doesn’t need to casually manipulate Jesse (POOR JESSE) into blowing up his one stable, non-criminal relationship, but he does, and then is a dismissive jerk when Jesse wants to talk out the aftermath. Walter’s too busy swinging his dick and making barely veiled death threats toward Mike (as if) to listen.
I’ve lost sympathy for Walter. I’m not sure when this happened, but it was definitely before he puffed out his chest and declared victory over the chicken man. Where did it go?
Thinking back to the second season, when Walter’s despicable inaction basically caused a plane crash, I still had sympathy for him. Maybe because, as we saw in the stellar 'Fly,' Walter felt guilt for letting Jesse’s junkie girlfriend choke on her own vomit. Back then, he still felt something besides pride. The earliest I can pinpoint turning on Walt is back in season four’s 'Shotgun' when, after too many glasses of wine at a dinner with the extended family, we see Walter’s ego begin spinning out of control. He wants to drunkenly brag to Hank about what a meth genius he is; it isn’t about taking care of his family or surviving, it’s about winning.
Vince Gilligan has pushed the celebrated cable anti-hero further than anyone. He’s pushed Walter past the point where I feel comfortable even calling him an anti-hero. His closest competition in the storied history of dirtbag TV leads is The Shield’s Vic Mackey, but I never lost sympathy with Vic the way I have with Walter. Vic, at least, always had a code, could always convince himself (and us) he was doing the right thing, and cared about his people. Walter is an egomaniac, a total shit, and has become careless with those closest to him. He’s a villain.
So, when does the cancer come back?
We’ve hit an interesting point in the lifespan of Breaking Bad. There are 13 episodes left - that is, perhaps not coincidentally, a normal season size. The next episode is titled “Fifty-One,” so it’s safe to say we get that awkward birthday celebration Marie referenced last week. And then, twelve episodes later and assuming Gilligan doesn’t throw us any curveballs, we’ll presumably see Walter spend his 52nd with a Grand Slam Breakfast and a massive gun in the trunk of his car.
Can enough happen in the next year to make me sympathize with Walter again? Is Gilligan primed for one of the biggest redemption arcs in television history?
He sort of has to be. On-the-lam Walter with his beard and scruffy hair, missing his wedding ring while recreating sentimental scenes of his past, purchasing a weapon that might as well be sold in the “scores to settle” section of illegal gun stores… this is a dude that looks of a mind for some bloody revenge. However, at this point, Walter isn’t setting up well to be the revenger. I’d much rather see a bearded but clear-eyed Jesse loading up his guns to get some vengeance on his former teacher.
(Of course, Walter’s flash-forward has me dreading what might’ve become of Jesse, but I spend most of my Breaking Bad viewing time worried about Jesse.)
Unless Gilligan’s season opening tease turns out to be something like monster movie foreshadowing, with a banished Walter returning to destroy those that thought they were finally rid of him, we’re going to need to see Walter laid low and penitent real soon.
If not cancer, will it be Skyler’s suicide that cuts Walter back to size? (I’d have wagered more heavily on this before Walter hid Chekhov’s ricin in the wall.) The realization of just how ill-equipped he is to run a drug empire? Or perhaps the unraveling of that criminal empire by his dunderheaded, beneath contempt brother-in-law? The untimely demise of his boy wonder sidekick?
All of the above? It might take all of the above to get me pulling for Walter. Or the systematic elimination of Jesse, Mike, Hank, and Huell. In that order.
To get me to a point where I’m on Walter’s side again, where I can actively root for the evilest man in Albuquerque to settle scores, Gilligan needs to put him through the ringer. Walter needs to know and understand just how horrible he’s become. I need him pathetically breaking down in tears in front of his son, part two. And meaning it.
Seriously, dude. Say sorry.
A redemptive arc for Walter White could make for 13 extraordinarily compelling episodes of television. Even more interesting is the fact that Gilligan doesn’t necessarily need to go down that path. Maybe what we’ve been watching won’t conform to the anti-hero’s journey, but is instead the origin story of television’s first lead villain. Perhaps there isn’t revenge and redemption coming for Walter White – maybe ultimate failure is what awaits the mad chemist. I can’t decide which end would be more satisfying.