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‘Breaking Bad’ and the Power of Vanity

'Breaking Bad' and the Power of Vanity

As I write this, it’s 18 days, 7 hours and 38 minutes until the final season of Breaking Bad, but the New York Times is already gearing up with A.O. Scott’s essay, “How Walter White Found His Inner Sociopath.” Although the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, has frequently cited his series-long plan to “take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface,” Scott argues that Walter was always Scarface in Mr. Chips drag. 

In truth, though, his development over five seasons has been less a shocking transformation than a series of confirmations. Mr. Gilligan’s busy and inventive narrative machinery has provided plenty of cleverly executed surprises, but these have all served to reveal the Walter White who was there all along. 

For Scott, Walter’s not a working stiff who missed his shot but “a disenfranchised member of the nerd aristocracy, exiled from his place in the elite by his own stubborn pride and the treachery of his erstwhile partners.” Walter, he says, lacks the “demographic realness” that the drug trade signifies in Jay Z or Young Jeezy’s raps, or that cooking meth does in James McMurtry’s “Choctaw Bingo.”

Scott’s right that Walter isn’t your typical meth cook, and that by using him as the show’s protagonist, Breaking Bad has largely avoided dealing with the rural, impoverished whites who have been hardest hit by the methamphetamine epidemic. But I bristle a bit at the notion that Walter’s murderous alter ego, Heisenberg, “was closer to Walter’s true face than the stammering, shambling classroom cipher he showed to his students and colleagues, the nebbish he was with his brother-in-law Hank, or the milquetoast who shared a bed with his wife, Skyler.” That pessimistic, nihilistic view of human nature is commonplace in the realm of TV anti-heroes, but it’s not the Breaking Bad I know. (It’s part of the show’s greatness that there can be more than one.)

At the beginning of his essay, Scott drills deep on the origins of Walter’s nom de meth, invoking the scientist whose uncertainty principle holds that there is no way to observe a molecule’s behavior without altering it. Walter, he writes, “was always adept at shifting his appearance depending on who was watching.” But where Scott describes Walter’s shape-shifting abilities as a kind of protective camouflage, I think the root of the character’s pathology is his need to be seen — not to blend in, but to stand out.

Walter’s origin story, and Heisenberg’s as well, is one of wounded pride and foolish choices: Spurned by a woman he loved, he cashed out of the startup company he’d founded with his romantic rival, and so missed his shot at financial success. Scott calls it “treachery,” but there’s no indication it was anything more than an unlucky decision, one his former partners tried more than once to make right. When Walter drops the mask of acceptance and snarls at the woman he once loved, you can see the way the rage and hurt has curdled inside him. In his mind, he’s a great man deprived of his shot at greatness. Creating Heisenberg lets Walter hide his true identity, but it also transforms him into a figure of myth, a self-made legend like the drug lords enshrined in narcocorridos. Walter’s an unknown, but Heisenberg is famous.

And still, it’s not enough. In the first season, Walter nearly gives up his newfound profession, but he relapses when he sees a strung-out meth-head clumsily buying cooking supplies at Home Depot. He can’t stand the idea of someone flooding the market — his marker — with substandard product. At the end of the most recent season, he’s a man triumphant, his only rival outsmarted, his business thriving, the authorities permanently thrown off the scent. But Walter doesn’t want to get away clean. He taunts his brother-in-law, Hank, a D.E.A. agent, about his failure to track down the mysterious Heisenberg, planting seeds that take root when Hank finds a copy of Leaves of Grass inscribed by the man Walter had killed. 

It was a contentious moment, and one that felt awfully contrived at the time. Surely a man as careful as Walter, one who takes such pride in his own superiority, would know better to leave incriminating evidence in his guest bathroom. But on reflection, it makes perfect sense. Keeping the proof of his criminality right under everyone’s nose is Walter’s ultimate victory, a constant reminder that he’s the smartest person in the room (until, of course, he isn’t). It’s not enough for Walter to win. Someone has to know. 

Read more: “How Walter White Found His Inner Sociopath

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