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‘Breaking Bad’s Infamous Phone Call Becomes a Referendum on the Show and Its Audience

Interpreting 'Breaking Bad's Infamous Phone Call

It was clear five minutes after Breaking Bad‘s “Ozymandias” finished airing on Sunday night that Walter White’s now-infamous phone call would dominate the day-after discussion. But the best part of a week later, we’re still talking about it, and the call, and the reactions to it, have spawned a host of long-form reactions: the overnight reviewing equivalent of a spinoff show. 

Although it took some viewers (including this one) a while to catch on, most everyone agrees that Walt’s call to Skyler was intended for the police he knew would be listening, that in casting her as a terrified woman under the thumb of a homicidally violent drug kingpin, he was trying to exonerate her, to absorb her crimes into his own. The question was whether he might also have meant it, or at least some of it. When he accused Skyler of holding him back, of never being grateful for his actions, when he mocked her moral misgivings and called her a bitch, was that all just for show — the greatest lie in a long string of them? Or was there truth mixed in as well? Walt’s eyes flood with tears at the end of the call, but before that his voice is cold and rough, evoking the onrushing rage we’ve heard once before in his final confrontation with his ex-girlfriend Gretchen. 

Not even Moira Walley-Beckett, who wrote the episode, could seem to agree on the call’s true meaning. She told Vulture, “I personally feel like it wasn’t open to interpretation. I would hope that people got that it was an absolute ploy on Walt’s part.” But in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, she said:

What was fascinating about writing that scene was that the vestiges of Walter White had to play Heisenberg who’s a very real part of him and not the other way around. He had to identify the monstrous qualities of himself in order to effect the lie and protect his family…. I don’t think that anybody — or certainly not Walter White — can just be one thing so there will be vestiges and there will be conflicts within.

As the week went on, critics began to see the reaction to the call as a referendum not just on Walter White, but on the people who watch him — that is, Breaking Bad‘s audience. Matt Zoller Seitz wrote

The controversy over Walt’s phone call is really about the relationship between viewers and television. It’s about the discomfort that ensues when an episode or scene or moment forces us to take a hard look at why we watch a show, what we truly get out of it, and what that says about us…. [W]hat makes sense is the notion that Walter, like me, like you, like everybody, is complicated, and does things on purpose and on instinct, and on purpose while acting on instinct, and by accident, and in response to demons even he doesn’t understand; and Walter, like you, like me, like everyone, can be more than one thing at the same time, just as a great work of popular art can be more than one thing at the same time, many of them in seeming contradiction. Multitudes, multitudes.

The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum tied the reaction to the phenomenon of what she called the “Bad Fan” — that is, people who watch Breaking Bad to get off on the fantasy of Walter White as an all-powerful drug lord and resent it when Skyler or anyone else gets in his way. It was the unmissably ugly embodiment of the way the Bad Fan views Walter White, the emotional endgame for a man who believes only in himself. But it also, she went on, undermined those who see Walt as purely evil, a calculating monster. Whatever his motivations — and they are many, and contradictory — Walt threw himself under the bus to give Skyler a way out, and further implicated himself in Hank’s murder to give Marie closure.

Walt’s language was pretty much a PowerPoint presentation of abuser behavior, designed to make Skyler’s case in court proceedings. And yet it still had the sting of catharsis, letting Walt say what he felt: that Skyler is a whiner, a nag, a drag, responsible for anything that happened to her. 

Then there’s the point of view that Walt’s intentions don’t matter, that simply chalking the call up as an altruistic ploy neglects the truth of his words. Whether he means it, whether he realizes it or not, Walt has crushed Skyler down; he has broken his family to bits. In the Huffintgon post, Maureen Ryan wrote:

[W]hat struck me most forcefully about that scene was the ugly yet truthful nature of Walt’s words. As for his intentions, well, Walt’s most consistent excuse is that he never intended any of this to happen. So what? All these things did happen, he is largely responsible for them, and I don’t see nobility in trying to walk back one of his many enormous mistakes.

And then there’s NPR’s Linda Holmes, for whom the whole debate misses the point, since the consequences of Walt’s actions are what matters. 

It’s not that the show is a crock, and it’s not that the sophisticated considerations of fault and the human heart are a crock. It’s that trying to locate the humanity inside a man who has killed and harmed and terrorized, all with the underlying goal of making a lot of money and avoiding consequences, is a fool’s errand. Not because Walt is evil or isn’t evil, but because it doesn’t matter.

Blogger Abigail Nussbaum (no relation to Emily) got into the game on Thursday, and though she bewilderingly misses the copious qualifications in Seitz’s and others’ arguments, accusing them of a “weirdly binary” interpretation when she’s the one diving them into two camps, she’s dead right about one aspect of the call: “[L]ike The Sopranos‘s infamous cut-to-black ending, the phone call becomes a Rorschach blot.  Whatever you bring into it, in terms of how you see Walter White, is what you take out of it.”

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