In this Man of Character column, Man of Many takes a look at some of popular culture’s most notable male protagonists. We discuss the origin of the character and why they have had such an enduring influence on the popular consciousness.
“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really – I was alive.” – Walter White, Breaking Bad
There are few premises in the history of television that are as immediately captivating as the one that underpins ‘Breaking Bad’ – high school chemistry teacher turned drug lord – ripe as it is with dramatic tension, conflict and thematic heft. As a narrative idea, it promises to be a heady confluence of the type of crime and family dramas that account for so much of modern television’s output.
Yet the credibility of the character of Walter White, the downtrodden family man who “breaks bad” following a terminal cancer diagnosis, hinges firmly on the believability with which his descent criminality is portrayed. Thankfully, Bryan Cranston proved more than equal to the task, crafting an enduringly engaging character whose motivations and actions remain thoroughly convincing throughout.
Vince Gilligan, the creator and showrunner of ‘Breaking Bad’, cast Cranston on the basis of his performance in an episode of ‘The X-Files’ that Gilligan had written. Believing Cranston to be the only actor capable of the ‘Mr Chips to Scarface’ transformation required of the character, Gilligan faced reservations from AMC, who struggled to see past Cranston’s turn as the hapless Hal in family comedy ‘Malcolm in the Middle’.
After approaching John Cusack and Matthew Broderick, both of whom declined the part, AMC reluctantly agreed to cast Cranston, who immediately took a proactive role in helping craft Walt’s persona and appearance. His commitment to the role was duly rewarded and Cranston earned overwhelming critical acclaim for his performance. He won a slew of awards, including three consecutive Lead Actor Emmys (winning four in total), and one Golden Globe for Best Actor, an award for which he was nominated four times.
Yet, outside of Cranston’s remarkable performance, the character of Walter White and his criminal alias Heisenberg, remains a singularly engrossing development in our understanding of the modern, flawed protagonist. The idea of the sociopathic protagonist, of which Walt is undoubtedly an exemplar, can be traced back to James Gandolfini’s performance as Tony Soprano in HBO’s ‘The Sopranos’. The modern archetype of the sociopathic protagonist, Soprano starts the series as a bad man and slowly gains our sympathies as he struggles to balance the conflicting demands of both his biological and criminal family. The same can be said of Don Draper, whose philandering ways serve as something of a plot twist in the ‘Mad Men’ pilot and whose entire identity is a façade.
In contrast, Walter White is notable in the pantheon of sociopathic leads purely because his original intentions were entirely noble. A dying man trying to do right by his family, Walt immediately has our sympathy and support, even as we recognise the unsavoury means by which he plans to help them. Beaten down and facing his own imminent mortality, he sets off on the path that he believes is best given his unenviable position.
Yet, whilst Walt starts the series as a flawed underachiever, his ascent to powerful drug baron triggers a latent sense of grandiosity and sociopathy, resulting in a series of increasingly repugnant and morally reprehensible actions. Such is the mastery of ‘Breaking Bad’, that Walt’s turn to evil is a journey on which we, as the audience, become wilful passengers. We follow him at every step, simultaneously repulsed and captivated by Walt’s transgressive behaviour.
It’s a journey that comes to a head in the Season Five episode ‘Ozymandias’, widely considered ‘Breaking Bad’s finest hour and the culmination of Walt’s choices throughout the series. The Greek name for the Egyptian King Rameses II, Ozymandias was also the subject of famous poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley and Horace Smith, a figure whose once great empire crumbles into nothingness despite his grandiosity. The parallel with Walt himself is obvious, as a man whose inherent hubris and avarice indelibly taints his own legacy.
Alternatively, Walt’s transformation can be seen as the logical consequence of the world he entered into – a man corrupted by a corrupted system that requires a disturbing level of desperation and immorality in order to survive. As Friedrich Nietszche wrote, “beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.” So can Walt be seen as a victim of circumstance, a caged animal that lashes out at the world that has imprisoned him.
Whether Walt’s transformation is simply the natural result of his experiences or the realization of his true nature is one of many enduring debates and a shining example of the ability of Walter White and ‘Breaking Bad’ to capture the popular imagination. It’s a character whose many flaws and strengths serve as both a cautionary tale and a testament to the way art shapes our understanding of humanity.