'Breaking Bad': A Portrait of Walter White

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When I decided, on a whim, to try "Breaking Bad," the show about a chemistry teacher-turned drug dealer, my expectations were neutral. I'd stayed away from the series because I wasn't sure about the subject matter, and I was even less sure about Bryan Cranston, the affable Hal from "Malcolm in the Middle," as a man gone wrong.

But the show drew me in, grabbed my attention and kept it until I had no choice but to finish it. All four seasons. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of "Breaking Bad" is the chemistry teacher himself, Walter White.

When we meet him, Walt is the guy we all know, the one who can be depended upon to be dependable, the one who shows up to the meetings and the afterschool events with his one joke meant more as an offering of friendliness than humor. But once he learns that he has lung cancer, he sheds that person as though he was a facade he'd been wearing his entire life, becoming dark and awash in rage, morally empty. In Season 1, his actions come off like anomaly, as though he is a desperate man trying to find a way to provide for his family under the weight of his impending death.

But by Season 4, you start to wonder if this Walter White, the one who manipulates the people around him to orchestrate murders, the Walter White who will use a gun without hesitation or use a car as a weapon or stalling device, if that Walter White is the man he was all along. Certainly there are plenty of men like Walter before his break, men quietly simmering in the anger of lives that are not what they expect, not what they think they deserve.

In a way, the pre-drug Walter is like a Willie Loman, who, after years of going unseen and unconsidered, himself demands that "attention must be paid." While in "Death of a Salesman," it is Willie's wife who sees him, who recognizes him for what he has given, what his small life has cost him, Walter has no such champion in his wife Skyler, and it is Walter himself who dramatically undertakes a morally corrupt path to grab that attention, to make his life bigger in what he believes is the short time he has left.

And it is clear that the acknowledgement, every bit as much as the money, drives Walt toward an existence as a completely transformed drug lord. He cannot stand that his son or his wife, or his D.E.A. agent brother-in-law Hank should be basking in the fruits of his incredibly dangerous labors without knowing who tended the garden. He wants to be the big shot, and he's found a way to be the big shot, even if he's subject to the whims of others, like king pin Gus. Yet it still enrages him when Skyler doesn't understand that he is the chess player, not the pawn, though it goes against his self-interest to belabor the point.

By the end of Season 4, Walter White is not a good man. It is questionable whether he ever really was a good man, or whether he did the right thing because it was the path of least resistance, and all the while he longed for the excuse to become something different, something unrestrained by what the world views as right. He no longer has bouts of conscience in response to his actions. He's become comfortable in his role as the epicenter of all the trouble that spreads to the people around him.

And yet, here's the brilliance of the show. I cannot wait for next season to see how Walt evolves next, because as objectionable as he's become, as ruthless and as cunning, he's still a man who loves his family in the middle of a world even darker than himself.

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