Comic-Con 2012: Breaking Bad Breaks Down Walter White


From a fan perspective, Breaking Bad is a show that's so much fun to strip down and take apart. We examine every single scene, every single word uttered, every batshit move that Walter White concocts to weasel his way out of another jam. We're obsessed with the show, and rightfully so, because it's the type of series that's so open to discussion among its fans.

But we're not the only fans out there. The way the cast and creator talk about the show with the reporters is unlike anything I've ever experienced. The cast was broken up into groups, and when Aaron Paul, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Anna Gunn, J.R. Mitte, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, and creator Vince Gilligan sat down at our table, they proceeded to have an in-depth conversation about the show among themselves, all with incredibly astute observations and opposing views on the meaning of certain scenes and what's going on with Walter White. Especially what's going on with Walter White.

Obviously the trend since the pilot has been Walter transforming from mild-mannered chemistry teacher into, as Gilligan says, Scarface. Everyone in the cast is supremely fascinated with the character and could spend days just talking about what motivates him and his alter ego Heisenberg.

"What drives this character Walter White, when he could get out?" asked Odenkirk. "I think about the car, when he's supposed to return [Walter White Jr.'s] car. And he just goes fucking crazy, for no reason!" Odenkirk's tone then changes as if having an "Aha!" moment. "There is a reason. He's angry, right? He like got this rage inside of him. Like that whole story about how he was partners with that guy in that business [Ed. Note: Grey Matters], and that guy stole his girlfriend. And [Walter] was the genius behind the company, but he's made no money from it. And he doesn't want any fucking money from it. He's got this anger and resentment inside him."

Just then, Banks interjects. "And why, you may ask? Why does he have this anger and resentment?"

"Because he's a normal guy!" said Odenkirk.

"Because he's a normal guy!" Banks agreed excitedly. "He just happens to deal in crystal meth and kill people."

"He's just got a little bit more rage inside him than a regular person, enough to push him over the edge," Odenkirk said.

Gilligan took a different approach to explain Walter's behavior. "There's the old saying about Hollywood that I like to quote. Success in Hollywood doesn't turn you into a bad guy, it magnifies those flaws that are already in you, that you've had all along. One of the things I love about the show is that everyone has their own take on it. I don't think my take is any more invalid that anyone else. I'm not being disingenuous when I say that. I don't think my take on this is any more valid than anyone else's because I'm so close to it I can't see the forest for the trees sometimes. But in my opinion, Walt's always had those weaknesses, those foibles, and bad character traits within him, he was just too scared to let them out. I think the cancer diagnosis freed him, liberated him from a great deal of fear that he felt, which you would think is a good thing. To live a life, a life of fearful self-constraint seems like a terrible thing. And for the most part it probably is. But he's gotten a little too free these past two seasons, and the darker side that I think was probably always within him is just raring to get out."

Walt's often been described as a sociopath, but Gilligan doesn't think that's an accurate description. "A sociopath, as I understand it, is someone who doesn't have any care at all about the feelings of others. So I don't know if in that strict clinical sense that Walter White is a sociopath. I think he's capable of feeling guilt for the bad things he does. I think he felt bad about watching Jane die, for instance. I just think he gets further and further down a very dark path whereby feelings of guilt, feelings of morality, feelings of, 'Gee, I used to be a really good guy and strive very hard to do the right thing.' Those disappear into the distance, and the feelings of power overwhelms all and the feelings of guilt and morality succumb to that. So sociopath is maybe a strong word, but he's definitely a bad dude."

If anyone knows Walter White best, it has to be actor Bryan Cranston, who crawls into the skin of Walter several months out of the year. Like Gilligan, he sees this current Walter as a man filling out his own space. "I think he was without emotion before," Cranston explained. "When he was in depression, there was nothing there. He was putting one foot in front of the other. He had everything covered over, so his emotions were calloused because [he] wasn't using them. He loved and he knew responsibility, but he can't help but feel for what he missed, his opposrtunities. Depression is unfortunately a very common thing, so I think a lot of the audience will relate to that. Now, all of a sudden, he's going through it. He has a year to live. But he's living it. He's going through every emotion. He's using every intellectual particle that he has. His physical body is completely involved, emotions are going. He's feeling fear, and power, and greed, and avarice, and hubris. He's like a glutton now. [makes hilarious eating sounds.] He's eating it all, and he's expanding, so what you'll see is him expanding, the breadth of this enterprise."

Since Gilligan said no one's take on Walter is better than anyone else's, I'll put in a few cents. I don't think Walter is as "bad" as people say. Yet. He's certainly not a sociopath, but he's headed in that direction. Most of the things he's done have been out of necessity, to save his own life. When he poisoned Brock or killed Gus, it's to survive. Walter isn't going to put anyone ahead of himself and his family, but how wrong is that? Isn't that natural? If he has to send a kid to the hospital, so be it. Walter has found something he's really good at, and he's going to exploit after a 50 years of being told what to do. He doesn't do things violently because he enjoys being violent, he does those things as a last resort. Not because he doesn't want to, but because it's smarter not to. However, I expect him to tip over to the bad side over the next 16 episodes. Walter isn't a truly bad man yet, but he's getting there. Fast.

What's your take on Walter White? Do you think he's a sociopath? Do you think he's a survivor? Do you still root for him, and why or why not?



Notes

– What about Jesse? "In this season, Jesse is walking on eggshells," Paul says with a hint of fear. "All of our characters are a little worried about [Walter]. Where do loyalties stand?" He paused, then thought, and summed it up perfectly: "Shit is gonna get crazy."

– Mitte says that Walt Jr. has to find out about his father eventually, but isn't sure how his character will react. Walter is his dad, and Walter Jr. idolizes him. The White household will become a "house of wolves," he said.

– Norris believes Hank is the final foil for Walt, the ultimate test and the man that will be there in the end. "In terms of structurally, there was Tuco, there was Gus Fring, and at some point, we're going to deal with Hank and Walt in a confrontation. And I think that's the last part of the big structural part of the show."


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I love how two quotes from (in my opinion) one of the greatest movies of all time can be used in summation of Walter White:



"Madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it needs is a little push..."



Cancer was, for Walter, that push.....as I am sure people have already established or implied below. Without knowing his past, it's impossible to do anything but speculate about the kind of man he was. But I think what Vince Gillian said is how I have always viewed Walter.



The traits were there. The rage and darkness was there. But so was the fear, that mental barrier, similar to what most people have that stops then leaping from building or in front of cars. The fear of consequences. Around the time he left Grey Matter and Gretchen, he clearly had issues with things.....but rather than embrace them and have it out, he fled.



But then he got cancer; he got his push....



...and suddenly he wasn't afraid anymore. What consequence could he suffer worse than staring at a seemingly inevitable death, a slow and potentially painful one at that. From then on, as he stated to Jesse, he was awake. He wasn't afraid anymore; and that is why from the off, he allowed his true feelings to come out. If he saw people being obnoxious in the bank, he would usually, probably, just hate them silently.....but now he blew up the car's car. When confronted by Gretchen, he told her probably what he has wanted to for years.



He was free.



But, as he saw, consequences were to be had.....and suffering, and not just for him. And so he began to break further and further and escape down the rabbit hole in order to cope with these. But the more he travels and the further he goes, the less he cares but the more he is able to do and all the more suffering he brings about. It's become a vicious cycle. And I don't think there is any escape for him now. How can he go back to a normal life after this? With all those crimes and deaths on his conscious, I think the only way forward for him is to the bitter end or to a point where he either has no soul left or can truly justify it financially or some such. To go back to his normal life would make everything that came before seem meaningless and therefore torment him more, guilt would consume him.



I saw some people talk about when he truly changed from a sympathetic guy into a monster. Was it letting Jane die? Poisoning Brock? Etc...? But I think it was the moment his cancer went into remission. He had the out; he didn't need to strive for the money anymore. He had a choice. But he chose to continue. He loved the game and the power and the money. And to hell with the consequences. To hell with everyone else. He wants to survive, that's understandable. But over the life of a harmless old neighbour he wants to use as a canary? Not-so-much. He is the junkie now. And I even think it's bordering to hell with his family. He's put them in more danger than he has gotten them out of. And I wonder sometimes, if they were the threat to his freedom and survival, would he react as he has with all the others?



I think when his cancer went into remission, that was the point, the moment, that Walter White was lost.



Do I still like the character? Yes. Do I still think he is the most complex and interesting character on television? Yes. Do I think some of his reasons and actions have been justified? Yes. Do I think he is sympathetic? No.



Because, to end on the second of the two quotes I mentioned, "You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain....!"
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Even through all the bad stuff that Walt has done over the course of the show, I find it terribly difficult to root against him. This show is so unique because I want Walt to not get caught, yet I want Hank to put all the pieces together.

I agree, I don't think Walt has truly become evil yet. I think we will see the complete transformation during the final 8 episodes. I mean everything he has done has been to spare himself, Jesse, or his family. Poisoning Brock may have been an absurdly extreme measure to win back Jesse, but like Mike said in season 3 "No more half measures".
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aw come on .. its simple .. we root for Walter White because he is the novice who keeps escaping from the really bad guys .. he beats them at their own game. It doesnt matter whether he is good or bad. It's enthralling because after every escape .. there is a deeper hole he has got himself into .. and thus a new situation to escape from.



If the creators turn him into anything more than the novice .. it will not be the same show .. and i predict it will be far inferior.



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I just love the show soooooo much my stomach churn. Since I'm also a writer I truly enjoy the bad stuff, the murders and talk about it like a mad person having fun. I always have to explain myself to 'normal' people since I smile when talking about violence. It's the psychology behind different behaviours I find extremely interesting, the how and why. Me and my son who watch Breaking Bad decided to save all the episodes and watch them all at once. Think I'm gonna do the same with Damages.
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I agree with Bryan Cranston that Walt is experiencing a lot of emotions, many of which he's never experienced before, and I think he has really been getting off on it. That's why he made so many foolish mistakes in season 4, because he loved the feeling of power, or the adrenaline rush from the action, and stuff like that. But he's also learning what it really means to be on top, and to fight others with equal amounts of power, or even more power than he does, through his stand-off with Gus. He needed to learn to use control, and use his brains as well as his brawn. It was because of this that he was able to deal with the threat of Gus, and now that he's learned that, he can truly become the threat that he said he was to Skylar early in the season. Yes, there is the part of him that is fighting for his own survival, and the lives of his family, but I think that part of him is in conflict with the part of him that has fed off of the emotions, and wants the power he feels he deserves, otherwise he would have left the business once he earned enough money to support his family if/when he died. I am very excited to see where this all lead in the final 16 season, as well as where the other characters end off (especially Jesse, who has grown so much over the seasons, especially in season 4).
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I loved Bryan Cranston's expression of joy as he talks about the show. Totally unlike his Walter White. But Aaron Paul's way of looking at Bob Odenkirk is so Jesse, like he was saying, "what are you talking about, bitch!"
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I find myself having less and less sympathy for Walt, even though I can see its a survival instinct and whatever.



I have a lot more compassion for poor ol Jesse after the last couple of episodes of season 4. Knowing the writers though, they're going to screw with that and make him evil as well!
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Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish came up with Breaking Bad ?
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Haha! I don't think it's necessary for Vince to take the "What GoT character are you?" survey.
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I don't sit and examine every scene and every word because I have a life and other shows to watch, BB is one of my top 5 shows of the 21st century but I just enjoy it rather than obsess, it also means years down the line when I watch it all again it will still seem fresh. Opinions of fans about what stuff means don't matter to me, who cares how someone else views it make up your mind and enjoy it.
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So, following that train of thought, nobody should give a damn about what you think, right?
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I know this guy understands!
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Do you understand the definition of irony?
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Is he bad? Well the need to survive certainly isn't a bad one, but when you make that choice over the lives and well-being of all others it's certainly selfish, which in my opinion is the start of evil.



Anyway, that aside, I see Walt as being drive by a lot of different things. He's got this rage, as people have said, and it's a rage fuelled by his ever-increasing pride, and he's drunk on power.



It's a very common thing, historically speaking. A man gets power -- he gets importance -- and his ego comes to the fore, and starts taking him over. Suddenly lives are worth less than his. People become little more than insects in his eyes, because he's more important. So he starts doing worse and worse things, which eventually deadens his concience and guilt, as it would in real life. Eventually it's not just about protecting himself, it's about protecting his ego and his pride. Look at when Hank is about to go off the scent, and Walt is like "I think the real mastermind is still out there" or something.



But I think it's more complicated that that. Yes, I do feel that Walt has this addiction to these new emotions and feelings of power. How does it feel to drive over two drug dealers and then shoot somebody in the face? I have no idea, but the rush of power must be a great and terrible thing. Remember the scene when he closes his eyes, going 90 MPH on the road? He likes that feeling of being on the edge. Facing death freed him of his fear, so he keeps coming back to that again and again like that movie with the guy who nearly dies and gets addicted to the danger, or like Tyler Durden says in Fight Club, after he threatens to kill the man, that facing death will have freed the victim, the "human sacrifice", into actually living his life like it has meaning. I've been there, so I know how it feels to face death and then realise you're not going to die. Your fear is gone. Inhibitions ... everything.



But even a step deeper than that, I do believe Walt is building some kind of split personality or dissociative personality. Heisenberg is the guy's alter ego in more than just street handle terms. Heisenberg has become the outfit that he puts on to deal with the horrors he deals with daily. The character he became when he first met Tuco; the character he became when his wife asking if he was in danger; the character he becomes every time his expression changes and his voice takes on that sinister edge. Like all people with DPD, he has built up this personality to protect himself. Maybe to protect his guilt or his feelings of fear or so that he can act out this other, braver, meaner personality.



The creator has made this other personality theory pretty obvious, at least to me. Even in the first scene that I noticed it: the checkout. Three beeps ... the camera zooms in, cutting closer ... his expression changes ... "stay out of my territory".
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Also I forgot to mention something I noticed: the way Walt cuts his sandwiches now, we all know that's because he used to make sandwiches for Crazy 8 that way, before he killed him. Is that guilt, or is that trying to re-live that emotion, just as he tried to relive other emotions such as facing death to free him of fear?



Or is it perhaps like Dexter? The ritual. The fact that cutting the sandwich that way makes him remember his first kill, at least subconsciously, and this gives him power. Just an idea.
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I think Walt was a fairly normal dude when he first decided to cook meth. However, the more he sold and the more bad guys he came into contact with, Walter was basically forced into more and more tough and dangerous situations. For a while, his drive to give a ton of money to his family was strong enough to want to survive (for the few months or so he thought he had left) so his overall intelligence mixed with lack of experience in the drug business caused him to make some really clever and/or poor and/or morally questionable decisions.



I guess the question really arises when Walt learns that his cancer is in remission and is able to beat it out. His focus clearly shifted from providing financial security for his family to being "powerful." After the experiences he went through, I think he just couldn't go back to living a boring life as a teacher or whatnot. I think he finds enjoyment and excitement with the intelligence and plotting that it takes to succeed and survive in such a dangerous world -- the power that comes from making a lot of money and being able to out-smart drug lords and DEA agents.



I still don't think he's a sociopath -- not yet anyway. I think it'll really depend on next season, and whether Walt shows any sort of guilt or shame about harming a little boy to manipulate Jesse.
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Yes, the whole process of Walter character development along the first seasons puts things in a more believable ground for such an unbelievable transformation. But of course, the story being on television, things are also quite exaggerated for dramatic effect.
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I think Gilligan said it best: Walt is lost in his own hubris.

Walt is Icarus.
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Excellent article as usual, Tim. I agree that whatever happened to Walter has just magnified what flaws were already there. I'm just not sure if a peaceful teacher would become a major criminal like that in real life. If someone had such a darkness inside, I believe that would have already shown in some other way anyway. But then again we don't know everything about what Walter White was like before the cancer, so he might've tortured kittens and puppies as a child, for all we know. Anyway, whatever he goes through is always fun to watch on TV.
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As Gilligan said, he's not a sociopath. Fear can keep a lot of rage and pride in check.
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Was he so fearful his whole life? I don't think so. We haven't had much insight on Walt's past, but on that scene when they were buying the house, they looked liked any other ordinary couple with a bright future ahead. Something doesn't add up. But it's a lot of fun to watch.
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He said to Hank that he lived in fear every day.
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Good point. I'd like to know exactly why he left "Gray Matter" and what prompted his breakup with Gretchen. If we knew that, maybe some questions would be answered.
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