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What does it mean for us to empathize with Walter White?
From the very beginning of the series, and most certainly during the course of it, Breaking Bad incited some serious and unresolved questions about morality. Specifically, the series conjures up questions about the development of moral character.
For Aristotle, we can say that a person is moral if they behave morally habitually. Habitual moral action is how one forms a character worthy of being dubbed moral; it is how one’s character becomes sedimented as moral. Of course, if one habitually behaves immorally, one sediments an immoral character. This offers us a simple way to understand how Walt performs more and more evil deeds. He moves from telling “necessary lies” to his family, to watching a woman overdose on meth, to poisoning a child, to full out murder. With each immoral act, another one becomes easier and easier. This view, however, seems to oppose what some viewers think about Walt: Walt’s character was always questionable; nothing has changed. From the beginning to the end, his character was always contaminated. We will never know about Walt’s entire history but I do propose a different way to think about the development of his character. The issue, I believe, is not sufficiently addressed by deciding either that the immoral foundation was already within Walt’s character or that the moral decay occurs through a series of events to which Walt reacts. But I think the series’ creator, Vince Gillian, is giving us a very accessible picture into problems with how we understand our own moral character and how we can swiftly and silently damage it. In particular, he is giving a glimpse into what one of the most insidious lies is, the lie to oneself. It is this type of lie that drives any person into moral decay. And it is this lie that keeps the viewers on Walter White’s side.
When we meet Walter White, we are presented with someone who is a respected Chemistry teacher, claims to have been swindled out of the co-ownership of a billion dollar company, and living an already difficult lower middle class life with a pregnant wife and teenaged son. We are invited to empathize with him. And when Walt receives some of the most devastating news one could hear, that he has a very advanced and inoperable stage of lung cancer, we can recognize his devastation. He is likable and we root for him because of these things. So, when Walt decides to cook methamphetamine in order to pay for his cancer treatments and save money for his wife and children, we can understand his desperate logic. Indeed, the writers and producers have put much effort into making the audience empathize with Walt. In fact, we even understand Walt when his simple lies to his family become more elaborate and complex. It is what he has to do in order to cover up his tracks as he begins to cook. It is all in the name of a higher and nobler good. Yes at root, his decision is clearly immoral– there are surely better (albeit limited) means to make money quickly – but he has a finite amount of money to make and then he is out of the business. In short, we can believe the story he tells himself.
As the series goes on, the story Walt tells himself grows bigger and bigger in order to cover up its obvious contradictions to his overall behavior. But as he flips back and forth from leaving the meth business to returning to it, drunk with power one minute and letting his wife rationalize him out of his insatiable greed the next, we see how much he wants to hold onto his lie. Perhaps this means that, even more than he desperately wants to compensate for years of bitterness about running away from success and a healthy route to the power he pines for, Walt wants to believe that he is not the monster that he has become. And perhaps we want to be blind with him. Because Walt knows so deeply that he is wrong, he has to hold onto a lie, a romanticization of his motives, even when daily contradictions abound. What is the meaning of having empathy for such a character?
Without over-aggrandizing the meaning of the consumption of pop culture, I think it does, in fact, tell us something about our values. On the one hand, we certainly value bourgeois virtues like family – well, the nuclear, middle class family. We accept actions that are driven by the desire to keep that family together and afloat in times of need. Especially when such actions are proposed by the male head of the family. This ascription to bourgeois values certainly allows Walt an empathy that would not be afforded to characters of another value system or background. I also think our continuous rooting for Walt shows us how much influence money and power has over us. Who has not fantasized about doing something, technically immoral, as a means to wealth? And not that this is a bad thing, unless it is left unreflected on and unchecked. But most of all, I think it shows a picture of how we lie to ourselves about how good we are, how moral we are, and how pure our intentions are. When we do something wrong, like Walt, do we not justify our original point of view with an even larger, sometimes inconsistent and contradictory justification, hoping that we can escape or manipulate the consequences? Don't we believe that, for whatever reason, the action is an exception to the rule and is somehow different?
In the end, it is not that Walt was always an evil power hungry monster, or that he simply makes a series of bad decisions that turn him into a monster. It is that Walt's perception of himself depends on him fulfilling his fatherly duties. Further still, it is that he thinks this value isn't susceptible to contradictions. Walt's providing for his family is the only way and best way their future will be ensured. And, as long as he believes this (whether or not he "humbly" admits to his wife that all of this has been about a power trip) all means justify this end. By the series finale, he wants to fulfill that idealized intention even more so, whatever the consequences, whether his family wants his money or not. The picture painted by his apology to his wife is that Walt has learned something but, in reality, he still doesn't get the entire picture.
Interestingly, Aristotle also says that no one knowingly does evil, people are just mistaken about how to achieve the good. Perhaps this is another way to understand how we empathize and keep rooting for Walt - along with most anti-heroes in film and television. In Walter White’s case, though, I believe this fairly amusing adage applies: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”…
Interesting articles on Breaking Bad:
NPR article on the redemption of Walt in the series finale.
NYTimes article on morality in Breaking Bad.
An interview with the series’ creator.