“It’s super important to me that people stay interested in Walt. It’s not quite as important to me that people continue to root for him” —Vince Gilligan
When did Walter White become a “bad guy”? If the pilot is to be believed, then he originally “broke bad” when he first decided to start selling crystal meth. But that probably doesn’t hold true for most viewers—he had just learned he was dying and his motives were noble, so we were all rooting for him.
Walt’s first murder was self-defense, and even his second was only done to protect himself and his family—he was in anguish when he realized that he couldn’t let Krazy-8 go. So most of the audience would probably forgive him for that, too. There are similar extenuating circumstances for most of Walt’s early sins—his lies to his family and the deaths he caused. For a very long time, it was easy to make excuses for Walt’s behavior.
By the beginning of Season Four, though, it was basically impossible. He was no longer working to pay off his medical bills—he turned down the opportunity to walk away once his cancer went into remission. He was no longer ignorant of the damage he had wrought—he’d watched Jane die, seen what happened to Hank, and witnessed the emotional toll on his wife. And, at the end of Season Three, he’d finally gone after someone who was essentially innocent.
The challenge of Season Four was how to make Walt remain interesting while his actions ceased to be defensible. And for a while the show struggled with that; the early episodes of this season focused less on Walt’s moral descent, and more on his attempts to get out from under Gus Fring’s thumb. For a few episodes, Walt became a minor player in his own show, with episodes focusing more on Marie or Jesse. When we did see Walt, he was doing something stupid or childish, like giving the finger to a security camera, or buying his son a Dodge Challenger.
All of this, though, was prologue. Seeing just how powerless he’d become at work, and seeing just how poorly he was handling it, served to flesh out precisely where Walt was in his life. Suddenly actions that would have seemed unthinkable at the beginning of the show—like refusing to move back in with his family, telling Hank NOT to give up his investigation, and essentially bragging to his wife about committing murder—now seemed completely in character.
The most noteworthy thing about the first half of the season, though, was how fully the show committed to making him unlikable. It wasn’t just that Walt was becoming morally questionable—he was becoming a jerk. He knowingly manipulated his own son and wife. He was rude, selfish, and smug. My favorite example was his tone-deaf reaction when Jesse, who was desperately in need of approval at that point, gave him the news that he was doing pick-ups now: “Why? Do your hands need to be registered as lethal weapons?… This is all about ME.”
While most shows about morally bankrupt characters, like Dexter or The Sopranos, go out of their way to make the protagonist seem charming or personable, Breaking Bad went the other way. In Season Four, it essentially challenged its audience to like Walt. It even developed Gus, Walt’s adversary, into such a compelling character that it was hard to pick sides, even though one of them had to die.
All of this set up the season’s second half, which managed to top the run the show went on in the second half of Season Three (which had its own remarkable stretch from “Sunset” through “Full Measure”). What made Season Four’s final stretch so amazing was that each episode seemed to end with the audience pulling for a different outcome: At the end of “Problem Dog,” we wanted Hank to catch Gus. But then at the end of “Hermanos” we wanted Gus to get his revenge. At the end of “Bug” we wanted Jesse and Walt to kiss and make up, but at the end of “Salud” we were happy Jesse’s in Mexico to help Gus and Mike. It’s all very confusing.
But while the episodes were thrilling, they also paid off Walt’s descent by rapidly making him sympathetic again. Walt’s drug-induced, quasi-confession to his son in “Salud” is the most contrite we’ve ever seen Walt. Even Walter Jr. thought he was “real,” and would rather him that way then as Heisenberg. And, of course, the next episode saw all of Walt’s proverbial chickens coming home to roost.
The end of “Crawl Space”—a weird episode overall, featuring a heavy dose of slapstick and absurdity—was possibly the most gut-wrenching scene in a show that has had a lot of gut-wrenching scene. It wasn’t as tense as “Grilled” or as shocking as “Half Measures” or as adrenaline-pumping as “One Minute,” but it was more philosophically disconcerting. The image of Walt underneath his own house as he realizes that not only has he put his whole family in danger, but that the only thing he has to show for his troubles—the money—is gone, used to pay off the debts of the man who cuckolded him, is the image of a man completely destroyed by life, a man who is so hopeless that all he can do is laugh maniacally at his own predicament. The last shot of that episode was so final that I briefly wondered how the series could even continue.
All of this seemed to presage a moment of redemption for Walter. He was finally resigned to his moral comeuppance, and seemed content to make sure that it was only visited upon him. He made sure Saul called the DEA to protect Hank, and he said goodbye to his family, insisting that he alone should suffer for the choices he made.
Which, of course, only made what actually happened all the more tragic. There have been all kinds of interpretations of the ending that seem incredibly off the mark to me: the idea that the end of “Crawl Space” represented some break from reality, or the “complete transformation of Walter White into Heisenberg,” or the idea that Walt was inspired when he saw the gun point at the plant in his backyard. But what makes Walt’s plan so frightening is that it’s not some diabolical invention of a supervillain—it is exactly the kind of pragmatic, rational, and calculated plan that Walt has always made.
Similarly, Walt doesn’t just spin a gun and think of something. He’s too rational for that—this is someone who made a “Pros v. Cons” list to decide whether to kill someone in Season One. The spinning gun scene was about him trying to make it appear as if he were leaving the decision to chance, even though he’d ultimately already made up his mind. It was reminiscent of Skyler’s trip to the Four Corners: Just as she moved the coin from Colorado back to New Mexico after two flips, here Walt spins until he gets the desired outcome.
In other words, what makes Walt’s decision to poison Brock so frightening is that it makes a certain degree of sense.* It’s precisely the kind of thinking Walt did in Season One, only far less moral.** We can’t reasonably root for him to do it, but we still understand exactly why he did it.
*It makes far more sense than the idea that Gus did it. Between “End Times” and “Face Off” I tried desperately to make sense of why Gus would poison Brock and couldn’t really do it. Nevertheless, I refused to believe that it was Walt until midway through “Face Off,” which speaks to the show’s ability to make me think the best of Walt.
**In fact, it was so appropriate for Walt that the last shot, zooming in on the words “Lily of the Valley,” was excessive. Once Jesse announced that the poison wasn’t the ricin, it’s pretty clear that Walt was the culprit. The image of the plant should only serve as a callback to the scene from “End Times”—we don’t need to see the sign.
What makes Breaking Bad great is that it ultimately doesn’t care if we root for him. Vince Gilligan understands that what makes a character interesting isn’t how moral he is, or even how likable he is, but how well we know him. And by now we know Walter so well that even when we’re surprised by him, we’re not really all that surprised. He’s the same guy he always was, even if he’s completely different…