Is ‘Breaking Bad’s Walter White A Mastermind? Or Foolhardy And Impulsive?


Credit: AMC

The Week’s Scott Meslow and I sat down to tape an episode of Bloggingheads this week, and a great deal of what we talked about was this week’s hot topic: why some people still defend Walter White.

There’s been a lot of terrific writing on the subject this week, much of it prompted by Walt’s phone call back to his wife, Skyler, and the question of whether Walt was pulling off yet another brilliant deception, this time to protect his family for the police he assumed would be listening in, or whether he was venting pent-up bile at Skyler, or the conclusion I think most people reached, which is both at once. But I think the phone call is important not just in terms of furthering the debate about Walt’s moral status, but in terms of advancing why Walt is still an appealing figure to so many viewers no matter what terrible things he’s done. If Walt was pulling the wool over the cops’ eyes rather than being hateful to his wife, then it’s another bit of evidence that Walt is a brilliant mastermind, a step ahead of everyone else no matter how bad things get.

I find the idea that Walt is some sort of mastermind whose control is admirable fascinating because the text of the show suggests something more interesting and complicated. Walter White’s a brilliant improviser who’s capable of getting himself out of situations ranging from the arrival of several armed, angry drug dealers at his RV, to being threatened by a brilliant drug lord who’s willing to poison even himself to get revenge, to being tied to a radiator. And Walt’s incredibly good at dreaming of his own grandeur, of mythologizing what he’s doing as “the empire business,” even as he ignores a lot of potential details along the way to his belief that he’ll leave his family enriched and be remembered lovingly. But in between those two poles is a lot of space. And when he’s not reacting or fantasizing, Walt can be incredibly, sloppily impulsive and foolhardy.

Walt’s decision to start cooking meth is, in and of itself, a split-second impulse inspired by his ride-along with Hank and his spotting of Jesse Pinkman during a bust. Once Walt’s decided that this is what he’s going to do, and he’s secured Jesse’s participation by threatening him, Walt is methodical in carrying out his plan, but cooking drugs as a retirement plan doesn’t actually appear to be something Walt thought about in any particular detail, especially when compared to other options. It doesn’t turn out to be a good plan: not only does Walt underestimate the danger involved in the meth business, he overestimates how much money he’ll be able to extract from the drug dealers to whom he’s selling his product. Walt may prove to be good from extracting himself from the bad situations he gets himself into. But cooking meth is just the first of many incredibly stupid situations Walt is solely responsible for tangling himself up in.

Similarly, just as many viewers choose to forget or minimize that Walt sexually assaults his wife twice–both when he’s moving back into the family home from which he’s been exiled and is attempting to reassert his dominance in his home, and in the fifth season when he initiates sex with Skyler without her consent after threatening her, insisting that acting like family will make it so–most people seem to forget that Walt is effectively fired from his teaching job for sexual harassment. When he plants a kiss on assistant principal Carmen Molina, Walt has no indication that she might actually be interested in him, much less that their meeting would be an appropriate venue for him to make his feelings known even if she was. It’s a completely impulsive thing to do, fueled by Walt’s go, flushed by his illicit activities. And for a man who claims to care for his family, the kiss is a selfish act that endangers Walt’s source of legitimate income and employer-provided healthcare at a time when he badly needs both.

As Walt’s become more enmeshed in criminal activities, his impulsive acts have become more flagrant, and more deadly. His decisions first to confront, and later to kill his former associate Mike Ehrmantraut are ludicrous, unproductive, and create significant challenges for Walt down the road. His initial attempt to go up against Mike only results in humiliation for Walt, and damages a relationship that could have been peaceful, if not cordial. And when Walt kills Mike for not giving him the name of his associates, it’s an utterly unnecessary, vindictive, vicious act, prompted more by Walt’s general pique at Mike, who consistently makes Walt feel small, than any sort of strategic grand plan. And Mike’s death ultimately fractures the relationship between Walt and Jesse Pinkman when Walt’s excuses for Mike’s disappearance become increasingly untenable.

Finally, Walt’s confrontation with the Nazis results from two impulsive acts. First is his decision to have Jesse killed, even though the killing of someone who was working with the government would immediately be the subject of a significant investigation. And second, is Walt’s frantic chase after his money after Jesse claims to have found it and be burning it. It’s one of the few times Walt actually gets called out for acting impulsively–Jesse deliberately taunts Walt for failing to notice that the soil around the money was the wrong color, and tells him that he told Hank that Walt would react without thinking the scenario through if his money was in danger. The bloody showdown that results is a reminder that Walt’s empire business planning doesn’t even include particularly careful thinking about the viciousness of the people he’s brought in as partners.

I understand being impressed by Walt’s displays of technical prowess throughout Breaking Bad‘s run, because that’s part of the point of the show. Walt keeps pulling people in with his competency, and then becoming an incredible problem for them because of his grandiose ego and general touchiness. But to admire him as some sort of avatar of control, a man who can work his way out of any challenge, ignores the fact that Walter White creates almost all of his own problems.