Breaking Bad: when did you lose Walter White?

Feature Michael Noble 31 Jul 2013 - 07:00
Breaking Bad

At what point in Walter White's journey from Mr Chips to Scarface did you lose him to the dark side? Here are six turning points...

This feature contains major spoilers for Breaking Bad seasons one to five.

As we all know by now, Vince Gilligan set out to write Breaking Bad with the express intention of taking his protagonist and transforming him into the antagonist, or to use his own phrase, of  "turning Mr Chips into Scarface". That’s quite a metamorphosis and not something that could happen overnight. After all, one does not simply walk into a drug kingpin’s territory and mount an aggressive takeover. It is folly.

Over the course of four and a half seasons, we’ve seen dowdy, hirsute teacher Walter Hartwell White transform steadily into the bald malevolent meth baron Heisenberg. He’s faced down rival dealers and manufacturers, the attentions of the law and the suspicions of his family and with every new season, has taken a further step along the path to evil. As we look forward to the final eight episodes, his status as antagonist is all but assured, leaving us with the question, just when did we lose him? Is it possible to pinpoint the moment that he switched from goodie to baddie? Everyone will have their own take, but here are six of the potential turning points, measured not just by deed, but by the changing status of Walt’s hair.

1. The Killing of Krazy-8

Hair Status: Full head on top and a wispy, pathetic moustache. Weak.

If watching generations of gangster movies have taught us nothing else, they have at least given us one key lesson. You always remember your first kill. Walt’s not likely to forget his –he took long enough over it. If we may pass over Emilio, who bought a face full of chemicals during Walt’s RV escape plan and may generously be described as ‘collateral damage’.

Killing Krazy-8, on the other hand, was deliberate, premeditated and Walt’s first step over the moral threshold. Sure, he’d manufactured his first batches of meth by then, but that was simple chemistry. When his first naïve foray into the game required him to ice the hapless slinger, he went through the pros and cons, considered the morality of the act and then weighed it up against the threat that Krazy-8 posed. It was a killing of expediency that only the sternest of moralists could condemn. A simple choice: he’ll kill you and your entire family unless you kill him first.

We’d all do it, wouldn’t we? So how do we feel about…

 

2. Missing the birth of his daughter

Hair Status: As absent from his pate as Walt is from his family. Moustache: Still dismal.

Any decent expectant father would move heaven and earth to be present for the birth of his child. Even more so when the difficulties you encountered when your first child was born give you some natural concern about the delivery. Which of course makes it natural that Walter ignores Skyler’s urgent calls so that he can break and enter into Jesse’s place, slap the semi-conscious Pinkman around a bit, recover a 38lb cache of meth and race off to make a criminal rendezvous on time. Way to go, Dad of the Year!

Walt may have embarked on his enterprise with the intention of providing for his family, and it’s certainly true that the $400k payday would help with that, but the division in his lives is starkest in this season two moment in which he makes Tywin Lannister look like Cliff Huxtable.

A bad dad? Sure. An evil one? Maybe not, but what about…

 

3. Watching Jane die

Hair Status: Bit of a twofer here, hair same as above.

The very first thing that Gus tells Walt is that Jesse is a liability. Always reckless, with Jane, his casual drug use escalates until it actually becomes dangerous to Walt’s ambition. It has to be stopped in its, er, tracks. Unlike Krazy-8, Jane is not a direct threat to Walt so, instead of setting out to kill her, he simply recognises the opportunity that an accident affords him. A crime of omission, rather than commission.

In a rare example of executive meddling actually improving things, having Walt simply decide not to save Jane came at the suggestion of AMC. In Gilligan’s original treatment, Walt deliberately turns Jane over, rather than doing so accidentally, as he does in the final product. (In another early version, he actually administers the fatal dose).

Intentionally or otherwise, it’s a heinous act for anyone, never mind a father of a newborn daughter who has just been discussing fatherhood with, unbeknownst to him, the father of his unintended victim.

An act of desperation, surely? But what about…

 

4. Continuing after he no longer needed the money

Hair Status: The moustache has given way to a frankly gingerish goatee. Bad guy? He’s almost Mirror Universe Walt.

OK, so at the beginning of the show, Walt was a bit of a sadsack. He was presented with a desperate situation and fell back on his central skill to solve it. We can all sympathise, can’t we? However, by the start of the third season, his cancer is in remission and he’s got, by his own admission, more money than he’ll ever know how to spend. So why continue? We’ve all seen the trouble it brings him, the death, the desperation, the plane crash? Weigh that up against going back to work, teaching term after term of the same basic chemistry to uninterested kids. Oh no. This Albuquerquean Darth Vader has had a taste of the bad stuff and he wants more. He wants an empire. And why? Well, it’s because he can, because he’s the best goddam meth cook in America. It’s because he’s the bad guy.

There’s really no going back now. He’s evil enough to change the official designation of his house from ‘suburban des res’ to ‘lair’.

But he can get worse…

 

5.The Gus Removal Gambit

Hair Status: Bic’d to the bone. Goatee rather more luxuriant.

Can you really be the baddie until you’ve presided over some dizzyingly elaborate scheme that simultaneously settles old scores, destroys murderous rivals, eliminates a major threat and relegates the DEA to mere pawns? No. No you can’t. By the end of season four, if you can’t admire Walt’s morals, you’ve got to respect his cojones. His orchestration of the simultaneous killing of Gus, Tyrus and Tio is impressive not simply because of who gets stiffed, but because of the amount of manipulation that went into it. He toyed with Gus and the DEA, gambled on Tio’s willingness to cooperate and, in a wheeze that out-evils the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, even poisoned an six year-old kid just to get Jesse back on his side. The slow reveal of the lily-of-the-valley in his garden marked a clear turning point. Could any remaining Walt loyalists trust him again?

There’s always:

 

6. Ordering the killing of Gus' entire organisation

Hair Status: Now permanent cue ball with a solid, sinister goatee. Undisputed Bad. Ass.

He may have given Gus the closest chemical peel in history but he hadn’t eliminated the entire threat. The Fring organisation wasn’t exactly distributing meth at jumble sales, and with Gus, Tyrus and Mike devoting so much time to dealing with Walt, the cartel and satisfying New Mexico’s hunger for fried chicken, it was pretty obvious that there were a few more numbers involved. Consequently, Walt finds that he has a lot of loose ends to tie up.

The murder montage is an obvious parallel of the climax to The Godfather, and not simply because it marks the point at which Walt, like Michael Corleone, is confirmed to be 100% gangster. It’s because it’s done remotely. Hiring the neo-Nazis to do the wet work, he insists that they do it exactly as he says, shanking, burning and beating the poor bastards while Nat King Cole croons sweetly away.

Like any supervillain, Walt keeps his face out of it and his hands clean while retaining overall control. The method is a message and a lesson in just how far he’s come. Offing potential witnesses is amateur stuff. Doing all ten in three separate prisons inside of two minutes? That’s power. That’s the action of the bad guy. 

There are, of course, other shocking moments. Running the rival dealers over with his car, ordering the killing of Gale, robbing the train, and shooting Mike in a moment of anger. Since receiving his cancer diagnosis, at least 190 men, women and children have died either directly or indirectly as a result of Walt’s activities, and that’s not even counting the countless lives destroyed by his product. For what it’s worth, Bryan Cranston says that he believes that Walt’s turn took place at the very beginning, when he decided to cook meth. Was that the key moment of which every other crime is a mere symptom, or do you still have some sympathy for this devil? Just when did you lose Walter White? Let us know.

Breaking Bad returns to AMC on Sunday the 11th of August, and follows on Netflix UK on Monday the 12th.

Please, if you can, buy our charity horror stories ebook, Den Of Eek!, raising money for Geeks Vs Cancer. Details here.

Disqus - noscript

Good question.. I think the first time I actively disliked Walt was in Season 2 when Jesse loses his house and Walt dismisses his pleas for help because he's too self-absorbed to listen to Jesse's situation. But when I lost him altogether? Jane's death for sure.

I think audiences, myself included gave Walt the benefit of the doubt for far longer than we should have. But given that he's the central character and we all love bad-ass Walt/Heisenberg that's pretty fair. In fact, I'd say Heisenberg himself is a kind of a drug for the audience; we know he's bad, destructive and in no way acceptable. But we love it.

So, all the despicable things that he did up until season 5 we could create some kind rationale behind them, to justify his behaviour. Especially since Gus was always seen as the greater threat to Walt and his family. We begin to feel bad/uneasy for rationalising his actions with Jane/Brock, but we still do. Because every time it's Walt vs X, Walt will always win and so does the audience because they find further rationale to justify his actions.

However, you take away a central antagonist and Walt naturally fills that void and we realise we can't continue to support him. We realise Walt never fully broke bad, but his pride and arrogance had always meant he'd been broken for a while.

I'd argue it's during the point when we claims he's in the empire business, because he's no longer doing it for his family, which was always his justification for his actions. His hit on Mike's guys really just confirms this with shocking finality.

Two moments in season 5 really swayed me towards hating Walt.

First moment, was after the kid got shot, Walt told Jesse not a day went by that he didnt think of that kid. Jesse turns to leave, and Walt is whistling, clearly a poop not being given.

Second moment, and its a big one, was when he killed Mike.

Up until season 5 I must be honest, the darker side of me always rooted for Walt as he was never the greatest threat, now he is the only threat.

I think mine was definitely Brock and the Lily of the Valley.

I was gonna say the same thing. I mean, he poisoned a kid.

I don't know what it says about me but I've yet to 'lose' Walter! The more I think about that, the more concerned for my own psyche I am.

However, if I did lose Walter White I would probably start by checking down the back of the sofa!!!

He lost me when he let Jane die.

I find it somewhat astonishing people stuck with him for that long. For me it'd have to be end of season 2/letting Jane die. He was awful in season 3, especially as far as his family is concerned.

For SURE it was when he marched into Tuco's and lobbed the crystal against the wall! That episode solidified this series into an absolute classic for me. The flashforward at the start when you first see walt bald - marching away from a burning building looking mean. a serious WTF moment.

I have never NEVER had a reaction like I had with this moment. It was like someone kicked me square in the stomach, then punched me in the face. "Guhhhhhhhhhhhhhohhhhhhhhhhhhhnnnnnnnnnnnnhhhhhhhhhaaaaa"

Same here. That was the turning point for me, both concerning Walt and the series. I knew now that Walt was truly evil, and I knew that Breaking Bad was one of the greatest television series of all time.

I'd say the turning point was when we found out he had cancer.

After that he just seemed, I dunno... different?

Walts done nothing he didn't have to do to protect others. Team Walt 4 eva!!!

Anti-hero*

Id have to say the first time i looked at "Walt" and thought something turned in him was the remission episode when he found out he was recovering and he punched the crap outta that blow dryer. In light of that what I mean is his actions before that, whether he was angry, sad, happy etc had a sort of control or purpose behind them. In every instance whether he was cooking, evading, lying, or even killing, he always had a controlled motivation to him. In that instance I think we the audience see the pent up "Heisenberg" I guess you could call it within Walt. My interpretation of the scene was that Walt was planning to die if not immediately then soon, and that at least now he would die leaving something (money for his family) and be able to die knowing regardless of everything he had done the right thing. When that anger surfaces, it was not controlled or had any real purpose. This was to me the first and definitely not the last time we not only "Lose" walter white, but walter white also loses into his inner darkness or his "Heisenberg".

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