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?
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.
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