Like a Shakespearean tragedy, you can watch Breaking Bad on several levels and it works, including just watching an interesting story. Walter White is in a way Macbeth, but we’re not going to dig into that angle for this post. Instead, we’re going to look at something even more compelling and relevant for today: Walter White is the archetypal “harmless” male.
You might laugh at the thought that Walter, the man who called himself Heisenberg and had so many hardened criminals killed at a whim, not to mention flooded the Southwestern United States with meth, could be considered harmless. But that’s how he was regarded by those who were “close” to him.
There’s plenty of evidence to support this view just in the first episode of Breaking Bad. The cold open features Walter recklessly driving a motor home in nothing but underwear and a gas mask, a sight which is absolutely pathetic. Later, he’s mocked by Jesse and others for changing his clothes before entering the mobile meth lab, plus the fact he wears white briefs like a child, demonstrating he is universally seen as weak.
We also see Walter henpecked by Skyler, his wife. At the start of the episode she celebrates his birthday in what’s apparently a tradition by arranging bacon to form a number for what year he turned over scrambled eggs, only this time she switches to veggie bacon instead of the far more desirable stuff from a pig. Walter doesn’t like the unannounced change and passive-aggressively makes this known by saying, “Look at that.” Skyler knows he’s displeased and launches into a justification for the veggie leather, saying it has zero cholesterol and claiming Walt won’t “taste the difference.” Does she really believe that? I don’t think anyone reasonable would believe so, but she’s selling it anyway and Walter just gives in, despite obviously being displeased with the switch on his special day. Skyler effectively makes an occasion which is supposed to be about him all about her instead.
An interesting contrast arises when Walt Jr. enters for breakfast and immediately jousts with his mom, and despite her sharp criticism of his comments he doesn’t back down. Meanwhile, Walter is hunching over his birthday breakfast, toying with the leather-like “bacon” and steering well clear of the blossoming conflict.
Then Walt Jr. picks up the veggie bacon and asks, “What the hell is this?” His dad immediately explains it’s to help them watch their cholesterol, “I guess.” It’s another passive-aggressive attack on Skyler, because Walter can’t gather the courage to stand up to her overtly. However, Walt Jr. has no problem telling his mom, “I want real bacon, not this fake crap.” The son is more of a man than his father – a truly sad revelation.
Interestingly enough, Walter is able to dish the insults back at Walt Jr., showing he is capable of sticking up for himself with Skyler, but chooses not to. He is no dummy and has a sharp tongue, but he’s easily overpowered by her.
In another episode we learn Skyler secretly smokes, making it clear she’s a true hypocrite. Her enforcing higher health standards on the men in her household is a way for her to deflect from her own shortcomings.
Skyler also lectures Walt during breakfast about not staying at his second job later than what he gets paid to do that day. From this we learn she micromanages her husband, something he likely resents but doesn’t try to fight. Maybe he did resist at one time, but by the first episode he has fully acquiesced to her domineering will.
Later, at his own surprise birthday party, Walter is chided by Skyler for showing up late. She had warned him to not be delayed and he failed to follow her directive. Then Walter’s upstaged by his brother-in-law Hank, who works for the DEA. To the group gathered to supposedly celebrate Walter, Hank insults his brother-in-law’s manhood repeatedly after letting Walter heft his pistol, which clearly makes the high school chemistry teacher uncomfortable. This is all done to pump up Hank’s manliness score. Then he gives Walt a birthday toast loaded with backhanded compliments.
Ultimately, Walter White is seen as flaccid, unsubstantial, frail, and the ultimate beta male who exists to support his social superiors. In fact, when Walter and Skyler separate later and Marie speculates to Hank that Walter must have cheated, Hank smirks and says Walter’s not the type to do such a thing. It’s apparent his statement isn’t meant to be taken that Walter is too moral to cheat on his wife, but instead that he wouldn’t be attractive enough to females in general to successfully pull off such a maneuver (and in fact when he tries to as an act of revenge later and it backfires, so Hank had a valid point). Nobody truly respects the guy and it’s no wonder why.
In a testament to the acting prowess of Bryan Cranston, Walter even has the physical manifestations of a weak male. He bows his head and hunches his shoulders constantly, fails to make eye contact with others when challenged, and attempts to make himself appear smaller at all times. The people on wardrobe deserve credit for continuously dressing him to match that whimpering, shrinking persona. Same thing goes for putting him in one of the most awful production vehicles to roll out of America, the Pontiac Aztek. Everything about Walter White’s life is pathetic.
This is where things become interesting and is the main point of this post: because Walter White is viewed as a harmless male, likely even by himself given the behavior he exhibits, he is a far more dangerous and unpredictable force. He harbors deep-seeded resentment, which manifests at first in spontaneous risk-taking behaviors and later with shockingly violent acts. He adopts a notorious street name, Heisenberg. That name, as he’s well aware, comes from Werner Heisenberg, the German physicist who was brilliant and made key breakthroughs in quantum mechanics at a young age, a legacy which has been overshadowed in part by his work for the Nazi government in unsuccessfully developing an atomic bomb. There’s controversy over whether Heisenberg purposely sabotaged the project or was just inept, but the fact Walter White would choose such an individual for his criminal persona is interesting on multiple levels. It shows how he’s knowingly playing with fire and liking the excitement it generates.
We see a degree of this violent shift in Walter just in the first episode’s cold open. After crashing the motor home, he hears sirens in the distance and assumes it’s the authorities coming to “get him.” Walt goes inside and retrieves a handgun, then he puts on his shirt, records a final message to his family, then stands square in the middle of the dirt road with the gun pointed ahead and his finger on the trigger, showing intent to go down in a hail of gunfire. The man was fully prepared to die in a shootout with police, instead of immediately surrendering and hoping for the best from the justice system.
Some people say Jesse Pinkman is the “moral voice” of Breaking Bad, a point which I think is off but I don’t want to dig into that now. However, if you look closely at even him, Jesse provides an interesting counterpoint to Walter when it comes to being “harmless.” Known as Captain Cook, he projects quite the image of bravado and danger. He drives a Monte Carlo lowrider, a symbol of aggression and counter culture for him (to be clear, I’m not trashing lowriders, but the way Jesse uses his is to anger his parents and other people he views as adhering to the “system”). He acts erratically aggressive, but in reality is relatively harmless, so the aggression he projects is a defensive mechanism. That is until Walter pushes him down the path of true violence. Jesse goes so far as to shoot Gale Boetticher in cold blood. It was a strategic, calculating move which required Jesse to become more like Heisenberg and it has a severe effect on him. So you see, the supposedly harmless male drags others down with him, even triggering those who were already on a downward path to sink to new lows.
This is the danger of cultivating so-perceived harmlessness in boys and men. It’s a dangerous avenue that can easily backfire in horrendous ways. If you watch Breaking Bad with this in mind, as well as many other tragic stories, this approach also sheds considerable light on characters and their motivations.
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