Money Changes Everything: The Ascent of Walter White

“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it, and I was alive.” –W.W.

I had to wait until the finale of Breaking Bad but at last, Walter White admitted that he was in to the meth cooking for the money. I’ve been frustrated since season 3, by that time the whole, “I’m doing it for the family” thing seemed like a bunch of baloney, the manipulative excuse of a mediocre middle class guy in the throes of power grabbing; a chance to feel “alive” after a lifetime of playing it safe for fear of what “might happen, might not happen.”

Walter is a man who has lived his life the right way: nice family, secure teaching job, steadily paying off the mortgage of his suburban house with the pool. Nevertheless, it is not enough to make ends meet and in addition to teaching, he works a crappy second job cashiering at a car wash. Like many middle-class folk, he is one medical diagnosis away from financial ruin. When we meet Walter, he is drowning in the bills he can’t cover and his wife Skyler is pregnant with their second child.

Then he gets the diagnosis. Walter White’s American Dream is dead. This is where I pause to mention that capitalism has a funny way of exacerbating human frailties. Walt’s frailty—his decision to cook meth—is born from his inability to face his death and the steadfast belief that he can control the situation. Like a dark Horatio Alger, Walt takes the bad news with a stoned face determination to fix it through self-reliance and industry. After shuffling along feeling safe and secure in his middle class life, cancer gives Walt a reason to try and a reason to take risks. The fact that the risks Walt takes are deviant and immoral is irrelevant in TV-land, and the popularity of the show is because Walt comes to embody a lot of the suffering everyday people experience.

These days it is hard to make ends meet, healthcare in the U.S. is a vortex of pain, and the myth of meritocracy has never been more obvious. Walter is a common man who gets pushed to the dark edges of his own self because these days success based on honest achievement is hard to reach, and talent is no guarantee of economic security. Walt did everything he thought was right but knows his death will send his family down the class ladder, a fate worse than cooking meth. Twenty years ago, this story line would be unthinkable but it reflects the insecurity of these times, the sense of economic fragility so real for working and middle class Americans.

This is what resonates with Breaking Bad, the sense that a semi-schmucky guy on the losing end can be good at something and still make it, never mind the illegality and the extreme selfishness of his actions. Walt is successful in the meth market because his product is the best and he knows it. He ascends to power and in this, loses the fear that had plagued him his entire life; cancer changes him into a vicious, striving capitalist: “What I came to realize is that fear, that’s the worst of it. That’s the real enemy. So, get up, get out in the real world and you kick that bastard as hard you can right in the teeth.” In a culture that feels less like the land of opportunity, Walt makes it big as a meth cook and he earns respect for his skills, respect that Walt feels he deserves. It is about him and his needs. In the finale, he dies with a smile on his face, not because he provided for his family (though he has), but because he died a powerful man.

***Breaking Bad was in the news recently when corporate toy store, Toys R Us pulled action figures off their shelf’s on an “indefinite sabbatical.” A Florida mom created a Change.org petition citing that the toys were unsavory because the Walter White figure comes with a tiny bag of blue meth, and the Jesse Pinkman with a meth-cooking mask. In a store that sells Friday the 13th Jason action figures complete with a tiny ax and an assortment of toys from the violent (and entertaining) Game of Thrones, it begs the question as to why. In the age of a failed drug war and conservative politics however, this action says so much about fear and hypocrisy in the U.S.. I personally own a Walter White action figure and was surprised that Toys R Us was selling them in the first place. If you think about it, there’s a lot more to be scared of than a few fictional action figures, have you ever walked down the pink aisle at Toys R Us? Now there’s some violence!