Money Changes Everything: The Ascent of Walter White

Have you been watching the Breaking Bad prequel, Better Call Saul? I have and I love it. I swear, Vince Gilligan is a modern-day Rod Serling, nobody since Serling’s Twilight Zone has been able to create a morality play like Mr. Gilligan and his crew (the general theme: “be careful what you wish for, you just might get it”). I’ve been a fan of Gilligan’s since the nineties, when X-Files was the go-to show for weekly weirdness and cultural commentary. There are no aliens in Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul but there is plenty of weirdness and commentary about morality and the power of money.

Maybe you’re like me and don’t have a TV or cable (satellite internet is how we do it up here in the boonies) so if you want to watch Better Call Saul you’re just a click away. But if you haven’t seen Breaking Bad you need to click this link and watch that series first and spoilers or no, you will not be disappointed. Five seasons are a lot, so get to binge-watching. I think Breaking Bad is one of the best TV shows that has ever been made and when the show ended, I wrote this piece below for Class Action’s blog, Classism Exposed. Give it a read and get to watching Better Call Saul, and please shoot us a comment and tell us what you think.


Artwork by: Sahin Düzgün

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.

Originally published on the Classism Exposed blog: