What It Is
For two seasons of Breaking Bad, high school chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) has been cooking and selling crystal meth. From the time he learned he was dying of cancer, Walt and his partner, Jesse (Aaron Paul) have bumbled and scraped their way into becoming major players in the New Mexico drug trade—in the name of providing for Walt’s family. Last season, when Walt’s cancer went into remission, it took with it his apparent financial motivation. But he kept on, and ended the season alone, rejected by his family and his partner, as wreckage literally rained down around him.
As Season Three began on 21 March, it looked like this Walt—not the family man or the attentive teacher, but the lone survivor—has been the real Walter White all along.
It makes psychological sense that Walt would find himself alone. He’s repeatedly shown himself to be a radical individualist with a streak of self-hatred—as he believes he hasn’t adequately stewarded his intelligence, having failed to parlay a Nobel Prize in chemistry into money, stability, and security for himself and his family. As he seeks redemption by providing for that family after his death, Walt lives by a code of masculine stoicism. He consistently refuses offers of help (when he sneered that one such proposal was “Charity,” his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), wondered, “Why do you say that like it’s a dirty word?”). His pride easily slides into anger at those he believes have not lived up to their potential. He disdains them as he hates himself, pushing his students to do more with their talents and demanding that Jesse work ever harder.
The cycle seemed to come to an end as Season Three premiered, though Walt worked hard to deny it. “We are happily married,” he declared when served with divorce papers. “I am happily married. I am happy.” Similarly, when Skyler called him a drug dealer, he equivocated: “Methamphetamine. I manufacture. I’m not a dealer.” At every turn, he sought to maintain a socially acceptable persona while continuing to act with impunity, as though his actions didn’t have consequences.
Of course, he must learn otherwise. A drug overdose he allowed to happen indirectly led to a mid-air airplane collision above his house. Asked to speak at a memorial assembly at the high school, he laid out his own calculus of tragedy. The crash was only the 53rd deadliest air crash in history, tied for 53rd, actually. “First of all, nobody on the ground was killed and that ... I mean, an incident like this in a popular urban center? I mean, that’s got to be a minor miracle,” he said, “Plus, neither plane was full.”
He went on, “We will get past this. Because that is what human beings do: we survive. We survive and we overcome.” He tried to convince Jesse, who was blaming himself for the overdose and consequent crash, but Walt’s argument bottomed out absurdly when he declared, “Really, I blame the government.” Jesse would have none of it, announcing instead that he had accepted himself as the “bad guy” in the story. His rehab counselor advised, “Self-hatred, guilt: it just stands in the way of true change.”
Walt hates himself too much to change. He believes he is someone else, or that he can become someone else. Toward the end of the episode, he visited his business partner, Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), a man who’s dealt for 20 years but still remains a “ghost” to the authorities. “I’m making a change in my life is what it is,” Walt said, “And I’m at something of a crossroads and it’s brought me to a realization. I’m not a criminal. No offense to any people who are, but… this is not me.”
But he is a criminal. Perhaps the most disturbing possibility—the subtext that makes Breaking Bad both enthralling and often unbearable to watch—is that Walter is becoming who he always was. He hasn’t changed. He’s been purified. After burning away the extraneous pieces of his life, his family and his partner, he’s now revealed as a man who was always alone.