The Breaking Bad pilot opened on a pair of beige Dockers. Upside down and billowed as though by phantom limbs, they fell waist first through the arid New Mexico air, landing beneath the wheels of a careening RV. The image suggested the change facing the RV’s driver, Walter White (Bryan Cranston). Pressed for money and time, the mild-mannered chemistry teacher was in transition, becoming over the course of the episode an impulsive crystal meth cook, proclaiming, “I am awake.”
Awakened into a bold, ugly late-capitalist America, Walter, has made a mess of his life. This much is suggested in his first appearance, behind the wheel, naked but for a pair of tighty whities and a gas mask. His middle-aged body sagged, sirens wailed in the background. In the passenger seat slumped his partner in crime, failed former chemistry student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). Behind them lay two rival drug dealers, now dead. Stumbling from the crashed RV, Walter left a videotaped message for his family—“I only had you in my heart”—and pointed his gun at the horizon, waiting.
From this bleak beginning, Breaking Bad flashed back to three weeks earlier, Walter’s 50th birthday. Here he woke to a subtler sort of bleakness: up at five in the morning to Stairmaster, his feet working up and down but not taking him anywhere. On the wall hung a plaque recognizing his contribution to Nobel Prize-winning chemistry. His wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) cooked him cholesterol-free veggie bacon, shaping it into a “50,” and Walter, Jr. (RJ Mitte) asked, “How does it feel to be old?” Walter’s home life, the scene suggested, had settled into a comfortable, if bland, routine.
Beneath the routine, though, Walter was barely keeping his family together financially. Stoically resigned to a second job working at a car wash, he only sighed and looked away when spotted by a Camaro-driving student. His brother-in-law joked that Walter looked like “Keith Richards with a glass of warm milk,” with the complication of a “brain the size of Wisconsin.” His wife’s oblivious hectoring provoked no emotional response. As long as she could stay home to sell products on eBay and they could afford to treat Junior’s cerebral palsy, Walter drifted through his life. Living paycheck to paycheck was still living.
All this changed in the first episode, when Walter learned he had lung cancer. This plot turn has had complicated effects: while ostensibly freeing Walter from expectations and obligations, it also underscored, even exacerbated, his sense of responsibility. Before cancer, he showed an unerring selflessness; after cancer, he clung to his obligations, but reconsidered how to meet them. Deciding not to tell his family about his illness, he went forward with what seemed a quick fix: he’d cook meth.
Even as the financial reward seemed obvious, Walter squelched any moral qualms by not allowing his partner Jesse to use the end product. The decision to enter into an illegal business was determined by economics and a small picture: the money benefits Walter’s family, no matter what the drugs might do to someone else’s family. He shoulders the family’s desperation and offers himself as its only hope.
In Walter’s transformation, Breaking Bad marries ruthless capitalism with masculine aggression to produce a peculiar kind of alpha male. Angry and without recourse, Walter turned on his routine, smashing things as he stormed out of his car wash job. He punched out a high school jock who mocked his son. Most bizarrely, Skyler asked what happened to him, he responded with a sexual aggression she’d never before seen. “Walter, is that you?”, she wondered.
It is, but adjusted. The new Walter is a Cro-Magnon with a bank account. He protects his family with physical and economic prowess, ready to defend them at all costs, but also unknown to them. This is Breaking Bad‘s portrait of the middle-aged, middle-class, middle-American man, circa 2008. Pushed to extremes, at the mercy of systems beyond his control, he’s desperate for change.