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Bad in the Bones
How Walter White Found His Inner Sociopath
By A. O. SCOTT
Published: July 24, 2013
In an episode midway through the second season of “Breaking Bad,” Walter White was honored with his very own narco-corrido, a song (performed in a precredit sequence by the group Los Cuates de Sinaloa) that spread the legend of “Heisenberg” across the border from New to Old Mexico and foreshadowed his clashes with the cartel competition. “This homie is already dead; he just doesn’t know it yet,” the lyrics warned, and of course the joke was that, at the time, Walter’s unlikely career as a drug kingpin was made possible by exactly such knowledge. As far as he or anyone else could tell — apart, perhaps, from Vince Gilligan, the creator of the series and the ultimate master of Walter’s fate — cancer would finish Heisenberg long before any cartel hit man got to him.
James McMurtry, whose song “Choctaw Bingo” chronicles meth-era America.
Now, five years in, the cable-watching public is awaiting the final stanzas next month in the Ballad of Walter White, who has evolved into a complicated and very contemporary folk hero. His Heisenberg pseudonym was borrowed from the physicist whose uncertainty principle is popularly understood to express the idea that the presence of an observer changes the nature of what is observed. And Walter, a sad-sack high school chemistry teacher who found a vocation cooking the finest methamphetamine money could buy, was always adept at shifting his appearance depending on who was watching.
In truth, though, his development over five seasons has been less a shocking transformation than a series of confirmations. Mr. Gilligan’s busy and inventive narrative machinery has provided plenty of cleverly executed surprises, but these have all served to reveal the Walter White who was there all along. The sides of his personality — sociopath and family man, scientist and killer, rational being and creature of impulse, entrepreneur and loser — are not necessarily as contradictory as we might have supposed.
Or rather, if we insist on supposing that they are, it may be for our own sentimental reasons. We love our television antiheroes, sometimes blindly. When James Gandolfini’s death last month revived our affection for Tony Soprano, New York magazine reposted “The Long Con,” Emily Nussbaum’s insightful 2007 post-mortem on “The Sopranos.” In it, Ms. Nussbaum argued that at a certain point, Mr. Gandolfini and the show’s creator, David Chase, fully acknowledged Tony’s monstrosity, and that viewers’ decision to empathize or identify with him was their own guilty choice. The key message to the audience — one many of us elected to ignore — was a line delivered by a psychologist to Tony’s denial-prone wife, Carmela: “One thing you can never say, that you haven’t been told.”
We have been told about Don Draper, too, though in the most recent season of “Mad Men,” his charm has begun to seem shopworn and sad, and his misbehavior more pitiful than demonic. And the truth about Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston in a career-defining, Emmy-dominating performance, has been there virtually from the beginning. Very early on, after he withdrew his savings so that he and his partner, Jesse, could buy the R.V. that served, for a time, as their mobile meth lab, Walter marveled that he felt “awake.” Everything he did thereafter, from the first self-defensive killing to the coldblooded murders that followed, he did with his eyes open.
Walter may have wanted us to believe — and may, at moments, have convinced himself — that he was a decent man driven by desperate circumstances to do terrible things, but that notion was either wishful thinking or tactical deceit. Viewed as a whole, in optimal binge conditions, with the blinds pulled down and the pizza boxes and chicken wrappers piling up around the couch, “Breaking Bad” reveals itself as the story of a man mastering his vocation and fighting to claim his rightful place in the world. Its dark, morally scandalous vision has been imposed on the kind of tale that is, more conventionally, an inspiring parable of entrepreneurial gumption. This formula turns out to be well suited to the times.
The three principal antiheroes of 21st-century cable television inhabit different regions in the kingdom of modern capitalism. Tony Soprano is the inheritor of a family business, his managerial challenges complicated by kinship ties and tribal customs. Don Draper occupies a high-rise corporate zone of corner offices, mergers and expense accounts. As original as “The Sopranos” and “Mad Men” undoubtedly are, they also knowingly draw on a rich reservoir of popular-cultural meanings attached to their chosen worlds. They look at familiar material from a fresh perspective, without quite letting go of the inherited romance of the Mafia and the advertising industry.
Walter’s corner of the economic landscape is a more shadowy and decidedly less glamorous place, and one whose main representations are a bunch of books and alt-country songs. Methamphetamine has a long history, first as a legitimate pharmaceutical product and then as an illegal recreational substance. For most of that time, meth lacked the cachet and the panic-inducing power of cocaine, marijuana or LSD (or alcohol, for that matter), but over the past 15 years or so, it has become more visible as a problem and, therefore, as a symbol of other social dysfunctions.
Just as crack in the 1980s and ’90s was associated with the mostly black ghettos of deindustrializing Northern cities — the Baltimore of “The Corner” and “The Wire,” to stay within the context of cable television — meth is linked to the fate of the rural and small-town working class. “Well, it’s a war out there, and it’s fought by poor white men” is how the alt-country band Old Crow Medicine Show sums up the situation in “Methamphetamine,” a song that evokes Appalachia both in its lyrics and its musical idiom. Daniel Woodrell’s novel “Winter’s Bone” (faithfully adapted in Debra Granik’s 2010 film) weaves meth production and use into the folkways of southwestern Missouri, where the drug is seen both to hold families together — providing work and income in hard times — and to tear them apart.
But perhaps the most panoramic view of meth-era America is James McMurtry’s “Choctaw Bingo,” an eight-and-a-half minute epic that the journalist Ron Rosenbaum once proposed as a new national anthem and that I prefer to think of as the Great American Novel set to music. On his concert album “Live in Aught-Three,” Mr. McMurtry describes it as “a song about the north Texas-southern Oklahoma crystal methamphetamine industry,” even though the drug is mentioned only once. In a series of verses built around a single chord, we are introduced to an extended clan that includes a long-haul trucker; a football coach and his wife, who are serious gun enthusiasts; and a pair of fun-loving sisters from a “hell-raising town way up in southeastern Kansas,” who are the narrator’s second cousins. All of them are en route to a family reunion at the home of one Uncle Slayton, who, among many other activities (fishing, gambling, being mean), “still makes whiskey ’cause he still knows how.”
But while home distilling may be a hobby at this point, it is also a link between traditional and newfangled forms of contraband manufacture. An enterprising fellow with plenty of ways to make money, Uncle Slayton “cooks that crystal meth because the ’shine don’t sell.” Crank is for him what white lightning might have been to his father or grandfather: a cottage industry with a reliable customer base and tax-free revenue.
Not all meth production is local, of course. Home cooking of the kind practiced by Slayton (and, at least initially, by Walter White) is supplemented by and sometimes in competition with a wide-ranging trade pioneered by American motorcycle gangs in the ’70s and later taken over by Mexican trafficking organizations. As Nick Reding suggests in “Methland,” his rich journalistic account of the effects of the drug on an Iowa farming and meatpacking town, if meth “is a metaphor for anything, it is a metaphor for the cataclysmic fault lines formed by globalization.”
On one side of the fault line is a displaced, marginalized and at times all but invisible working class, frequently imagined as both the makers and takers of meth. In Mr. McMurtry’s songs, cooking speed is roughly what slinging rock is in the rap of Jay Z or Young Jeezy: a signifier of authenticity, of demographic realness.
Which is precisely what Walter White lacks. The sociology of meth has never been the point of “Breaking Bad,” which made its debut near the end of the meth panic of the mid-2000s. The whole premise of the series is that Walter’s entrance into the drug trade is a wild anomaly, albeit one with a certain perverse logic. He may be out of his element, but in a business dominated by home cooks on one side and foreign conglomerates on the other, surely there is room for an enterprising scientist devoted, above all, to quality control.
The timing of the show’s debut obscured Walter’s true class identity. In the autumn of 2008, with the economy in free fall, it was easy to suppose that he was falling, too, from a precarious middle-class existence into an underworld of criminality. He was working two jobs with crummy health insurance, a baby on the way, a broken water heater and a Pontiac Aztek in the driveway of his Albuquerque split-level.
But almost as soon as we met him, we were given strong hints that his fall had already taken place. The humble teacher and henpecked husband — that was the disguise. How many such people have a plaque in their houses acknowledging their contributions to Nobel Prize-winning research? Heisenberg, his drug lord nom de guerre, was closer to Walter’s true face than the stammering, shambling classroom cipher he showed to his students and colleagues, the nebbish he was with his brother-in-law, Hank, or the milquetoast who shared a bed with his wife, Skyler.
Walter was, right from the start, a disenfranchised member of the nerd aristocracy, exiled from his place in the elite by his own stubborn pride and the treachery of his erstwhile partners. He was a mighty empire builder out of an Ayn Rand novel, biding his time amid the weaklings and plotting his revenge.
Think of his rich friends Gretchen and Elliot, whose offer to pay for Walter’s treatment was a source of much misunderstanding in Seasons 1 and 2. The party at their elegant estate is Walter White’s Rosebud moment, during which his deep motivating secret is disclosed. Walter, who shows up with Skyler in garish, too-formal clothes at an event defined by neutral tones and soft fabrics, sees what his best friend and former girlfriend, now partners in a successful tech company, have made of his research, and his envy is intensified by entitlement. Their life should have been his. He will find a way to get even.
And so, using his superior technical know-how, Walter puts together a start-up, making a boutique product more consistent than that made by enthusiastic hackers and more pure than the stuff pushed by the soulless cartels over the border. This kind of project is not easy. Our self-made man is yoked to unreliable partners, harassed by ruthless competitors and constantly beset by supply-chain problems. Raw materials are sometimes scarce. At other times, distribution is a headache. Government regulation — in the form of the Drug Enforcement Agency — will gum up the works. Walter must deal with people dumber than he is, or who are threatened by his intelligence. No one really understands his vision.
It’s a familiar story. Walter White is in “the empire business,” which places him in the company of the other disrupters and innovators who started out in basements and garages and dorm rooms and shook up conventional business models. You know who I mean. Not that I’m suggesting that the Jobses and Zuckerbergs of the world are drug dealers, however habit-forming their wares may be. The allegory of “Breaking Bad” is hardly so blatant.
But the series is nonetheless a sustained and stringent critique of entrepreneurial ideology in the form of an unsparing character study. Walter is almost as good at self-justification as he is at cooking meth, and over the course of the series, he has not hesitated to give high-minded reasons for his lowest actions. In his own mind, he remains a righteous figure, an apostle of family values, free enterprise and scientific progress. That’s an old song. We all know the words. But Uncle Slayton’s version might be more honest. He likes that money, he don’t mind the smell.