The Evolution of Walter White – HUEN 1010 Samuel Volin University of Colorado at Boulder

The AMC television show Breaking Bad1 is renowned for its legendary character development. The protagonist is Walter White, a mild mannered chemistry teacher with terminal lung cancer in the show’s pilot, and a drug kingpin by the conclusion of the 4th season. Walter’s character transformation is a compelling aspect of the show. By choosing to cook methamphetamine, Walter achieves the success and respect he always desired at the expense of his family and morals. On the surface it seems the viewer is watching the descent of a man into a life of drugs, murder and crime. In fact, it is the tragic ascent of a man achieving his potential, but losing everything in the process. Walter begins as a sad, pathetic man the viewer pities, is reborn out of concern for his family, is corrupted by his own flaws, and is ultimately damned by his triumph. It is this awesome evolution “…from Mr. Chips into Scarface,”2 That compels viewers to cheer for Walter as he commits unspeakable crimes. In the beginning, we see Walter as a weak, tepid character. He eats veggie bacon for his high cholesterol. He takes echinacea for his persistent cough. His greatest regret is selling his share of Grey Matter, a company he helped create, which had since developed into a billion dollar enterprise. Although Walter doesn’t initially realize it, he hates his life. Both the viewer and Walter recognize this in retrospect, after he is diagnosed with cancer. “My wife is seven months pregnant with a baby we didn’t intend. My fifteen-year old son has cerebral palsy. I am
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Gilligan, Vince, dir. "Breaking Bad." Breaking Bad. AMC. New York, NY, 2008-2012. Television. MacInnes, Paul. "Breaking Bad Creator Vince Gilligan: The Man Who Turned Walter White from Mr Chips into Scarface." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 18 May 2012. Web. 30 Sept. 2012. <>

an extremely overqualified high school chemistry teacher. When I can work, I make $43,700 per year. I have watched all of my colleagues and friends surpass me in every way imaginable. And within eighteen months, I will be dead.”3 He says this to a psychiatrist to cover for a crime, but it is also the truth. Walter White hates his life, and he feels like he’s been sleep walking through it all. Only until he his diagnosed with lung cancer does he begin to take action. The viewer initially pities Walter, and this sets the stage for his transformation. Walter is reborn with his diagnosis, and is compelled to take action to support his family. Through a series of events, he decides the answer to his financial worries is to cook meth with a former student of his, Jesse Pinkman. Not long after they begin their mutual partnership, they’re tasked with the foul disposal of a body and the murder of two men. This event emphasizes the moral boundary Walter must cross, and he emerges from the ordeal as a capable, but morally tarnished character. This rebirth is further accentuated when he shaves his head. Walter owns his diagnosis, cutting his hair in defiance of it naturally falling out. Although his family chalks it up to the cancer, Walter exploits their assumptions to disguise his criminal work. On the surface it seems Walter is losing control of his life, and in a sense this is true. He has cooked drugs, murdered a man and disposed of bodies. In fact, Walter is taking control of his life- more so than he has ever done before. He cooks meth to control his future. He cuts his hair to control his cancer.4 He is contented with his dirty criminal work because, for once in his life, Walter finds something he is actually good at. If anything, the cancer didn’t kill him, but resurrected him into a stronger, capable human. Walter’s transformation into Heisenberg (his alias in the meth underworld) is fueled through his desire to be recognized for his talents. After Gustavo Fring’s death, Walter has the
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Season 2, episode 2 Semley, John. "Breaking Bald." Salon. 24 July 2012. Web. 11 Oct. 2012. <>.

chance to safely and cleanly exit the business, cancer free and with a positive cash flow. He forsakes the opportunity, instead ramping up production. When Jesse asks Walt to sell his share of methylamine- the key ingredient in their production of meth, he is reminded of how far he has gone. “When you started this thing, did you ever dream of having 5 million dollars? I know for a fact that you didn’t.”5 Walter still regrets the last time he left a growing enterprise when he sold his share of Gray Matter, and sees leaving the meth business as a similar mistake. It’s not the money he desires however, it’s the success and admiration that comes with. The audience is confronted with the truth at this point; it’s not his family or the money that compels him to cook anymore, but the glory he has reaped as a player in the meth game. For once, Walter is respected for what he does, and that is what keeps him in the business. He never received respect or admiration as a science teacher, but in the meth business he is in control. He may still be at the whims of the drug lords and the meth underworld, but he is conquering them. Walt is proud of his craft; enough so to brag before rival gang members that he and Jesse are “…The two best meth cooks in North America.”6 No one may know or care about Walter White, but his alias Heisenberg is feared. The meth business corrupted Walter through his nobler flaws; his desire to be recognized and respected for his talent. The tragedy of Walter’s transformation is not the terrible journey he undertakes, but the destination. In the middle of season 5, Heisenberg has reached his apex. Business is safe and booming. Cooks are regular. He is his own boss, in charge and in control of the whole operation. Money is laundered, meth is distributed, and nothing is impeding him. It is what Walter White always envisioned, but not what Heisenberg desires. As he dons his hazmat suit to cook, we see the tired and weary look on his face. It’s not freedom he has achieved- it’s just another job.
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Season 5, episode 6 Season 5, episode 7

Manufacturing methamphetamine has become just as tedious as washing cars and teaching high school chemistry. Even the millions of dollars he has earned is virtually worthless. “There is more money here than we could spend in 10 lifetimes… I cannot launder it with even 100 car washes,”7 His wife says wearily, equally as tired from the tedium of laundering his drug money. Walter’s name is still feared, but there’s nowhere left to go. He is no longer the bumbling chemistry teacher, cooking meth to support his family in his dying months. He is the brutal tyrant, weary and bored with his work. This is the tragedy of Walter White; in achieving what he always wanted he became a different person, and in the process lost everything he ever loved. When Alexander the Great saw the breadth of his domain he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.8 The same is true for Heisenberg, prince of the meth underworld. His name is bane to the DEA, terrifying to rivals, and virtuous to the customer. To Walter White, Heisenberg is the manifestation of himself in power and alive. The audience roots for Walter because he truly took control of his life, in the greatest and most terrible way imaginable.

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Season 5, episode 8 Bowman, Donna. ""Gliding Over All" S5 / E8." AV Club, 2 Sept. 2012. Web. 11 Oct. 2012. <>.

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