Whelp ladies and gentlemen we have reached that point in our “Breaking Bad Shakespeare Friday” series. We are going to explore the man, the myth, the legend, Mr. Heisenberg himself: Walter White.
Walter White is a rare character on a television series: A bone fide Shakespearean tragic hero. I know those of who you have watched him murder his way up to becoming a mythical drug kingpin originally under the guise of “protecting his family” which morphed rather quickly to “I want all the money” but rest assured, Walter White has the same tragic flaws that we learned about in your great Shakespearean tragedies: Othello, Mac-“Scottish Guy”, Lear, and Hamlet.
Plenty of TV shows feature bad guys as main characters. The current trend of television seems to be leaning towards the bad guys being the main characters, or “morally conflicted.” The thing is, that while we are to believe that Walter White starts the show morally conflicted: He wants to raise money for his wife and kids when he dies, we quickly learn that he is not morally conflicted. Walter is just good at what he does, and he wants to be the best at what he does.
The great Shakespearean tragedies fall into a sort of spectrum. Lear and Hamlet could almost be considered victims of their circumstance. Lear is an old fool and Hamlet is either brilliantly insane or brilliantly knowledgeable (Great thing about Hamlet: you can play him either way) but both are sort of reacting to a situation that exists. Lear is getting old and wants to test love, and Hamlet is just confused that his father is dead and he has to go live with a warthog and meerkat out in the jungle. (I may be mixing up my Hamlet and Lion King.) Othello and Mac are more active in their downfall. Yes, they both get a little “push” from Iago and Lady Mac respectively, but they both take that push and run with it. That’s Walter White. He gets a bit of a push in the form of cancer, then in the form of seeing “mad stacks of cheddar” but the second he sees how far he can go, he just runs with it.
That brings us to Walter’s bit Shakespearean flaw: Ambition. This matches him up there with Lady Mac and Mac (Saying the full name is considered bad luck in the theatre, so while I’m taking theatre classes I will not say or write the name). Walter wants more. Early on, we see that he gave up on a successful company. I’ve discussed before that Gus Fring was directly affected by this. Walter saw how far he could go, and decided that he was not going to give up again. This is also the example last week with our twisted look at the phrase, “Apply yourself.”
If we went through Walter’s mind at the start of the show, I’m sure it was along the lines of “I’m going to die. Might as well become a meth cook.” But as his reputation grew, and his prognosis for a longer life got better, he knew that he wanted to be, as someone put it, “a meth chef.” He wanted to pour his ambition and life goal to the point that he wouldn’t just be rich, but he would be known. After a point, this wasn’t about money for Walter White. After a point it was about people knowing who he was. He has threatened his partner several times in order to stop him from cooking just like him.
So what does the future hold? Well, in the case of the four Shakespearean tragic heroes, it ended in death. (spoilers for 300 year old plays follow.) Othello killed himself after killing his faithful wife, realizing he’d been poisoned by Iago. Mac got a few inches taken off the top (of his neck) because he thought he was literally immortal. Hamlet died, taking just about everyone with him. And Lear manages to up the body count from his good buddy, Hamlet. Does this mean Walter White is headed to the same end? This is all speculation, based on how the fourth season ended, mind you… but my thought is no.
Yes, what made these characters so tragic is the fact that they all ended in death. And Walter is in a brutal line of work. The makeup budget alone for fake bruises and fake blood must be astronomical. But in the end, each one of those people died because of their tragic flaw: Walter may have a tragic flaw that is ripe for the killing (ambition is a popular one for someone to die) but part of the “tragic flaw” is that they are punished in some bigger way. Walt has had that with the estrangement from his wife and at times fearing for his own safety. I personally think this needs to end even bigger. Walter has always had an “out” from the world of drug-lording: his cancer. At some point in the future, he was probably going to die. I think Walter needs to live. I think Walter needs at some point to get a clean bill of health, and a world in which he not just the non-alpha dog, but there is no hope for him ever getting power again. I’m not sure what that means.
Death is just too easy an out for a character like Walter.