Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

How Breaking Bad’s Walter White redefines modern evil

In Hell, as conceived by John Milton, Lucifer's pernicious deeds are never seen. Indeed, they are barely heard, as the rebel angel tends to squish into toads' and serpents' bodies to whisper maledictions and very bad ideas.

Yet he always sounds sweet, and seductive; he is a heavenly being, after all.

"Walt – was that you?"

Story continues below advertisement

On last season's finale of Breaking Bad, Walter White, himself having morphed beyond recognition since he first appeared in season one, called his wife after coolly liquefying an enemy of epic proportions.

Yet he seemed collected.

His wife: not so much. "Was that you?" she asks, as she watches news footage of the face-melting explosion that killed drug overlord Gustavo Fring.

And she is seen, via flashback, asking the same question in the hotly anticipated premiere of season five, the show's last, which aired on Sunday night.

"What happened?" she then quakes. White's answer, "I won," was steady and low, and as deadly as he had become.

Last week, during an interview, actor Bryan Cranston said there would be "silverback gorilla chest-thumping" on his character's part; Aaron Paul, who plays Jesse, spoke of the "darkness" that will characterize this season.

Both appeared in Sunday's episode, which aired on AMC with a gimmicky "Story Sync," where one could pull up the show's website, answer trivia and be polled.

Story continues below advertisement

This proved an exercise in absurdity: Fans of the monumental drama are loath to be distracted. One question, however, stood out: "If you were Skyler, would you be scared of Walter?"

"Hell, yes" was the affirmative option and Hell is where this show – in its vast intelligence a far greater puzzle than Lost – has landed: into the "darkness visible" that Milton describes in Paradise Lost, reigned over by the best, most credible, Lucifer ever to have appeared in pop culture.

Milton's Satan is a fallen archangel who wars with God and all of heaven; who is cast to the underworld he rules gladly, as his pride does not permit his subservience.

He travels to Earth and Heaven freely, for he is still a shape-shifting angel, but wherever he goes, he takes Hell with him. "Myself am Hell," he deduces in one of his great tragic-heroic moments.

In the Walter White version, a busted-up, desperately ill science teacher and car-wash employee curses his boss and his boss's feral eyebrows, and decides to fabricate crystal methamphetamine in order to provide for his family.

Ostensibly, this reasoning gives our natural-born psychopath a moral centre, however illusory.

Story continues below advertisement

He too travels freely through filth and beauty. When first confronted in the previous season by his wife, who foolishly fears for him, he tells her, cruelly, that he is not "in danger."

"I am the danger," he snarls.

Or he is Hell, depending on what lens you are using to examine this remarkable show, which is essentially, in this fifth year, a flawless, 39-hour film.

There are so many available comparisons in art.

The episode opened with White playing with his Denny's breakfast. He was wearing a wig and a small bandage on his nose, killing time before receiving an M60 machine gun.

He made the number 52 with his bacon: the atomic number of tellurium, which is a silver-grey or gun-coloured metallic substance.

The machine gun was straight out of Scarface, which AMC advertised during the show; the bandage a synecdoche evoking the Invisible Man, a mad scientist visible only when dressed.

All this in one moment: Throughout the series one finds and discards artistic and pop likenesses of Walter White, including Jekyll and Hyde, Harvey "Two-Face" Dent or Cronenberg's particularly acute Fly who represents addiction, violence and the nightmare hybridity that Walter White, AKA Heisenberg (his S.S.-derived pseudonym), embodies.

But ultimately, it is The Godfather that most closely resembles Breaking Bad, or vice versa.

In the final scene of the first film, Michael – who has eerily transformed for, he would assert, his family's sake as well, from a clean-cut war hero to a cold-blooded mass murderer – is asked by his shaky wife if he ordered the deaths of the Five Families; of his own brother-in-law.

He is at first enraged by her temerity, then he mollifies her with a soft "no." The movie ends with the door closing on her and her short-lived relief.

Skyler, who used to be a devious ball-breaker, is just a shell now. "I'm afraid of you," she told Walter on the new episode. We watched, knowing he had poisoned a child to near-death last season, with the berries from lily of the valley flowers, in order to execute his plan against Fring.

And we watched Walter turning to his wife after discovering the man she cheated with is now a mere mutilated husk (his condition is called "an act of God" by the also-frightened, once-irrepressible Sol Goodman.) Conversely, an act of the superhuman Devil.

He holds her and we can feel her terror. "I forgive you," he says, gently, and it is the most nauseating moment imaginable.

Ultimately, even Michael Corleone has nothing on White, whose arch-villainy, genius and pride isolate him as modernity's most distinctive, quietly terrifying monster.

He is a hybridized form because such evil causes gross deformity, and because in an act of comic book-meets-ultraviolence, he, the brilliant chemist, lives in a state of perpetual mitosis.

He is a foolish-looking, mild-mannered, middle-aged man with cancer that is in remission as his true illness metastasizes inside of him and blooms like the Lily of the Valley he keeps, in a fey basket, on his patio.

Report an error

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨