Ross Douthat ponders the question of what makes Walter White the target of such sympathy–and perhaps even affection– even as it became clear that his criminality and amorality had run amuck:
The allure for Team Walt is not ultimately the pull of nihilism, or the harmless thrill of rooting for a supervillain. It’s the pull of an alternative moral code, neither liberal nor Judeo-Christian, with an internal logic all its own. As James Bowman wrote in The New Atlantis, embracing Walt doesn’t requiring embracing “individual savagery” and a world without moral rules. It just requires a return to “old rules” — to “the tribal, family-oriented society and the honor culture that actually did precede the Enlightenment’s commitment to universal values.”
But people don’t subscribe to moral codes in the abstract; rather, they find a set of practices and customs that best express the instinctive, visceral emotions and drives that animate them, and get behind those.
What groundswell of passions is evoked by Walter White? First and foremost, Walter is a dying man. And he isn’t dying in the sense of being a ‘marked man,’ one who is destined for death by the hangman’s noose or the assassin’s bullet; he carries his death, his decay, inside him. His body has turned traitor and betrayed him. But Walter has not decided to lay down and face death with calm, resigned acceptance; he has not stood by and let that quisling,cancer, do its dirty work in peace. Instead, he has raged and raged and raged. The diagnosis that Walter received in Breaking Bad‘s first episode lit a fire within him, and it has not been quenched; it made his sense sharper; it reanimated his quiescent sexuality (as evinced in his almost feral lovemaking to Skyler soon thereafter).
It is this straining at the leash, this savage slapping aside of the Grim Reaper, that so provokes our admiration. We know our death can come in many ways: perhaps suddenly, painfully, brutally; perhaps silently, while we sleep; perhaps we will receive a proclamation like Walter’s. We wonder how we will respond: will we fall to our knees, groveling for mercy, soiling ourselves, shaking at the knees? Will we retreat into a sullen silence and in shocked disappointment, refuse further intercourse with this world? Or will we, like Walter, snap back hard, every ounce of our being straining for one last demonstration that we can still resist the inevitable fate that awaits all human beings?
A minor weakness in Breaking Bad has been its refusal to make Walter’s illness more prominent. Perhaps a few more exposures to the other science, besides the cooking of meth, that is now ever-present in Walter’s life: the chemo, the radiation. Perhaps a little more visible pain and discomfort, forcing more awareness on the viewer that Walter is a fatally ill man. But these are minor omissions, because we have known for a while that every act that we see on the screen is, despite its running counter to many norms of ours, an act of visible, angry resistance to a preordained fate.
We might express our resistance differently, and that is why we disapprove too, of Walter. But the rage against the dying light? That will always evoke our admiration.