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.
6 thoughts on “Walter White’s Rage Against The Dying Light”
This may be the most humanizing article I’ve ever read about Walter White. It’s Beautiful. Thoughtful. A reminder of why so many people fell in love with the series in the first place.
Thanks for your comment – glad you liked the piece. The show will bear rewatching soon.
I think Walt also benefits from Breaking Bad being his story, told much from his point of view, so we are encouraged by the structure to see Walt the way Walt sees himself. It’s not quite the first person effect, which makes you susceptible to noticing Humbert Humbert is a monster, but it is reasonably close. Pacino’s Michael Corleone might be a better example. Someone you start by liking, who then slowly becomes an inhuman killer, and yet you always feel at least a little on his side.
That is a very good point. I wonder how people would respond to Walter if the story was told from Jesse’s point of view! Thanks for bringing this up (and the examples are excellent).
Thanks, these things are very much on my mind because you know I’m a fiction writer (sorta) and so I think about them a lot. The Point-of-View / 1st person effect can be really powerful. As another example. No one ever says “I really like Macbeth” but he doesn’t inspire the kind of visceral hatred in the audience he so richly earns from the other characters in the play because, I think, it’s his story. Similar thing with Iago who, because he talks to us as the audience, connects with us, draws us into his utterly nihilistic world, and makes a little complicit with him, he somehow makes us suspend our judgment. We don’t like him. But we don’t hate him the way we hate without complications the characters designed to be the obvious “villain”.