'Breaking Bad' Reactions And Why Walt's No Hero

The vigorous and insistent desire to interpret Walt's actions in positive ways (and Skyler's in negative ways) is providing us with a useful X-ray of our minds and hearts and souls
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I thought watching Sunday night's "Breaking Bad" episode would be the most difficult experience of the week.

But aspects of the reaction to "Ozymandias" have been nearly as unsettling. It's very clear now that, despite having watched five seasons of something that's billed as an anti-hero drama, many people have a great deal invested in thinking Walter White, in the final analysis, is a hero. Or at least a guy with heroic qualities.

"Too much hate for Walter White," said one tweet I was copied on. "Everything he did after finding out he had terminal cancer was to protect his family."

Well, that's one way of looking at it. And that opinion -- which probably represents an extreme end of the Views of Walter White spectrum -- doesn't match up with mine, but what struck me was how many people really wanted to convince me that the views I expressed in my "Ozymandias" review, especially concerning Walt's phone call, were slightly, moderately or greatly mistaken. I was knocked back on my heels by the sheer number of people on Twitter, in email and in comments who, even if they didn't characterize my views as flat-out "wrong," tried to cast Walter's actions in a more positive light.

I could build my own Superlab if I had a nickel for every person who told me that Walt's phone call to Skyler was merely a strategic move -- or a selfless one.

I don't doubt that strategy entered into Walt's thinking (and I said as much in my review). But what struck me most forcefully about that scene was the ugly yet truthful nature of Walt's words. As for his intentions, well, Walt's most consistent excuse is that he never intended any of this to happen. So what? All these things did happen, he is largely responsible for them, and I don't see nobility in trying to walk back one of his many enormous mistakes.

Walter White is not noble. He's not selfless. He's not a hero. He may be a complicated guy, but what dominates the mixture right now is his obsessive need not just to manipulate everyone around him but to control their lives and their impressions of him.

To all the people who see him as a more or less decent guy who's trying to do the right thing, let me ask you this: If a man rescues people from a burning building, do we give him a medal -- even if he's the one who set the fire?

If the next two episodes are all about Walt's attempts at redemption, well, that's great. But the attempt to ameliorate what he's already done does not erase his previous actions from the ledger.

Every one of us will make our own moral reckoning of Walter White, and those reckonings will vary, and I don't expect to be done wrestling with ideas about redemption, forgiveness and transgression after the "Breaking Bad" series finale. But let's not go "gliding over all" of the destruction he caused, because the desire to buff up Walt's image and minimize the uglier aspects of his personality is in direct conflict with what the show is trying to do on the whole, and especially in "Ozymandias."

Whatever the episode's writer, Moira Walley-Beckett, and creator Vince Gilligan set out to do with "Oymandias" -- and I don't think they intended to write an Interpretation Instruction Manual on stone tablets -- their intentions don't have to line up perfectly with my reactions. Great art supports a multitude of meanings, and my reading of the now infamous phone call scene includes (but is not limited to) the following thoughts, more or less in descending order of importance:

  • Walt was spewing a concentrated dose of the hatred and contempt he's felt for years. He let loose with all the anger he had toward Skyler and toward anyone else who'd gotten in his way -- anger that had been bubbling just under the surface for a very long time.

  • It felt good on one level for him to release that bile and aggression and not edit himself. He enjoyed letting it all out, and nearly everything he said was a real thought or feeling he has had at some time.
  • He knew the cops were listening and his denunciation was in part intended to shield Skyler from prosecution. (Side note: Whatever happens next to Skyler, we know from the flash-forward she loses the house and can't even sell it, given how trashed it is. So Skyler's future probably works out great.)
  • He cried at the end because he knew he was leaving his family for good and he felt terrible about what he'd said and he hated the part of himself that liked saying those things and it made him feel sick to have nurtured those feelings for so long and he was shocked by the bile and fury within him. But he couldn't deny their power.
  • Yes, he was trying to shield Skyler, and yes, he's also capable of monstrous behavior. Dear Internet: It's not a binary. Both of those things can be true. All of the above can be true, and I've just scratched the surface. As Emily Nussbaum wrote, the genius of that scene is that so many different readings of it are possible, and the ways in which those meanings and reactions collide and even contradict each other are fascinating.

    Here's one more idea to put on the pile: A big part of the reason Walt was willing to let Skyler off the hook is because, in the scenario he laid out on the phone, he got to see himself as the winner. In that phone call, he had the upper hand (she would have gone along with anything to get Holly back), and he used it to get her to go along with him (again). But more importantly, the story he spun didn't just lead the police away from Skyler, it made them look like impotent losers who couldn't catch him. He turned the situation into a "win" by creating a useful narrative spun from things he really did think and feel.

    Think about how much of the call served the mythology he most wants to believe: By telling the authorities he'd done all those things (and most of what he said was morally or actually true), he got to leave town as the diabolical, crafty Heisenberg. He was okay with Skyler potentially getting off scot-free because the storyline he pitched -- "I built this. Me alone" -- made him look like a criminal genius. And in assenting to his plan -- one of many, many things Skyler did in that phone call -- Walt got to control the narrative. She knows it's not true, but it doesn't matter. He got his way. Again.

    As Nussbaum pointed out on Twitter, the basis of Walt's relationship with Jesse was control, and when Jesse tricked Walt into coming out into the desert, Walt could not handle the shift in the power dynamic between them. So he threw Jane's death in Jesse's face. The last time they met in the desert, Walt got a doubting Jesse to buy the "I'm your caring mentor" B.S. again, but Jesse wasn't buying it when he rolled up with Hank and Gomez. So Jesse had to pay.

    Hank, whom Walt had duped for years, altered the power balance between them by figuring out Walt's secret. Hank was told to "tread lightly," and shortly thereafter he was being dumped in a grave that Walt himself had dug. Walt wanted that to be someone else's fault -- blame-shifting is one of his specialities -- and to do that, he quickly arrived at a narrative about Jesse's culpability. That story, like the "confession" Walt recorded, suited the narrative he preferred, and it solved a problem for him. Two birds, one stone.

    Walt's true skill isn't the creation of meth, it's the creation of myth. It's all about story lines that favor him, allow him to dominate or neutralize criticisms of him. The phone call's just the latest in a long line of problem-solving manipulations -- and those usually include a few nuggets of truth.

    Walt didn't rain yet more destruction down on Skyler because, once again, she went along with his plan. (And by the way, I fully understand that she partly said "I'm sorry" because she was sorry she ever laid eyes on Walter White). Imagine what might have happened had she not allowed Walter to leave town with his preferred narrative of control and dominance in his pocket. Imagine.

    Nobility and selflessness often involve the abandonment of control; altruism and in-yo-face dominance don't exactly mix well. There's a huge difference between belatedly trying to lessen or limit harm, which is what Walt did, and acting in a truly noble, selfless or altruistic fashion, which is something I'm not sure Walt is capable of. He no doubt thinks he loves his family, but his love takes the form of standing over their panicking, cowering bodies and shouting, "We're a family!" Not agape in my book.

    Of course, in that call, Walt felt regret, but feeling regret about your bad actions doesn't make you a saint, it makes you a human being. And as human beings go, Walt's pretty terrible.

    He's fascinating person, of course. Worth watching for five seasons, without a doubt. And he's not purely evil. But at this stage, he's dominated by bad qualities, just as the roster of his lifetime accomplishments will be dominated by his horrible choices and damaging actions.

    And just because some good is mixed in with the bad, just because he sometimes wants to atone, just because his intentions often go awry, it doesn't mean we need to buy into his version of the narrative.

    One of the goals of "Ozymandias," I think, was to rub our noses in the true nature of the guy we've been following for five seasons. This hour forced us to look hard at his capacity for cruelty, his selfishness and his narcissistic desire not just to win but to subjugate and control. It's no wonder some of us wanted to look away: It was ugly to witness Walt terrifying his family, easily accessing the tyrant of that phone call and kidnapping his own daughter. But we have to look at it. All of it.

    I don't exclude myself from these questions: Why are we so often willing to give this man a pass and go along with the lies and evasions he tries to perpetrate on himself and everyone around him? Why are we so willing to be manipulated? I think one of "Breaking Bad's" goals is to get us to ask ourselves these questions, and if we don't grapple with them -- please allow me this indulgence -- we're doing the show an injustice.

    I think many viewers do wrestle with these questions, even as they are vastly entertained by the expertly created suspense and the sight of a former sad sack entering the underworld and committing acts of bad-assery. But just as we have to look at all of Walt's actions, we can't ignore the unpleasant and unsavory aspects of fandom, especially the vigorous and insistent desire to interpret Walt's actions in positive ways (and Skyler's in negative ways). That said, these tendencies provide us with a useful X-ray of our hearts and souls. We all bring our own baggage to the White house, but to discount everything that is sick, wrong and selfish about Walt so assiduously -- well, isn't that the kind of denial that allowed Walt to travel as far as he did down the road to hell?

    Settle down, I'm not telling anyone who's ever defended Walt to go to hell. But once you get past the suspense and the incredible performances and aesthetic mastery of just about everything, there's a lot of food for thought there. Don't leave it on the table to rot. Here's a piece of philosophical red meat you can chew on, if you wish: Rationalizing awful behavior is itself a bad action that can lead to terrible consequences.

    In other words: Walt's pretty good at spinning self-serving versions of the truth. We don't need to do that for him.

    Ryan McGee and I talked about the last two episodes of "Breaking Bad" in the latest Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.

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