Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Breaking Bad: Walt's ego was his fatal flaw

Beware of spoilers….

Simply put, Breaking Bad was a show about character development, with an emphasis on one character's development, Walter White. Unlike most protagonists Walter slowly turns from a mild-mannered dorky chemistry teacher to a ruthless murderous drug lord. While Walt’s cancer may have been the catalyst that began his transformation from good man to cold blooded killer there was something else that had been inside Walt for much longer that gave him the potential to become such a monster. Walt’s massive ego, which was a driving force behind everything Walt did from the start, fueled his pride and his greed.

Walt always maintained that he did the terrible things he did for his family. That was his excuse for letting a girl choke to death, poisoning a child and arranging for the deaths of dozens of people, killing many himself. It wasn’t until the final episode that he admitted to his wife that in reality he did all it for himself. Walt enjoyed being “Heisenberg” the cruel alter ego he created to deal with the criminals, but it wasn't really a persona, it was his ego finally coming through. Now he had an excuse to let that darkness within him out. Walt always had a choice, but he refused to swallow his pride, he decided to do the wrong things on his own rather than take help from anyone.

One recurring reminder of Walt’s pride manifested itself in the form of the Schwartzes. Way back in season one they offered to pay for Walt’s cancer treatment, however Walt turned them down. He had the chance to escape from the world of meth before he had fallen too deep in, but he would not accept help from those who he believed had wronged him. Gretchen Schwartz, who once upon a time was his girlfriend, betrayed him, stole his research, and ran off with Eliot Schwartz, then the two made billions off his ideas. At least that’s how Walt remembered it.

He told Jessie about how he “sold his children’s birthright” AKA his third of the company that he and the Schwartzes formed together. He thinks he had been cheated out of millions and wanted to get back what he should have had and build his own empire. Walt liked being the kingpin, he wanted everyone to recognize how talented he was and to know his (fake) name, even as it caused him and the ones he loves to be in more and more danger.

Early on, in the first episode of season two, Walt calculated the amount of money he needed to make before he could get out of the meth business. He came up with a rough estimate of $737,000 or eleven more drug deals. Walt implied that once he made this money he could escape from this awful life of making drugs, yet he didn't stop until he'd made roughly $80 million dollars. Walt continued cooking meth because of his greed,; it was never enough money. He had to be the king. The ad’s for the final season even referenced this showing him sitting in front of piles of money and the catchphrase “All hail the king.”

This isn’t the only time that Breaking Bad makes a reference to Walt being a king.  The third to final episode of the show was titled Ozymandias, a reference to a famous poem by Percy Bysshe Shelly. The poem tells the story of a worn statue in the sand of Egypt of a long dead pharaoh, who declared himself, “The king of kings.” Of course Ozymandias’ kingdom and his power faded away long ago, and that no matter how great, all kings must fall. Just as the egomaniacal king Ozymandias’ kingdom is merely ruins in the Egyptian desert, the egomaniacal Heisenburg’s empire crumbled too in the harsh New Mexican desert.  Here’s a promo featuring Bryan Cranston reading the poem:

The desert is where Walter White met his ultimate downfall; where his money was stolen, his true identity exposed to the world, and where the one line that he swore he would never cross was crossed for him. Because of Walt’s actions his brother in law was murdered by Nazis. His decision try and have Jessie, who was “like family,” killed caused Walt's fall from grace. Walt always wanted more; he schemed, murdered and manipulated to get his way. In the end it caught up with him.

Mike, perhaps the wisest character on the show, described Walter as a ticking time bomb and warned Jessie to get away from him. Mike saw Walt’s ego and the destruction it left better than anyone. Mike famously told Walt; “We had a good thing, you stupid son of a bitch! We had Fring, we had a lab, we had everything we needed, and it all ran like clockwork! You could have shut your mouth, cooked, and made as much money as you ever needed! It was perfect! But no! You just had to blow it up! You, and your pride and your ego!” Then Walt shot and killed him.

Of course Walt was not the only character on the show who’s ego got the better of him; plenty of characters displaed a lack of hubris. Some of these examples were obvious, Saul Goodman plastered his name and face on every bus bench and late night commercial he could, and his punishment was to disappear into anonymity. Skyler was a character who talked about morals but seemed to have none herself. She constantly did things of questionable ethics to keep her lifestyle intact. Even small egotistical transgressions had consequences. When Walt told Jessie how to dispose of a body Jessie took a few liberties thinking he knew how to handle it as well as Walt did, but because of his arrogance he destroyed his second floor bathroom, leaving a gaping hole in his ceiling and a mess of blood and guts on his floor.

Perhaps the longest and bloodiest feud in Breaking Bad was the rivalry between Hector Salamanca and Gustavo Fring, and it was a rivalry driven by both men’s egos. When Gustavo was young he and his partner, Max, arranged a meeting with the Mexican cartel. A young Hector didn’t trust him, and the cartel found them arrogant, so Hector murdered Max in front of Gus to show him his place. Hector and the cartel killed Max to show their superiority in the face of any perceived arrogance. This began a long revenge plot by Gus to destroy the cartel and Hector Salamanca’s along entire family, just as the man Gus considered a brother was killed. When Walt set a trap to kill Gus using Hector as a suicide bomber, Gus fell for the trap and died because of his pride. He could have sent any of his cronies to do it, but his ego drove him to do it himself. Their need to best each other, to get revenge and prove who was on top, caused their downfalls and they died together.

Of course people may not realize that even heroism can be egoistic, if done for the wrong reasons, and no one exemplified that more than Hank. Hank failed to see what was right in front of him, that his brother in law was a druglord. He knew how embarrassing it would be for him when the rest of the DEA discovered how completely he was fooled. Hank’s pride would not allow him to go to the DEA for help, instead Hank believed he could bring Walt to justice himself, wanting one last chance to redeem himself. He only told his faithful right hand man Gomez, and because of Hank’s need to be the hero they both ended up dead. The show’s final antagonist, Todd, summed up the greed of everyone on the show best when he said “Not matter how much you got how can you turn your back on more.”

No one, however, not Skyler or Gus or even Todd had the ego of Walter White. Walt managed to escape ever repercussion that came his way for four and a half seasons, but Walt got sloppy, and after his retirement his sins caught up with him. His DEA brother in law found a book he should have destroyed long ago, and prior to that he even tells Hank that Heisenberg may still be out there when Hank suspects that Gale was the true mastermind. His pride causes Hank to reopen the case he once thought solved. After everything went south Walt still kept trying to escape his fate and even Saul told him to turn himself in to protect his family, his supposed reason for doing it all along. Walt refused and tried to come up with a scheme to get revenge on the Nazis that stole his money. He attempted to intimidate Saul but sucumed to a coughing fit while Saul told him “It’s over.”

Only once Walt admited that he had his own selfish reasons did he gain some redemption. He almost died on his own terms, he left his family some money, and he got his revenge. Of course he could never be fully redeemed; he had done far too much to get a real happy ending, or what he really wanted. At least he got a heroic death, more or less, and the way he did so was to save Jessie Pinkman and free him, not only from the Nazis, but from Walt’s own control. Jessie was held down by Walt for five seasons, who had convinced himself that Jessie needed him, even when he did things like letting the woman Jessie loved die. In Walt’s mind it was all for Jessie’s best interest. Once he saved Jessie and admitted that he was asking Jessie to do something for Walt’s own benefit he could die somewhat nobly.

So the overall message of Breaking Bad is clear; do not let your ego get the best of you, no good can come of it. Of course if you should falter you can always make amends, and while it is not possible to completely undo you mistakes you must try to fix what you have broken. After all, while Walt had the biggest ego of anyone, he was the only one who attempted to right his wrongs, to admit his mistakes and take the punishment he deserved. The show ended much like this post, on a bittersweet, and (hopefully) satisfying note.

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