Welcome the the second Walter White Wednesday! I'll be posting specifically about various aspects of AMC's magnificent Breaking Bad on Wednesdays for the foreseeable future. This particular post is also known as "Show Me the Money!" as I take a look at a central question asked by the show - what makes a law-abiding citizen turn to crime?
You have to have some degree of sympathy for Walt – at least at the very beginning. Here’s a man who’s done everything he’s supposed to do. He’s gifted with an amazing brain for chemistry. He’s with the same woman he’s been with for about twenty years and clearly still finds her to be quite a catch. He’s got a teenage son who respects him and a new baby girl about to arrive. He believes a man is supposed to provide for his family. Yet his demanding job offers him little in financial rewards or prestige, so he works a second job at a car wash, where a jackass student lords it over him and Walt just has to suck it up instead of laying the little brat out on the pavement.
His solution is to turn to making crystal meth.
Crazy? Well, yes. But as an old Glenn Frey song puts it, “It’s the lure of easy money/It’s got a very strong appeal.”
Yes, it’s true that Walt’s job is crap. The glory of chemistry is lost in the teenage wasteland. And the cherry on the sundae? He’s been handed a death sentence called Lung Cancer. (To add to the suckage, Walk doesn’t even smoke.) Why leave his family destitute when, with a little smudging of moral lines, he could set them up to live comfortably after he’s gone to the Great Laboratory in the Sky? That’s tempting. But don’t be fooled by this plaintive cry. Walt’s not doing this for his family – not really.
Walt wants what all gangbangers want. Money, sure, but far more important and integral to Walt is something the Queen of Soul sang about around the time Walt was learning that fires need oxygen. Walt wants R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Just a little bit. And if Walt is the fire, this desire for respect is his oxygen.
Walt’s a man who understands the mysteries of chemistry and he’s surrounded by people who couldn’t care less about those topics. His quicksilver mind and blade-sharp abilities are not appreciated by the movers and shakers of polite society. The only people who hail Walter White as a master artist are people who have a deep and abiding appreciation for crystallography, albeit of a very particular and felonious kind - meth users and dealers. Instead of trash meth mixed from lye and match strike plates, Walt can make stuff so pure it tempts the angels. Is it so wrong to take pride in your work?
That’s the crux of it. Walt’s not veering off the straight and narrow to leave a nest egg behind for his family. This plan is about him, pure and (mostly) simple. Walt wants to be respected. He wants to be seen as smart and sharp. Maybe even viewed as a little dangerous. As someone you want to be friends with because crossing him is something that – woo, boy! – you just don’t want to do.
The problem with this is that it has nothing to say about how WALT views himself and everything to do with how he sees OTHERS viewing him. For someone who prizes control so much, he’s cedes control to a whole heap of other people, for how they view him determines how Walt views himself.