Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 2

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.

And that's a train that will jump the tracks.


Shimon said...

In a way though even before breaking bad Walt had already been living his life according to the expectations of others. Only now, the "others" has shifted.
Also, the irony in choosing crime as his solution is that he cannot boast about his work to almost anyone.
These two points do not contradict your thesis (which I very much agree with) but do add some more complexity to the equation.

K. Dale Koontz said...

Thanks for the comment, Shimon! I think you're right on the money (hee, hee, hee!). Oh, and how Walt wants to be able to boast . . .

Lilred said...

Hi, I just started reading you blog so I don't know if you are talking about Walter's evolvement over the whole series or just the first season. I know in the first season I very much identified with Walt, I was diagnosed with stage III melanoma, (stage iv depending on who you ask) and had NO medical insurance. At that point you are stuck with a dilemma, save myself or save my family. You don't even want to tell them what the dr said because you know what they will say, fight the cancer, but when you facing less then a 50/50 chance of surviving no matter what, and treatments running into the hundred thousand range its a tough decision. Even I would have considered Walt's solution at the time, I was considering all solutions. You are up against a clock and in desperate need of a crystal ball, money buys you time and options which is what you need most.
And there is also there is kind of a "what the H311!" aspect to the situation, especially if you have played by ALL the rules and then karma takes a vacation. You don't deserve this! You feel like you got screwed and you are angry! You want to get some of that pie all the people you see ignoring the rules are eating, There is kind of a big "screw you" to the universe thing that happens. I think that has a lot to do with Walt wanting to show how brilliant he is and his detour onto the dark side. He knows he could have been so much more but choose the safe route and always did the responsible thing and now he regrets not taking more risks.
These are some of the things I felt anyway, although not to the extent that Walt did, of course and I never acted on any of them.
Red (redsrandomthoughts, twitter)

K. Dale Koontz said...

Lilred - I hope your situation got better. What you describe is horrible and yes, that's the choice that Walt has in Season 1 (I'm trying to stay non-spoilery, but eventually I'll start posting alerts, I'm sure!). I think that part of what sucks us in so quickly - we LIKE Walt, we GET this guy.

But with Walt, his motivation changes pretty quickly and pretty sharply and that's also fascinating.