"Breaking Bad's" racial politics: Walter White, angry white man

Walter's brutal meltdown shows genius way "Breaking Bad" deals with white privilege, and men who can't get enough

Published September 22, 2013 11:00AM (EDT)

Giancarlo Esposito and Bryan Cranston in "Breaking Bad"            (AMC/Ursula Coyote)
Giancarlo Esposito and Bryan Cranston in "Breaking Bad" (AMC/Ursula Coyote)

Walter White has finally reached the point where he can no longer stay in Albuquerque, N.M. After a brutal fight with his wife, Skyler, his own son called the police on him, and it seems likely his wife will finally spill the truth about his meth empire. On his way out the door of the family home he won't return to until it's a hollowed-out husk of itself, he snatches his own baby daughter as misguided payback. He seems to have finally reached the height of his villainy.

What happens next is vintage "Breaking Bad," a queasy sequence designed to make viewers question just where the line is between Walter and his dark alter ego, Heisenberg. Having heard his daughter call out "Mama" while he's changing her diaper, whatever human part of Walter that remains realizes he can't do this last, unforgivable thing and pile it atop the many other unforgivable things he's done. He calls his wife. He spews all manner of bile and anger her way, yelling at her about how she was never grateful for what he did and how she treated him poorly, calling her a "bitch." Yet even as he says all of this, giving full rein to his Heisenberg side, in a brilliant bit of acting by Bryan Cranston, tears begin to roll down his face, and he interlaces the speech with lies. He's making an elaborate ploy to get his wife out of harsh criminal prosecution for how far she was drawn into his criminal empire.

Crucially, though, the show doesn't allow whatever "positive" ulterior motives Walter has to let him off the hook for what he's saying. On some level, Walter means almost every word of this little speech. These are things he's longed to say for ages to Skyler, things he's privately thought but not been able to put into words. They're also things that the scarier elements of the show's fanbase very well might have said in comments sections about Skyler's supposed emasculation of her husband. But those words aren't just directed at Skyler. They're directed at former partner Jesse Pinkman, locked up by neo-Nazis and forced to cook meth. They're directed at Hank Schraeder, moldering in a shallow desert grave. They're directed at Walt, Jr., who looked at the true face of his father with fear, instead of awe. They're directed at Tuco and Jane and Gus Fring and Mike, all the people Walter has killed, directly or indirectly, for practical or petty reasons over the course of the show.

It's once viewers consider just how wide-ranging and epic Walter's anger is that one of its true sources emerges: This is the voice of white male privilege, the angry, unfiltered sense that one is owed something and has had it taken away. Never mind that Walter built an empire worth $80 million. He always wanted more—respect or fear or worship—and he never got it. He could never quite get over the fact that other people weren't placed on Earth to play supporting characters in his own story, and even in the series' pilot, he's bogged down by an overbearing boss and a wife who seems interested in anything but him. Though viewers didn't know it at the time, this was "Breaking Bad" playing off some very recognizable tropes, well known from movies like "Falling Down," where the mild-mannered white guy finally has had it and speaks truth to power about his own greatness, usually through violence. But since this is a TV show, the story must continue, and the longer it has gone on, the more the hollowness behind that sense of entitlement has become apparent.

What's interesting about this is that "Breaking Bad" is not an exceptionally non-white show. People of color are barely represented in the series' universe, even though Albuquerque's population is nearly half Latino. Sure, there are recurring characters of Latino descent, including Hank's partner Steve Gomez and Jesse's longtime girlfriend Andrea Cantillo, but the fastidious and terrifying Gus Fring is the only Latino character in the show's run to make his way to regular character status, and he was killed by Walter after a harrowing game of cat-and-mouse. "Breaking Bad's" four most important characters—Walter, Jesse, Skyler and Hank, in roughly that order—are all white, and though the center of the show is one family that's eventually torn apart by Walter's choice to break bad, it still has always seemed a little weird that the show has so few important Latino characters, particularly when one of the main villains over the course of the series has been a Mexican drug cartel.

There are reasons within the show's structure for this to be the case. The series has always been relentlessly focused on Walter and how his actions affect the circle immediately surrounding him. To that end, it makes a certain amount of sense for the series' Albuquerque to feel slightly underpopulated. (This underpopulation problem was most noticeably an issue in the first two seasons, when it sometimes felt like only 15 people lived there.) Walter doesn't notice others around him because he's so focused on building his empire. Similarly, the series has gotten less "realistic" over its run and has become something like Walter's tortured soul making itself into pulpy reality. Thus, the show isn't terribly interested in representation so much as it is in making the contents of Walter's head into its setting.

But the foremost reason for this to be a show primarily about a middle-aged white guy is because it's perhaps the last of the great antihero dramas. The antihero drama movement, kicked off by "The Sopranos" in 1999, with important roots in 1993's "NYPD Blue," has had shows that weren't strictly about white men. "The Wire," for instance, had antiheroes who were both white and African-American, while "Damages" (which is not a very good show but is very good at playing up antihero tropes) was centered on Glenn Close. But for the most part, this has been a movement dominated by singular white men, whose combination of ruthlessness, inherently sympathetic nature and sexual charisma has led them to deeper and darker things. The subtext of so many of these shows has been about that white guy taking what he was always owed, be that money or sex or power, and regardless of if that man was conventionally attractive—like Don Draper—or a little schlubby—like Tony Soprano—there was something thrilling and sexually dangerous about it.

Throughout its run, "Breaking Bad" has been interested in exposing the danger underneath this idea. Idolize Walter White or any antihero (as so many do) for being a "badass," and it becomes far too easy to buy whole-hog into what they're saying. Thus, instead of populating its physical universe, "Breaking Bad" has been far more interested in populating its psychological universe, at digging down deeper and deeper into Walter until it exposes the hollowness of all of his rationales for the awful things he does.

One of the earliest indicators of this comes in the show's second season (after the abbreviated first), when Walter goes out to lunch with Gretchen, the woman he once loved who (from Walter's point of view) helped another friend stiff him out of a fortune in a company they all started together. ("Breaking Bad" has always kept its backstory a little bit mysterious, which adds to the feeling that all of life has caused Walter's deep-seated resentment.) Early in the series' run, Gretchen and her husband had offered to pay for Walt's cancer treatments, one of the ostensible reasons for him to cook meth in the first place, but he had turned them down. His meth operation had finally given him a taste of whatever it was he'd been chasing all along, and he was loath to give it up.

Now, however, Gretchen had found out Walt was telling his wife and son that she and her husband were paying for his treatments. Over a dinner with him, she attempts to ascertain just why he told this lie—and just where the money for his treatment is coming from (a question that "concerns her greatly"). What's interesting here is that for one of the first times in the series' run, it lets viewers in on a point-of-view other than Walter's. Walt provides his rationales for why he's not taking Gretchen's money—she stiffed him, she left him, she was bad to him—and she stares at him in shock. That can't be how he sees it. "Fuck you," he says, severing the relationship permanently.

This pattern repeats throughout the series: Walter steps in with his justifications for his actions, only to have someone else point out how ridiculous he sounds. When that happens, he escalates the situation even further, simply because he can't handle being exposed for who he truly is. If those other antihero shows played off the thrill that results from being able to do anything or take whatever one wants, then "Breaking Bad" is increasingly about how unpleasant that actually is in real life. Walt's justifications for why he should have what he wants stem almost entirely from believing that he's owed in some way, that the universe has screwed him over. Yet when the series begins, he has a pretty good life. He has a beautiful wife, a loving son, a baby on the way, and a house with a swimming pool. Maybe he doesn't like either of his jobs, but who does? And when he gets cancer, old friends who feel a debt to him offer to pay for the treatments. Yet all Walter needs is the slightest provocation to look around himself, reach out for anything within reach, and cry out, "I want that!" like a spoiled toddler.

This grows more pronounced once the series incorporates its one non-white major character, Gus Fring, brilliantly played by Giancarlo Esposito in the series' second, third and fourth seasons. Gus eventually becomes Walt's boss, but what Gus realizes quickly about Walt is that no matter how good of a meth cook he is, he's an unstable element in an operation that thrives on stability. Gus, as a Chilean-American immigrant, realizes that the only way he's going to keep from revealing that he's a villain is to hide in plain sight. So his public persona becomes Ward Cleaver-esque. He's involved in the community. He runs a small fast-food chain. He has a lovely home and children. Gus, too, has his monstrous side, but he keeps it locked away far more tightly than Walter does, careful not to expose himself, perhaps knowing how much farther he has to fall.

The conflict between Walter and Gus is more complicated than Walter simply seeing Gus's position and saying, "I want that!" To be sure, Gus means to kill Walter more than once, and he would have eventually figured out a way to do so if Walter hadn't managed to kill him first. Plus, the reason Walter first misbehaves is to protect Jesse (whom he later manipulates into killing the man Gus is grooming to take Walter's job), rather than out of some misguided sense of desire. But the deeper the two get into their war, the more it looks like Walter simply doesn't want to have somebody else as a boss, the more it seems like he's just intent on taking something he believes is rightfully his simply because he saw it. Where Gus knows that he must be the picture of perfection if he's going to survive as a criminal, Walter thinks nothing of blowing up the world to get something he desires. Gus has to play the part of who Walter was at the show's beginning to get anywhere; Walter knows he can use the cover of his old identity to get away with increasingly heinous actions.

Those are, more or less, the series' racial politics in a nutshell. Walter White is not a racist, nor is he really a misogynist (though he's said misogynistic things to his wife and Gretchen). What he is is blithely unaware of just how little he's owed any of the things he reaches out to take. In that final phone call with his wife in the latest episode, Walter's howls of rage are meant to fool the police, sure, but there's also this certainty in them, this constant sense that Walter was supposed to get so much better than he already got. Creator Vince Gilligan and his writers are smart people, who understand all of the previous antihero shows they're in conversation with. In this moment, there's nothing exciting or badass or charismatic about Walter, even when he's played by such a great actor (perhaps because he's played by such a great actor). He is simply a pathetic, angry husk, shouting out resentments that stretch back to the dawn of his life.

Walter White was a smart, capable guy who expected, at some level, to be rewarded simply for being a smart, capable guy. And why wouldn't he expect that? He lives in a culture that regularly rewards men who look like him simply because of who they are, rather than any other particular qualities. The genius of "Breaking Bad" lies in the fact that it can look with clear eyes at this privilege and entitlement and can see that even when Walter has millions upon millions, it will never be enough. It's the center of the show's portrayal of the American white guy psyche, the man always pointing at something somebody else has and saying, "Gimme that!"

By Emily VanDerWerff

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