Across five seasons of riveting television, the antihero of AMCs Breaking Bad, Walter Hartwell White, committed enough crimes to earn several life sentences from any reasonable jury. He cooked crystal meth in bulk, hooking addicts from his native Albuquerque all the way to Prague. He personally killed at least seven people and was implicated in the deaths of hundreds more. He poisoned an innocent child, took out a contract on his longtime partner and stood by and watched a young woman choke to death.
But one thing he hadnt done, as last weekends series finale loomed, was entirely forfeit the sympathies of his audience. As a cultural phenomenon, this is the most striking aspect of Breaking Bad the persistence, after everything hes done, of a Team Walt that still wanted him to prevail.
In the online realms where hit shows are dissected, critics who pass judgment on Walts sins find themselves tangling with a multitude of commenters who dont think he needs forgiveness. And it isnt just the anonymous hordes who take his side.
Youd think Id bear Walt some serious ill will considering he sat there and watched Jane die, the actress who played his vomit-choked victim wrote for New York magazine, but Im still rooting for everything to work out for the guy.
On the surface, this sympathy is not surprising, given the long pop culture tradition of rooting for the bad guy. But you dont usually hear audiences argue insistently that their favorite villains are actually heroic that a J.R. Ewing or a Francis Underwood is a misunderstood paragon of virtue. And when viewers do make excuses for fictional criminals, its usually because those characters inhabit distinctive, hermetic worlds the Jersey mafia on The Sopranos, West Baltimore on The Wire in which becoming a killer is less a decision than an inheritance, which we can root for them to escape from or rise above.
Walter White, though, begins as a perfectly law-abiding citizen a high school chemistry teacher and family man, who turns to cooking meth after a terminal cancer diagnosis because it promises to make money for his family. He isnt the product of a lawless environment who never knew another way. Hes a protagonist who made a conscious decision to embrace what society regards as evil, to step permanently outside our civilizations moral norms.
This means Breaking Bad implicitly challenges audiences to get down to bedrock and actually justify those norms. Why is it so wrong to kill strangers often dangerous strangers! so that your own family can survive and prosper? Why is it wrong to exploit people you dont see or care about for the sake of those inside your circle? Why is Walter Whites empire-building carried out with boldness, brilliance and guile not an achievement to be admired?
And the fact that so many viewers do seem to end up admiring him even to the point of despising Walts conflicted wife, Skyler, because she doesnt appreciate him is a reminder that the answers to these questions arent actually as self-evident as our civilization would like to assume.
The allure for Team Walt is not ultimately the pull of nihilism, or the harmless thrill of rooting for a supervillain. Its the pull of an alternative moral code, neither liberal nor Judeo-Christian, with an internal logic all its own. As James Bowman wrote in The New Atlantis, embracing Walt doesnt require embracing individual savagery and a world without moral rules. It just requires a return to old rules to the tribal, family-oriented society and the honor culture that actually did precede the Enlightenments commitment to universal values.
Those rules seem cruel by the lights of both cosmopolitanism and Christianity, but they are not irrational or necessarily false. Their Darwinian logic is clear enough, and where the show takes place in the shadow of cancer, the shadow of death the kindlier alternatives can seem soft-headed, pointless, naive.
Nor can this tribal morality be refuted in a laboratory. Indeed, by making Walt a chemistry genius, the show offers an implicit rebuke to the persistent modern conceit that a scientific worldview logically implies liberalism, humanism and a widening circle of concern. On Breaking Bad, that worldview just makes Walt a better kingpin, and the beautiful equations of chemistry are deployed to addict, poison, decompose.
I dont think the show itself was actually on Walts side. I think Team Walt badly misread the storys moral arc and vision.
But the pervasiveness of that misreading tells us something significant. Its comforting to dismiss Walts admirers as sickos, idiots, bad fans. But they, too, can be moralists drawn by their sympathy for Walter White into a worldview that still lies percolating, like one of his reactions, just below the surface of every human heart.
The New York Times