“No matter how it may look, I only had you in my heart.” -- Just one Walter White's many self-justifications.
All things considered, Walter White doesn't have it so bad. When the pilot opens, he’s not on easy street, but, by the end of the season, everything he values in these first 40 minutes will be gone.
While Tony and Carmela Soprano often represented the spiritual superficiality and hidden despair of the suburban middle class nuclear family at the turn of the century, Walter and Skyler White reflect its vulnerability. By most measures, they appear to be doing well – they’ve been married for about 20 years, they’re homeowners with their own backyard pool (also a potent symbol on the Sopranos). But they’re in a financially precarious position, which was especially resonant during the recession of the late 2000s. Many middle-class families are one serious illness away from going broke.
Creator Vince Gilligan described his initial concept as “A man undergoes the worst midlife crisis ever.” The midlife crisis is an existential crisis – your growing awareness of your mortality conflicts with regrets of unfulfilled youthful desires. As we mature, we must accept that we can never do everything we want to, because life is finite; because making one choice means not choosing other things; and because we’re not the center of the universe and must respect other people’s needs and feelings. The worst behavior of a stereotypical midlife crisis results when the truth are refused, hence the desperate attempts to look or act younger; the impulsive purchases or life changes; the divorces or affairs.
Walter White initially appears to be a mature and even stoic adult who’s accepted how things are. He seems unlikely to hit the self-destruct button on a stable if unexciting life. But then his vague “One day I will die” anxiety collides with the troubling news that One Day could come this year. In Walt’s mind, the cold, uncaring Universe has leaned on the destruct button, and it’s up to him to lessen the blowback for his family.
Current events, specifically powerful people growing richer through unethical means, with no punishment or comeuppance, coupled with Hank’s comment about how meth dealers make a lot of money, plus Walt’s own worries about money in light of a coming baby and cancer diagnosis, nurture a seed of resentment. Under better circumstances, that resentment may have never taken root, but we see through the show that it’s always been there. Like the castor beans Walter uses to make ricin, his wounded pride and sullen anger are not exceptionally harmful, but when distilled, they become deadly.
Walt Jr.’s cerebral palsy points to a past of financial difficulty for his parents as they took care of him. According to a 2004 CDC report, the average lifetime cost for a family raising a child with cerebral palsy is $921,000. Obviously, the Whites love their son and have raised him well, but caring for a child with a disability can be stressful. I haven’t yet found an interview where Gilligan explains why he made this decision, but the character was initially written to have cerebral palsy, a condition that happens due to an injury sustained during delivery. While Walt defends his child against stupid jerks mocking him in public, the violence of the reaction also hints at Walt’s submerged anger about his child’s condition, possibly perceived as a wrong done against him. And let’s not overlook the significance of the name his son eventually rejects – Walt sees his son as an extension of himself.
But it’s still satisfying to watch Walt take that asshole down.
Before watching Breaking Bad, I’d just finished reading Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson which explores how self-justification helps us move past cognitive dissonance (usually not for the better) and makes it difficult to admit we’re wrong even when presented with evidence. Obliviousness to one’s capacity for error or wrongdoing isn’t just the folly of the feeble-minded – if anything, intelligent people are more prone to think their ways around their conscience. And that’s exactly what we’re going to see Walter White do.
I started taking silly notes during season 1, episode 3, The Cat’s in the Bag. Anything I wrote at the time I watched the show appears in italics.
I'm going to get to Jesse later -- because I'll have plenty to say about him -- but let's just say, through the entire show, Walt clings tenaciously to a delusion that Jesse should only ever appreciate all he's done for him.
Walter worries that if he murders Krazy-8, he won't be able to live with himself. Given that this isn't the final episode, it's safe to say he gets over that hurdle.
Walt: Okay, I'll let you go.
Krazy-8: There you go. Was that so SHARD?
(The scene was actually really well done, but I like puns, okay?)
I'm not a fan of violence and apparently neither is Vince Gilligan, but I think this shot was done exceptionally well in that we're asked to watch the entire sequence without cutting away, for an important reason. We see that, even as Walt kills Krazy-8 in an act of self-defense, he struggles with regrets and with doing something that he's long assumed wasn't in his nature. As an audience member, I'm torn -- self-defense seems like a valid reason to make such a difficult decision, but the force and persistence necessary to choke somebody to death with a bicycle lock might not be stronger than our conscience. The scene runs long enough so that the voice in your head that says "He had no choice, he has to save himself" ceases, leaving you to wonder if you could ever do the same if you had to.
Thankfully, most of us never have to make such a difficult decision. But there are going to be some easy choices for Walter to make very soon that would make sure he never again has to take a life. And he will refuse those choices.