The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” — Oscar Wilde
My husband, the always perceptive Joe Heumann, recently pointed to an alarming pattern in my TV obsessions. The shows that hook me have disturbing elements in common. Crime and violence. Lots and lots of violence. A lead character who is a conflicted sociopath—Dexter, Jax Teller in Sons of Anarchy, or any of a dozen characters in The Wire. And now Walter White , the high-school chemistry teacher who starts cooking meth to pay for his cancer treatments in the AMC series Breaking Bad.
A Midlife Career Change
Walter (Brian Cranston) is a talented scientist who—for personal reasons that remain shrouded—turned his back on a lucrative career as a researcher and became a high-school teacher. In the first episode, he’s so underpaid he works part-time at a car wash, where one of his smartass students takes a picture of him wiping tires, a shot that will no doubt pop up on two or three hundred adolescent cell phones. What unbearable humiliation. Yet Walter bears it.
Then he’s diagnosed with lung cancer. The medical bills will wipe out the family’s meager savings. No college for Junior. A diminished future for the daughter soon to be born. During a ridealong with his DEA brother-in-law, Walter sees the piles of cash confiscated from a busted meth lab and wakes up to the unvarnished truth about life.
Nice Guys Finish Last
Walter is done being a nice guy. He teams up with a former student (Aaron Paul) and begins his transformation into master meth cook Heisenberg. By the end of the first episode he’s already snuffed a guy. True, the guy is going to kill him, so he doesn’t have much choice. With this initial killing Walter takes the first step onto a long and very slippery slope. By the middle of season two, he’s responsible—directly or indirectly—for the deaths of quite a few people. Hundreds if you count the midair plane collision caused by the grieving air-traffic controller father of Jesse’s girlfriend, whose life Walter could have saved. He watches as she chokes to death on her own vomit. The bitch is just too snotty and inconvenient.
Near the end of season three, Walter casually plugs a bullet into the head of a man lying wounded in the street.
Fragments of the old Walter remain. At one point he gives up cooking to keep his wife from divorcing him. But it’s too late to go back. When he sees it won’t work, he signs the divorce papers and accepts a three-million-dollar offer to cook for a drug kingpin, whom he eventually assassinates.
There’s Something about Walter
I can’t help liking this renegade high-school teacher. He doesn’t have Dexter’s animal magnetism or Jax’s slinky sexiness. He has the face of a guy who should have started using sunscreen decades ago. If he’s going parade around in his underwear, he needs to take up Pilates or weight-lifting. For viewers who want sexy, there’s his partner, Jesse, played by Aaron Paul. But Cranston brings such compelling and charismatic energy to the role that I have to get behind Walter. I hope he resists the urge to destroy himself. I hope he crushes his enemies, ends up with piles and piles of cash, and enjoys a quiet retirement, his cancer in remission. One evening he’ll be eating dinner at a posh restaurant where the jerk who snapped his picture at the carwash now works as a busboy. Walter could give him a hard time, even kill him. But why bother? Stepping on the little jerk would mean getting shit on his shoe.
Yet I know the story won’t end like that. Nice guys might finish last, but bad guys don’t escape retribution. One way or another, Walter has to go down in flames.
Photos from FanPop
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