'Breaking Bad's' Walter White: How we hate you, root for you

Image: Bryan Cranston as Walter White
Walter White (Bryan Cranston) - Breaking Bad _Season 5 - Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels/AMCFrank Ockenfels / AMC
"Breaking Bad's" Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the baddest villain in TV history.Frank Ockenfels 3 / Today

“Breaking Bad” fans: we’ve been Heisenberged.

There’s no other way to describe the inability to wholly reject the darkest villain to ever hold court on American television. Walter White has been loathsome, yes, but not consistently. Just when the hate for the “Breaking Bad” protagonist is thorough enough to imagine a science experiment that will literally blow his mind, an embarrassing sense of awe, maybe even a little sympathy, sneaks back in.

To better understand the syndrome, I spent the last month re-watching all 54 episodes of “Breaking Bad” that have aired, and screened the new season premiere, hoping to track precisely where and when the pendulum swings.

Love? Hate? It’s complicated. It’s this delicious dance that makes “Breaking Bad” one of the finest television series ever made, and Bryan Cranston’s brilliant, Emmy-winning portrayal means to mess with our heads. As the audience, we are the only ones who truly know Walter White. We’ve heard every single one of his lies, and there have been some doozies — his fugue state, his trip to visit his mother, the phone call to Hank (Dean Norris) that Marie (Betsy Brandt) had been in a car accident. We’ve watched him manipulate, rationalize, kill. We are his accomplices.

In this way, Walter White is vastly different from other memorable TV anti-heroes who came before him. When we met the likes of Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, Dexter Morgan and Don Draper, we knew exactly what we were getting and to what extremes they would go. But when we first encountered Walter, a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of 50, we couldn’t imagine that in less than two years he’d murder nine people, order the killings of 11 others, and have a hand in three more deaths.

At the outset, he seemed like such a sad little nerd. Not a man who would go on to poison a little boy to get what he wanted. Not Heisenberg. (The name Walter chose to represent his meth-cooking persona is a tribute to renowned physicist Werner Heisenberg).

The show pivots on a central question: did the beleaguered husband and about-to-be father of two we met in the pilot have Heisenberg in him all along, or did depression and desperation birth a monster? When he killed Krazy-8 (Maximino Arciniega) out of self-defense with his own two hands in the first season, he cried and whispered, “I’m so sorry.” After blowing his enemy’s face off in the 46th episode, Heisenberg calls his wife and brags, “I won.”

No matter how we feel about him, Walter White is a wonder. We’ve watched the scientist in him use his training to build a battery for the RV/meth lab, to make explosives, and to use a giant magnet to destroy police evidence from afar. As his hubris has grown, he’s become bolder. But, certainly, there were early signs that Walter White was a supreme schemer and problem solver. In the pilot episode, he blackmailed his former student into cooking meth with him and poisons two drug dealers. By the end of the first season, he had lied to his wife countless times, killed two men, and vowed that there would be no more bloodshed.

He was wrong. We were wrong. He became the one who knocks — the one with the outsized ego who couldn’t allow for Hank to think that Gale (David Costabile) was the blue meth mastermind in episode 38; the one who couldn’t go along with Saul’s (Bob Odenkirk) plan in the second season to make Skyler (Anna Gunn) think Walt had simply inherited his new fortune; the one who refused to let his petrified wife be free of him; the one who showed his newborn baby his big pile of dirty money in the 19th episode.

The list of atrocious acts Walter White has committed is quite lengthy. But three particularly heinous actions seem to turn us against Walter for good (or did they?).

  • In the 19th episode, he let Jane (Krysten Ritter) die. Scared that Jesse’s (Aaron Paul) girlfriend would call the cops on him, when Walt found her choking on her own vomit while sleeping, he seized the opportunity and didn’t help her. All unbeknownst to Jesse, who was also high on drugs and sleeping in the bed next to her.
  • Then, 14 episodes later, Walter strong-armed Jesse into killing Gale by reminding him that he killed two drug dealers for him: “I saved your life, will you save mine?” Walt has spent the entire series manipulating Jesse (“You are a blowfish!”) and lying to him (methylamine doesn’t spoil). Killing Gale broke Jesse’s spirit, and left viewers reeling for the young drug addict.
  • But none of Walt’s sins has compared to the poisoning of Jesse’s girlfriend’s son. In his war against the formidable Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), Walt resorted to poisoning little Brock (Ian Posada) to make Jesse think Gus was behind it. His denial of it, when confronted by Jesse’s pained suspicions, made it even worse. We see the camera pan to the deadly Lily of the Valley plant in Walt’s yard, indicating what he’d done, an affront to anyone who still wants to see the Walt we thought we knew.

In the end, Heisenberg was lucky; the poisoned boy survived. But will he continue to be lucky? Despite it all, despite watching 55 episodes of “Breaking Bad,” sometimes I still want him to be. Sometimes I still see glimpses of the man we met in his underwear in the desert, who videotaped a distressed message to his family, “No matter how it may look, I only had you in my heart.” When he made sure Saul called the DEA to protect Hank, we saw that side again. When he told Skyler, “I alone should suffer the consequences of those choices,” we saw a tiny glimmer of the man she married.

But he’s killed a lot of people and he’s told a million lies.

And Hank knows.

And the clock is ticking.

Maybe Mr. White will end up behind bars. Maybe he’ll do whatever he’s doing in New Hampshire and get away with it all. Maybe the cancer will return and provide a natural ending. Maybe someone will shoot him dead.

The final season begins Sunday, and I still haven’t come to terms with what I wish the end to be. I do hate Heisenberg, but I kind of love Walter White. It’s worrisome. Like the Gnarls Barkley song that closed out the first season of “Breaking Bad” asks, “Who’s gonna save my soul now?”