Saturday, January 18, 2014

Can one be "evil" without being "bad"? An examination of Walter White

I know, this is long overdue, with Breaking Bad having their spectacular finale a couple of months ago.  Based on that introduction, you could probably decipher that I loved the way the series ended.  It was nearly perfect, tying up virtually every loose end and concluding the Walter White character arc in the manner most people had wanted.  The episode was excellently written and performed to perfection.  Bravo to all involved.

However, this post isn't going to be about the finale.  It's going to be about Walter White the character.  A lot of people have pondered whether Heisenberg was the result of Walter's cancer diagnosis and financial situation, or if it was a part of Walter White that would have emerged no matter what.  To be honest, I'm not sure.  You could tell from the beginning that Walter had some repressed feelings of aggression, most notably in his early interactions with the far more outspoken Hank.  If Walter didn't end up getting cancer, would some other life crisis act as the catalyst for this personality change?  It's tough to say.

Part of the reason I believe that part of him wouldn't have come out is that he was eventually able to give up that lifestyle.  It took a long time and he definitely got hypnotized by the power and wealth, but he eventually "woke up" and was able to walk away.  The opportunities to walk back in were presented to him, and he fought it until the bitter end.  But nonetheless, Walter did a lot of bad things during his two year stint as Heisenberg.  And despite this, I'm not COMPLETELY convinced that he's "bad."  At the same time, I don't think you can deny that he's done evil things.  And so I ask, can somebody be evil without being bad?

Heading into the final season, creator Vince Gilligan repeatedly noted that Walter White had sold his soul and could not be redeemed.  And perhaps this is the fanboy speaking, but I never agreed with that sentiment.  Even Walter acknowledges that everything he did was for himself and not his family, so his motives are clearly not completely altruistic.  Yet, much of what he had done was about self preservation.  Killing Krazy-8 in season one, for example, really was all about protecting himself and his family.  When he kills the two drug dealers in season three, it's to save Jesse.  And while Gale wasn't a traditional bad guy, having him killed was the ultimate act of self preservation as he would have been in the bodybag instead.  And despite being well mannered and kinda quirky, Gale's hands were dirty nearly as much as Walt and Jesse's.  And finally, having Gus killed was necessary in order for his own survival, as things had descended to the point that one of them would end up dead.

Quite simply, Walter wasn't out there killing people for power or for money, or even for vengeance (not until the end, anyway).  Virtually every kill I can think of, with the possible exception of Mike, was out of necessity or survival.  And even with Mike -- Walt ended up genuinely apologizing when he realized that Mike's death was not necessary in his mission.  Aside from the final episode, was there any MURDER that Walter took part in that didn't need to happen in order for him to survive?  In that sense, could you blame him for his actions?

And in the case of his redemption, let's consider the following (not necessarily in chronological order):

  • Walter was willing to surrender himself to the police when he realized his only recourse was to have Hank and Gomez killed.
  • Walter was willing to give up his entire fortune -- everything he had earned, everything he had achieved and used to justify his actions -- in order to save Hank's life.
  • Walter, on numerous occasions, had shown a level of paternal compassion for Jesse.  He went searching for him when he went on a drug binge and put him in rehab.  And perhaps most significantly, HE was the only one not willing to have Jesse killed after he learned the truth about Brock.  Saul and even Skyler encouraged Walt to have Jesse killed.  And in the end, Walt chose to save Jesse from his onslaught.
  • Several supposedly "good" characters, like Skyler (and I'm not anti-Skyler) committed dirty deeds when they were presented with Walter's resources.
  • And, again, Walter was willing to walk away when he finally realized he would lose his family.  And his final acts were to, in their own way, ensure the safety of his family.  No loose ends to haunt them after his own death.  And he was willing to do that without the glory or recognition -- a stark contrast to his reaction to Jr.'s collection website seasons prior.

So where does the "evil" part come in, if all of these acts are in some way justifiable by means of self preservation?  Well, it's important to remember that Walt was no saint.  At the peak of his Heisenberg-ness, he used physical intimidation with his family (mostly Skyler) and associates (typically Saul) to get what he wanted.  And self preservation or not, how could you not label a person willing to poison a young child as "evil"?  No "good" person would ever do that.  The same goes for his willingness to stand there and watch Jane die, when he could have helped her.  Again -- his well being was at risk and he did feel remorse -- but he just stood there and let an innocent somebody die.  Those two acts are the actions of an evil man.

And so I ask:  Can somebody be evil without being bad?  Or am I going easy on Walter, and he IS an un-redeemable bad man?  Where do you stand?

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