Dare We Shed a Tear for Walter White?

Walter White.  Man.  Walter White.

And so the last episode of Breaking Bad has broken over us like a tsunami wave on a beach. And we are left in its aftermath to try to make sense of the wreckage.

Warning: Spoilers.

I came to the Breaking Bad party late. Two and half weeks ago I watched the pilot episode. I loved it. I was overcome by a fear that the end of the series would be spoiled if I didn’t watch the final episode on time. Averaging 3 episodes per evening, I made it to the finale last night (watching Ozymandias and Granite State as the lead-in). The finale was brilliant. It wrapped most everything up with a flourish, and both lead characters, having the consequences of their brutal actions served up to them on cold pates, found freedom in their own escape. For me, Jesse Pinkman, the emotionally damaged punching-bag, shall relish his physical liberty (he’ll obviously never break free of the awful memories which now and forever eat away at and cripple his spirit) until he messes up again (I see a lot of jail time in his future because he simply never learns) and Walter White/Heisenberg, having welcomed death on his own terms, goes into the great unknown with a smile–it was, as he admits, all about him all along, and he dies knowing that he finally reached the pinnacle (albeit a twisted version) of his long self-suppressed genius-potential.

This morning I read two thoughtful reviews on the finale and the series posted on the Daily Beast http://t.co/3vSwHu8nOm and the New York Times http://t.co/A4kfPDayIi.  I’m not going to recap them here but I’ll add a few thoughts–that’s what a blog is for, right?  In some small part of me, I was rooting for Walter White right up to the end.  If I ever run into real-life versions of Walter and Jesse I will dread them and steer as wide a path around them as geographically possible. But as fictional characters they provide endless fascination; as multilayered bad guys they also generate moments of empathy.  Who can not feel sorry for Walter at the beginning of the series, with his diagnosis and the seething rage, the quiet desperation bottled up inside of him?  For all of us who try to play by life’s rules and suffer its frustrations it is always a thrill to see the cork pop on a character.  Walter, released from all restrictions by his impending doom, takes action to prove to himself and everyone that he is the brilliant scientist that no one else knows he is.

Walter gives in to his ego, his id, and once the id is in control nothing else but the self matters.  Nothing.  Heisenberg is a real-life manifestation of Walter’s id, a walking, talking, glowering megalomaniacal monster bending the world to its will with bloody hands.  Heisenberg has always been coiled in the pit of Walter’s unconscious and when the call to action comes, Heisenberg is ready.  He knows exactly what to do. In the universe of the pure id, meth-brewing, the finest version of the drug ever seen, is an acceptable forum to prove Walter’s scientific brilliance. For the pure id, murder is an acceptable method of problem-solving.  Intellectually, Walter knows that everything he is doing is wrong but he steps aside and allows the id to rule him because he must win. He openly admits this decision at the end of the series, but he knew what he was doing all along.

In the end, as the light fades in Walter White’s eyes, he looks upon a meth lab like a man visiting the garage where his start-up business first sprang to life.  Walter dies with a smile on his face because he got what he wanted–his id unleashed without civilized control got him what he wanted: the money, the fame, the dark fulfillment, the personal self-satisfaction.  Walter dies knowing that his family’s money, stacks and stacks of money, is safe and the world now recognizes him as a brilliant mastermind.  By giving himself over to his ego and accepting the pain it would inflict upon him and everyone around him, Walter White won.  To hell with his family, to hell with his society, to hell with everything normal people hold dear.  He won.  And make no mistake, the man smiling at the end of Breaking Bad is Walter White: the id is gone now, re-submerged, having served its purpose, leaving the man himself to stand proud upon the blood-soaked peak of his own miserable but undeniably impressive accomplishments.

Walter White is vile. Jesse and every other low-life creep in their circle (most now dead by Felina) of drug cookers, pushers and distributors are vile, no matter what positive attributes they might possess. But Walter and Jesse are creations of fiction. We have seen into their minds.  The writers and Cranston have played the game so well that I can never shake feelings of pity for the guys.  Walter is a creature of the civilization which birthed him, one which labels you a failure if you don’t earn stacks of money, if you don’t live in a Taos mansion and if you don’t have a blue celebrity checkmark beside your name on Twitter.  Walter is one of us at the beginning, the everyman. Creator Vince Gilligan states that the goal of the series was to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface.  If I could be so bold–and this is just my own interpretation–I would reword Gilligan’s statement slightly.  I would say the goal of the series was to let all of us into the skull-theater to watch Mr. Chips submit wholeheartedly to the immense will of his inner Scarface–the unchecked, unvarnished, empty-eyed id-beast of self interest we all see in ourselves from time to time–and use it to win.

Heisenberg is the monster from our nightmares, the one which frightens us so much because we all recognize that he, perhaps as old as our genetic material, lives somewhere within us all.  It’s all about our chemistry.  “I am Legend,” Walter could have said with his final breath.  And he would have been right.