The Arc of Walter White

walter-white-whiskeyI’ve been a huge fan of Breaking Bad throughout its run, and so I watched the finale, Felina, with a mixture of joy and horror, because it was very well done and it also meant it was ending. You don’t often see television shows that have 60+ episodes that are all reliably excellent. Of all the episodes of Breaking Bad, the worst ones were still pretty damn great. Grading them, I don’t think there would any below a B- in my book, and even those would be rare.

So, yeah: I’m a fan.

The Internet encourages instant reactions to things and then a quick Forgetting. Breaking Bad was a few weeks ago and it’s already fading from the Internet like a dim memory from childhood. But I’ve been thinking about it still. Because the finale was great, and because I think it accomplished something truly amazing. So let’s talk about menace.

Power in Fear

Walter White is a man who spends much of Breaking Bad’s run trying to be menacing, and usually failing. The famous scene where Heisenberg as a mythic creature is born, when Walt arrives at Tuco’s headquarters bearing the power of science in the form of fulminate of mercury and his soon-to-be-iconic shaved-head-and-goatee look, is one moment in the show when he is menacing, but he has to prove he’s willing to blow everyone to bits first — no one takes him seriously at first.

And that’s Walt’s problem: No one takes him seriously as a badass, and it drives him crazy. He wants to be menacing. When rumor has it that Jessie crushed a junkie’s head under an ATM machine in revenge for stealing Heisenberg’s money, Walt is delighted. The problem is that Walter White isn’t menacing, even when he begins to grow a drug empire. Walter is a skinny, nebbishy high school teacher who is dying of cancer. He’s obsequious when he isn’t certain of an advantage and openly terrified of just about everyone, from Hank to Tuco to Gus. Walt simply isn’t convincing when he threatens people.

After killing Gus Fring, he does become frightening to some folks – but only ones in the know. Saul is easily cowed by Walt. Mike is less impressed, knowing how lucky Walt was to succeed, and knowing that Walt was miles away when the scheme succeeded, because Walt is a coward. But to anyone not in on Walt’s criminal activities at that time, Walt remains the least scary man in the world. His desire to be menacing remains — witness the convoluted way he insists on convincing Declan and the Phoenix crew that he — yes, he, skinny, nebbishy Walter White — killed the great Gus Fring — but he’s still not pulling it off.

In fact, when Walter tries to intimidate, to menace, he fails comically. He growls, he shouts, he rages. But he’s usually impotent. He’s frequently physically jostled, told to shut up, made fun of, or ignored. Walt’s brains kept him in the game, not his ability to intimidate. Even after murdering Fring and nine witnesses in jail, he’s not menacing. The Nazi gang? Not impressed with Walt, only impressed with his money.

And then, in the finale, something magical: Walter White, skinny, dying, with a new beard and glasses, becomes menacing.

The One Who Waits

Without shouting, raging, or attempting to bully, Walter White becomes the most frightening person in the world. It helps that news of his criminal exploits are finally public, that everyone knows he’s a murderer who briefly became the Meth King of the ABQ. But the old Walt would have puffed up when people knew the truth, like he did with the One Who Knocks speech. He would have strutted and raged, and been ridiculous.

Dying Walt? He’s quiet. He walks in, calm, and stands very still. He says little. There is no vein-pulsing rage, no spittle-flinging shouts. No petty threats, no self-aggrandizing speeches. He’s stopped trying to be menacing and simply¬†is¬†menacing. The scene in Gretchen and Elliot’s house: He stands quietly and speaks softly. The scene in Skyler’s house: He talks in a conversational tone and barely moves. In the coffee shop with Todd and Lydia: He moves silently in the background and then is quiet and pleading in tone when he speaks.

And in all those scenes, everyone is terrified of Walter. He had finally become what he’d always wanted. He’d become terrifying. And it was too late: He took no pleasure in it. Because when we become truly terrifying we have lost everything that once made us human. That’s the genius of the finale. Because that’s Walter’s true character arc: He was a fearful man who wanted to make people fear him.

And in the end, he succeeded.


  1. Patty Blount

    I’d never seen a Breaking Bad ep until a few weeks ago, when AMC started running the marathon in anticipation of the big finale. I checked it out because of your tweets and blog posts here and there. I’m only in the first season, but yeah — this is NOT a fearsome guy. I’m intrigued enough to stick with it until the end.

  2. Patty Blount

    Finished watching the entire series over the weekend and I’m still wrecked. It won’t let go of me now.

  3. Anthony

    Very great article, sir. I had never looked at it that way, but you are so right. The more I think about it, he really was fearless in that last episode. He exploded pretty often earlier in the series, but at this point, near death, he really has no fear left. Thanks for the insight!

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