- Home /
- Breaking Bad as Literature
Breaking Bad as Literature
And the antihero seems more popular than ever today, with Christopher Nolan's gritty Batman and the arrogant Tony Stark selling out movie theaters, while the acid-tongued House and the maddeningly self-absorbed cast of Girls blow up the small screen.
Vince Gilligan says that this surge in popularity is just a matter of fashion:
Five years from now, a person like yourself might be asking, "You remember when everybody used to like antiheroes? Now they like the guy in the white hat again. How did that happen? What's changed in America?" People want what they want, for as long as they want it, then tastes change and something else works. (Source)
Well, it sure worked for him.
In this lesson, we're going to consider what about Walt's dark dealings makes him—and us viewers—like the bad guys so much.
Before we talk antihero, let's talk hero: protagonist extraordinaire.
- We'll start with a quick etymology lesson. The word "hero" derives from the Greek word heros, which could mean either "demi-god" or "defender/protector." The "demi-god" meaning reflects the fact that heroes were usually thought to have some element of the divine in them—or at least a noble pedigree. In classical literature, heroism usually entailed some kind of bravery or accomplishment in combat. We're looking at you, Beowulf.
- Usually, a hero also embodies the values of the culture it stands for. So if Americans value independence and leadership, an American hero (say, Superman) would be the paragon of independence and leadership.
- And heroes tend to have (or receive) special talents, abilities, or artifacts that enable them to do things that ordinary Janes and Joes couldn't do.
- Finally, in his bestselling book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the big-shot scholar and writer Joseph Campbell put together an influential theory he called the monomyth or the Hero's Journey. It's the idea that a single story structure underlies the major myths across every culture—which involves a hero going on a journey. The story has distinct phases in a specific order; you can read a crunched-down synopsis of the hero's journey here, but we'll get to it a little later.
So how does Walter White stack up as an antihero? Break out your bad-guy bingo cards:
Noble / divine lineage?: There's not a lot of info about Walt's parents—all we really know is that his father died of Huntington's disease. There's no indication that his family's stature gave him a leg up in life, so let's just say this one's a no. But anyway, the notion that a hero has to be high-born has sort of fallen out of fashion, like Arthur Miller wrote in "Tragedy and the Common Man."
Bravery in combat?: This should be pretty obvious to anyone who's seen past the first episode. When Walt's back is to the wall, he will pretty much take out anybody—whether it's gassing Emilio with red phosphorous, strangling Krazy-8 with a bike lock, blowing up Tuco's office with fulminated mercury (while he's still in it!), or shearing off half of Gus Fring's face with a wheelchair bomb, Walt will demonstrate some better killing through chemistry.
Hero's Journey?: Well, let's see, Vogler lists twelve steps on the Hero's Journey. Will it blend?
- The Ordinary World. This would be Walt's sad-sack teaching life, before his diagnosis. It's how he's been living for decades.
- The Call to Adventure. Walt's cancer diagnosis, plain and simple.
- Refusal of the Call. Walt isn't thrilled about cooking meth, and he struggles with the decision. (For, like, half an episode.)
- Meeting with the Mentor. Hmm—interestingly enough, Walt is the mentor, and the person he meets is literally his student, Jesse. But you could say that meeting with Jesse puts him in the role of the mentor.
- Crossing the Threshold. Or as we call it, "breaking bad."
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies. This pretty much sums up Seasons 2 through 4.
- Approach. In season 4, Walt undertakes his plan to take out Gus Fring; it's an elaborate, multi-episode affair, one that drives Walt to poison Brock and cozy up with Tio Salamanca.
- The Ordeal. This would be all the tense stuff that happens right up to the point where Fring gets fragged: Jesse almost taking Walt out himself, Walt's failed car bombing attempt, and finally, ka-boom.
- The Reward. What are they fighting for, besides their lives? Money. That big roomful of bug-sprayed cash that Skyler shows Walt in "Gliding Over All," the midseason finale of Season 5—that's Walt's big reward.
- The Road Back. After seeing that useless stack of cash, Walt agrees to leave the drug game to return to being an A-1 Car Wash Professional. He's back in the Ordinary World—but it's transformed, now, with all the cash he's laundering through it.
- The Resurrection. In the flash-forward at the beginning of Season 5, we see Walt with a new look and a new New Hampshire license plate. It seems like he's started a new life—a figurative "resurrection."
- Return with the Elixir. He returns from New Hampshire with the money for Walt Jr., the lottery ticket that will save Skyler, the ricin that will kill Lydia, and the gun that will save Jesse.
Verdict: yeah, sounds like a Hero's Journey to us.
Embodies the values of the culture?: Now here's an interesting one. When the series kicks off, Walt may not be a happy or distinguished person, but he's certainly what we'd think of as a decent guy: he's a loving dad and husband, an underpaid teacher who cares about his work, and when his cancer diagnosis comes in, he's willing to go the distance to provide for his family. Plenty of people would call those generous virtues heroic, and in his modest suburban comfort, he's living the mid-20th-century American Dream.
Then again, the American Dream is also bound up in progress and capitalism—what's more American than trying to make a lot of money? The self-made millionaire is a heroic figure in both our natural culture and literature: JD Rockefeller, Jay Gatsby, Steve Jobs, Batman.
And when Walt finally embraces his underworldly life, he becomes a quintessential take-no-prisoners entrepreneur, constantly looking for the bigger cut, the better bargain; he's cooking up the meth of a salesman. Even after he tries leaving the drug game in Season 5, he's thinking about ways to build up the car wash—rearranging the air fresheners, buying new franchises.
So does Walt embody the values of our culture? Yeah, maybe some of them, but not all at once. And then there's all the killing, drug dealing, and manipulation, which few people would claim is the stated value of our culture.
And that's what puts the "anti" in "antihero."
Part of what makes Breaking Bad so compelling, of course, is that Walt's nature changes over the course of five seasons. It may not be that he's a misguided hero or latent antihero, but that he's a hero who turns into an antihero.
Fancy that.Go to Lesson: Where Walt Went Wicked