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Breaking Bad as Literature
Where Walt Went Wicked
Over the next few lessons, we're going to track the development of each of the five main characters—Walt, Jesse, Skyler, Hank, and Mike (okay, that last one is up for debate)—and think about where they fit into this whole nutty saga.
We'll start with Walt. Obvs.
The show is called Breaking Bad for a reason: Walt is the rock-hard toffee center at the middle of this delicious show, and the trajectory of his moral descent is the key plotline of the series. Remember, Vince Gilligan's pitch for the series from the beginning was to "take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface." (Frankly, we'd change that to "take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface… by making him act like MacGyver.")
So the process of Walt's corruption begins from the very first episode—remember the speech Walt gives to his class?:
Chemistry is, well technically chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change. Just think about this. Electrons, they change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements, they combine and change into compounds. Well, that's all of life, right? It's the constant. It's the cycle. It's solution, dissolution—just over, and over, and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation!
Walt goes through so many shades of transformation that the best thing to do is just track each step on his path to becoming The One Who Knocks. Walt's corruption doesn't come in a single moment, but a long chain of slippery slopes and it-made-sense-at-the-time moments.
And if we put it all under the microscope, we just might learn a little bit about the nature of evil.
Ten Roads to Hell
Remember that article you read by Tom Gualtieri? He made a good attempt at trying to pinpoint the precise moment where Walt broke bad—but we think he left a few important turning points out.
So here's Shmoop's list of the Top 10 Moments in Which Walt Lost a Tiny, Shiny Piece of His Soul:
(1) Walt's cancer diagnosis
What's a better way to get you thinking about your life choices than a brush with death?
Not only is this Walt's heroic "Call to Action," it's what causes him to confront his essential dissatisfaction with his life. He's cleaning his students' cars, for Pete's sake. In a series that's full of killing, this is possibly the one innocent death, and it's one that sends Walt over the edge.
The whole premise of the series is that Walt breaks bad at first for a noble reason: to provide for his family. But that's not the whole story, of course: Walt's past is full of regret. If he stuck a little longer with the company he cofounded, he might have won that Nobel Prize, made bucketloads of (legitimate) money, and even married Gretchen.
Whether he admits it to himself or not, everything he does after his cancer diagnosis is about making his life mean something. And that, ultimately, is what drives him on further than providing for his family and paying for his cancer treatment.
(2) Killing Krazy-8
From being confronted with his own death, it takes Walt less than an episode to graduate up to killing someone else: Emilio and Krazy-8, the meth dealers who think Walt is a DEA agent and threaten to kill him. Walt bumps off Emilio to save himself and Jesse, but Krazy-8 survives, and Walt has to lock him to a pole in Jesse's basement.
Now, we know Krazy-8's not a good guy; he threatens to kill Walt first, and even when Walt has every intention of letting him go peacefully in Episode 2, he picks up a shank and tries to get at Walt. But once Walt takes him out, he's got blood on his hands. He justifies it to himself as self-defense—but how many other killings can he justify this way? (A lot, it turns out.)
(3) Letting Jane Margolis die
Krazy-8 was a clear threat to Walt. But Jane was innocent—she didn't have anything to do with Walt's drug operation, and she didn't do anything but force Walt to give Jesse his rightful money (and sure, she also pulled Jesse back into drug abuse…that's not great either).
Even though she ultimately caused her own death, standing by and letting her die was another mark in the Heisenberg column for Walt. Why? Because Walt knows it'll hurt Jesse. It's his first serious, life-ruining manipulation, the first big secret he hides even from Jesse. (Also, who knows what Walt would've done if she didn't kill herself first?)
At least we know that Walt carries a burden of guilt about it... for a while. When his guard is down in the third season's episode "Fly," he almost confesses his responsibility to Jesse.
(4) Swerving the car
In "Crawl Space" (Season 4, Episode 11), Walt swerves his car into oncoming traffic to keep Hank from discovering the meth superlab he's working for. The crash injures both Walt and Hank; as far as he knew at the time, it could've killed them both.
This is the first time Walt endangers one of his loved ones (who also happens to be his nemesis), and it's also notable that he does it not to save his own life, but just to keep the meth cat in the bag.
(5) Killing Gale Boetticher
This was a big one. Gale is a doofy, harmless, likeable enough guy. He's still a meth supercook, of course, but he's no Gus Fring; he truly admires Walt—both White and Whitman ("My Star, My Perfect Silence").
Not only does Walt get Gale killed to save his own hide, he makes Jesse do it—and Jesse is a lot more thin-skinned and conscience-afflicted about the bad stuff he does. This testifies both to Walt's ability to allow innocent people to die to save his own neck and his willingness to get other people—especially Jesse—to do it for him.
Yeah, you could argue that Jesse is partly paying Walt back for taking care of the two drug dealers for Jesse in the previous episode "Half Measures" (Season 4, Episode 12), but even still—it's still kinda sketchy to expect someone else to kill for you, isn't it?
(6) Killing Gus Fring
Now this one wasn't so much a moral dilemma as a carefully orchestrated assassination. At this point, the question for Walt is not, "Should I kill this guy?" but "How can I kill this guy?" He puts all his effort into making it happen, as opposed to Jesse, who has an opportunity to do it in "Problem Dog" (Season 4, Episode 7), but doesn't have the heart.
The murder itself is possibly not as important as the psychological effect it has on Walt: with the kingpin gone, he sees himself as the new kingpin. "I won," he tells Skyler, simply enough. But as Mike reminds him in Season 5, "Just because you shot Jesse James don't make you Jesse James."
(7) Killing Brock Cantillo (almost)
If you're like us, you leapt off your couch at the end of Season 4, when the camera zooms in on the Lily of the Valley plants next to Walt's pool, revealing that Walt was behind Brock's near-death. This is basically an amplified version of Walt letting Jane die in Season 2: Brock was obviously an innocent person with no involvement in the shady dealings, and he's a person of huge importance to Jesse.
Walt's willingness to endanger Brock's life is probably the clearest expression of all of his abandoned moral scruples—and yet another classic hubristic, self-serving move.
And a fun Easter egg for you: in "Buyout" (Season 5, Episode 6), when Jesse watches the news report about the disappearance of the kid they killed after their big train heist (which must remind him of Brock), Walt is whistling the Queen song "Lily Of The Valley"—which is also the name of the plant he used to poison Brock.
Thanks, Walt, you jerk.
(8) Killing Mike
This killing, which comes at the end of "Say My Name" (Season 5, Episode 7), is worth the #8 spot because it was 100% gratuitous. Nothing but pride pushed Walt to shoot Mike, and he had absolutely nothing to gain by it. ("I just realized that Lydia has the names. I'm sorry, Mike, this whole thing could've been avoided," he says, annoyingly underscoring the pointlessness of the murder.)
(9) Killing Mike's guys
An episode after killing Mike, Walt orders a hit that kills off all the legacy guys that Mike worked to support—in two quick minutes, on the off-chance that one of them might turn on him. After all the blood on his hands so far, this isn't so much a new low for Walt as it is a demonstration of the casual, efficient attitude he has toward killing now. It ain't no thang for him.
(10) Calling in the hit on Jesse
"To'hajiilee" (Season 5, Episode 13) opens with Todd receiving a call from Walt to take out Jesse, his spiritual son.
After the past four-and three-quarters seasons, there's little question that Walt has genuine affection and a protective instinct for Jesse—he's willing to kill the two drug dealers in "Half Measures," and he almost confesses his guilt for letting Jane die in "Fly" (Season 3, Episode 10). So when he orders Jesse dead, he's not just betraying everyone else to further his interests; he's betraying himself.
Honorable Mention: Killing a bunch of other people indirectly
One of the brilliant things about this show is that it's always conscious of the law of unintended consequences—the network of crazy stuff that can happen when one thing goes haywire.
Take Jane's death, which ends up indirectly causing hundreds of people to die in a highly implausible plane collision when her dad botches his air traffic control duties, distracted by grief (too bad he couldn't use his Star Trek Q powers to stop it).
And let's not forget the countless lives he's potentially ruined by selling insanely addictive meth to empower a multinational network of murderous gangsters. It's especially poignant when he returns to his house at the beginning of "Blood Money" (Season 5, Episode 9), which has been destroyed, apparently by meth users (the name HEISENBERG is scrawled on the wall.)
It's a reminder that when Walt (or anyone) breaks bad, it doesn't happen in a vacuum—it is a vacuum, sucking in everyone who's close by: Skyler becomes a money launderer, Jesse becomes a killer, and Mike becomes… um, dead.Go to Lesson: The Sorrows of Young Jesse