I didn’t watch “Breaking Bad” for years because I thought, wrongly, that it was the White man’s “The Wire.” I don’t particularly enjoy that I thought that, but I thought it. “Breaking Bad” does lack Black people, yes. But it has plenty of characters of color. The show also has very strong female leads and has a teenager in the show with a handicap. So, to say that “Breaking Bad” isn’t diverse would be a wrong statement. There’s a difference between a show being diverse and a show being diverse the way you want it to be.
But, whatever. That’s not what I wanted to write about. I wanted to spend some time discussing what an “Anti-hero” actually is. I don’t believe that such a thing exists and I’ll explain. Before I do that, I need to talk about what some people think an “Anti-hero” is and why these people should stop using the term.
An Anti-hero is a character that the reader/audience roots for, even though the character acts atypical of a hero. Walter White is a perfect example of this, of course. He’s the main character and he’s the one we want to see succeed. He had cancer. He cooked meth to raise money for his family. He had to kill, steal and lie his way out of a number of truly horrible situations. Even when he killed those that didn’t deserve it (RIP Mike), we allowed ourselves to be mad at him to an point. Then we felt sorry for him. Heavy is the head and all that. It’s hard to be Walter White. Even when he makes terrible decisions, decisions that cost people their lives, we still are on his side.
The problem with the term “Anti-hero” is that it describes a hero without heroic qualities. But that can’t exist. If you think of Matter and Anti-matter, then you think of one thing that exists and another that is its opposite. If Matter and Anti-matter touched, boom, explosions. Anti-anything acts in the reverse of what we understand. An Anti-hero is simply a jerk that has convinced us that he deserves our sympathies. That’s not heroic. It’s deceptive. It also allows us to think that unethical and immoral activities can lead to a place where there could be some good. If Walter finds himself with a butt-load of money and a safe, happy family, doesn’t that justify his actions? No. No, it doesn’t.
Walter White isn’t an anti-hero (please stop using that term). No, Walter White is a protagonist. He is simply a character trying to achieve something in his life, trying to come to some understanding. Sure, maybe I’m just substituting one term for another. But the substitution makes more sense and also allows you to think about “Breaking Bad” differently.
All stories are about the human condition. What makes us human? In this case, the question is more important: What turns a normal guy into a monster? We have been watching that answer for five seasons. This progression, this movement from one place to another, is exactly how the protagonist is supposed to move through a narrative. The protagonist has to change, no matter how much staying the same might appeal to him and us. We want to see the change and we are interested in the change. It doesn’t mean he’s a hero. He is not trying to “win” anything. Walter White made the decision that he wasn’t a great man but that he wanted to be a great man. “Say my name,” he commanded the drug dealer. “I am the danger! I am the one who knocks!” he told his wife. “Tread lightly,” he told his DEA brother-and-law. All his life, he was nothing. He was a foot note in other people’s lives. Now he is Heisenberg. What did he have to pay to become something so great? He had to give up his humanity. He had to murder. He had to kill. He had to poison children as a form of rhetoric and he had to shrug off a boy’s death as a cost of doing business. If the term anti-hero is to be used properly in reference to “Breaking Bad,” then Walter would be a monster trying to destroy an even bigger, worse monster. There are no other monsters. There never was a monster.
Walter could have just died of cancer. He could have had a quiet death, dying of cancer because he couldn’t afford the treatment. All the people that have died in his wake would be alive now. His memory would be small, but untainted. He didn’t want that. He wanted to be remembered, however nefariously. Last night’s episode, “Blood Money” summed it up best. Walter is in his empty, damaged home. He stares in a cracked mirror and sees himself, the true demon, the demon he created, because that’s what he wanted.