This time last year I had never heard of Walter White or Breaking Bad. I had no idea how the story of a failed chemistry teacher would completely engulf me emotionally and spiritually.
In mid-September our kids were gone on a weekend trip, so my husband and I had the television to ourselves. We decided to watch the first episode of Breaking Bad. I had finally heard about the show, but I was only mildly curious. Why would I care about a show about methamphetamine? To be honest, the only reason I really wanted to watch Breaking Bad was because it was set in my hometown—Albuquerque, New Mexico. I figured I might recognize some of the places, and I would get to see my beloved Sandia Mountains. But I did not expect to like the show. I thought I would watch the first episode, find it too violent, and move on with my life.
I was wrong.
From the first shot of Walter’s pants billowing in the wind to his bloody hand print on the stainless steel tank, I was mesmerized. I found myself deeply caring about this sad, burned-out chemistry teacher diagnosed with lung cancer. My heart broke for him.
Maybe it was because both my parents died of aggressive cancers. Maybe it was because Walter’s family imposed their wishes on him, insisting he seek treatment when he didn’t want treatment, and I grieved for him. Maybe it was the empathy I felt for a man who hated his dead-end job. Maybe it was the way Walter stumbled and made mistakes in the beginning but grew into an invincible power. Maybe it was the New Mexico landscape—harsh, unyielding, and deadly beautiful, like Walter. Maybe it was all these things. But I fell in love with Walter White, and his grip on me has not loosened.
My husband watched one more episode with me, and he was done. He just wasn’t interested in the show with all its blood and gore. So, over the next few weeks, I watched episode after episode—sometimes two or three a day. And within three weeks I had watched the entire series.
I remember the first moment my faith in Walter faltered. He had already done some truly horrible things, like letting Jane die. But the last episode of Season Four (“Face Off”) almost did me in. When the camera panned to the Lily of the Valley plant by his pool, I muttered, “No.” I sat there stunned as the credits rolled by. I tried to rationalize how that last scene could not mean what I thought it meant. “NO!” I said. I googled, “Did Walter White poison Brock?” I was not happy with the answers I found. I could not accept the implications. If Walter was capable of this, what wouldn’t he do?
The rest of the series demonstrated that there was nothing Walter would not do.
When Walter became Heisenberg, I knew I was supposed to lose empathy for him. I knew he was devolving into pure evil. But still I loved him. “He’s doing it for his family,” I told myself, even though, deep down I knew that wasn’t true.
But it didn’t matter. It did not matter. I saw in Walter a person who broke out of his prison. He evolved from being a pushover to being Heisenberg. He won his power. I respected that. Even though he lost everything that once mattered to him, including his family, he took control of his life and his death. He cast off the chains placed on him by his job, his wife, and his cancer. He became the danger instead of allowing danger to consume him. And this involved violence. I don’t condone it, but I understand why it was necessary in Walter’s dark world. He was violated and so he violated.
His descent into Hell and his Sisyphean journey across the desert rolling his last barrel of money burned deeply in my soul. His long exile in a lonely New Hampshire cabin, and his return to New Mexico to claw some redemption out of the mess he made gave me hope. He was an anti-hero who, in the end, died the way he chose to die. Cancer did not win. Authority did not win. Walter did not win, but he prevailed. He took care of his family in the end, and he set Jesse free. And in dying, Walter set himself free.
Walter White represents triumph over the vagaries of cancer, a battle my parents lost. He represents victory over helplessness and dead ends. He represents freedom from the chains that bind. Walter White—Heisenberg—represents power over powerlessness. His black hat will forever be a symbol to me of overcoming fear and grasping hold of life, no matter how short, no matter how painful, no matter how desperate.
Walter White represents breaking free.