I have already taken a close look at how the pilot of Breaking Bad engenders empathy in the audience.
In my mind, the best television series to date is Breaking Bad. When I analyzed Tony Soprano, I found him to be a 12-dimensional character. Walter White has almost 16 or 18 dimensions. He is maybe the most complex character ever written by anyone, for any medium. He generated five or six seasons.
A dimension is a consistent contradiction in the nature of the character. Walter was capable of being very gentle, and he was for five seasons with certain characters—and violent and brutal with others! The dimensionality fascinates the audience.
By the time that last episode was executed, we absolutely knew everything about Walter White and his Heisenberg doppelgänger. He was ready to die because he was completely expressed, up to the last scene.
Walter changed every week. We never knew where the hell Walter was. Every time he did things one way, and we would feel that that was who he was, he would just reverse himself and do things in an opposite way.
— Robert McKee
Here’s another reason why Walter White is so engaging:
A good check on the degree of individuality your character shows in your opening is the question, “Would nine out of ten people behave and think like this?” If the answer is “yes”, you may not have conveyed enough of who your character actually is. She shouldn’t be nine out of ten people; she should be herself.
— Nancy Kress
In the pilot episode Walter White explains chemistry to his class. But he might just as well be talking about the character arc he is about to undergo:
“You see, technically, chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change: Electrons change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements combine and change into compounds. But 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. It is fascinating, really.”
The Modern Superhero
This is from an Australian non-fiction book about the meth industry:
As you can see, the writers of Breaking Bad took a lot of liberties with the drug. It’s almost magic realism. That’s not to say they didn’t have a drug chemist advising them, because they did. The point is, they took as much of reality as they needed to create ‘realism’ (essentially different from realness), and then added their own twist, borrowed from the world of our favourite super heroes. This blue meth is part methamphetamine, part Kryptonite.
Likewise, Walter White is part Everyman, part Superhero.
On Dark Inversions
From Line of Duty to Moby Dick, Dr Faustus to Lolita (‘good’ is a relative concept), there’s a clearly chartable pathway the characters follow as, in pursuit of their goal, their moral centre collapses.
It’s a trajectory that’s largely been avoided by television, certainly in drama series; nevertheless it’s rich and fertile ground.
‘The goal was to turn him from Mr Chips into Scarface,’ said creator Vince Gilligan of Walter White, the hero of AMC’s Breaking Bad. ‘It’s a Wolfman story; it’s a Jekyll and Hyde story, it’s a story about a guy who is a caterpillar and we’re turning him into a butterfly – a meth-cooking butterfly.’ It took five seasons to turn a mild-mannered chemistry teacher into a drug-dealing psychopath – a radical departure in TV series terms, yet in its rich journey of greed and moral consequence it is one with its roots firmly embedded in the bloody Scottish soil of Macbeth.
Breaking Bad illustrates just how the archetype works – a flaw at the beginning of a story produces its opposite at the end: bad will become good; good will become bad. Most commonly, dark inversions are used to tell the tale of good turned to evil, but as the film Like Crazy illustrates, with its story of how a young girl’s idealistic love grows stale, the shape has a wider application.
— Into The Woods by John Yorke
See also: Protagonist Journey To Villain at TV Tropes. Heroes who go from good to bad are less common than you might think, but another example is Wicked by Gregory Maguire.