Character Study: Walter White

Walter White and Skyler

Following a television trend started by The Sopranos, Walter White of Breaking Bad is an engaging example of a modern antihero. Like Tony Soprano, Walter White indulges in amoral familism — both Tony and Walt wreak havoc on the general public while justifying their own terrible behaviour under the delusion that they are doing it all for their family. The main difference between Tony and Walt: Walt eventually realises this about himself. Tony does not.

“I want to take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface over the life of the series.”

Vince Gilligan

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 analysed 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

Walter White is an interesting case study from this point of view alone: In reality, people are multifaceted. Sometimes we perform well; other times very badly. Walter White performed however the plot required him to perform — and by ‘perform’, I mean literally. Bryan Cranston is expert at playing a guy who can’t act very well. Most of the time, we can see Walter White is a terrible actor. His family see right through him, for instance. But when the plot required it, when making that video to bribe Hank in season five, suddenly Walt could pull an Academy Award winning performance.

Yet the audience fully accepted this ‘inconsistency’. In fact, I didn’t even notice this was happening until after I’d watched the series three times.

Here’s another reason why Walter White is so engaging:

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