Walter White Isn’t Black-and-White

*** Breaking Bad Spoilers Ahead ***

If you caught Sunday’s episode of Breaking Bad you know how great it was. If you didn’t, you’ve probably been regaled online with paeans to its greatness. Basically, all the seemingly hyperbolic praise that’s been heaped upon it isn’t simply true, it barely begins to scratch the surface of what a perfectly formed, flawlessly executed hour of television it was.

It says something when the agonizing death of a main character is actually one of the least startling moments unleashed on an audience in a single episode. The fact that the Rian Johnson-directed, Moira Walley-Beckett-scripted episode “Ozymandias” begins with that death and then manages to ratchet up the tension and heartbreak from there speaks volumes about its ability to put you through an emotional wringer and leave you with absolutely nothing. The final moments of the episode were indeed the most powerful, with one simple phone call being the kind of thing sure to live in TV drama infamy. That call — the one from Walt to Skyler.

There’s been a lot of debate over exactly what the call meant both for Walt and for the audience. Matt Zoller Seitz breaks it down for us today in a really terrific piece over at New York Magazine’s Vulture site, questioning why so many people insist on wrongly seeing Walter White in black-and-white terms.

What makes sense is the notion that Walter, like me, like you, like everybody, is complicated, and does things on purpose and on instinct, and on purpose while acting on instinct, and by accident, and in response to demons even he doesn’t understand; and Walter, like you, like me, like everyone, can be more than one thing at the same time, just as a great work of popular art can be more than one thing at the same time, many of them in seeming contradiction. Multitudes, multitudes.

By which I mean yes, of course, the phone call was a performance! We all know that! But like all performances, and like all convincing lies, it drew on true emotions, deep resentments. It was a magma-hot blast from Walt’s id, even if in that moment the id was helping the superego put across a lie intended to exonerate Skyler and put all the legal heat on Walt…

If you seek to deny or minimize the parts of art that don’t fit your reductive interpretation of Walt as a basically decent man, or a man who moves with a purpose and is somehow “badass,” as opposed to the complex monster the show has actually presented over five seasons, you are in fact… watching the show wrong. In fact, you’re trying to turn a smart show into a stupid one. And you really should ask yourself why.

Why is it so important to you to believe that Walt doesn’t really hate or resent Skyler or Hank? Why is it so important to believe that equally intense elements of love and hatred, protectiveness and resentment, purposefulness and chaos, cannot exist in the same scene? Why must the scene be made simpler than it is? Why must it be made dumber than it is? Why do you need it to be so?


The penultimate episode of Breaking Bad airs this Sunday on AMC.

Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.