Why Walter White from Breaking Bad is a Comic Book (Anti)Superhero: A Half-Ass Analysis in One Part
If you’re not watching AMC’s Breaking Bad, you should be. Easily one of the premier television shows in recent memory, it contains a performance that ranks as one of the single best turns that I have ever, EVER, seen. Believe you me, I’ve watched a lot of TV in my more vegetative moments. I have a more than passing familiarity with the medium. And this… This is something to behold. There are some critics that have already put the show at the top of the boob-tube pyramid, proclaiming it the pound for pound all-time champion of the small screen universe. I don’t know if I’d go that far. I don’t know if it’s the greatest show ever. We’ll see how it all ends. But whatever extreme laurels are flung its way rest largely on the shoulders of one man, one character.
The performance in question belongs to Bryan Cranston, known to most people as from his comedic role as the idiot father on Malcolm in the Middle. I remember him fondly for his recurring role on Seinfeld as the creepy dentist Tim Whatley, a D.D.S. who may or may not have molested a drugged Jerry, and a Catholic who converted to Judaism just so he could tell Jew jokes with impunity. He had comedic bona fides, but Breaking Bad has been something else entirely. For those unfamiliar, Cranston plays Walter White, a meek high school chemistry teacher and family man largely passed over by life. Everything changes when he’s diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Then, in a bid to secure his family’s financial future (a family with a disabled teenage son and a daughter on the way), he puts his brilliant but largely wasted chemical acumen to use cooking meth. GREAT meth. Meth far superior to the biker crank out on the streets. Meth that people will pay handsomely for. Meth that people will kill for.
Watching Cranston is a 13 times a year delight. There’s so much going on behind his eyes every time he occupies the screen. There’s humor. There are good intentions. And there’s something growing inside of him, something other than the cancer that’s one day soon going to claim his life. As the series has progressed, the meth cooking has become less about getting cold hard cash for his wife and kids, and more about, well, that something else. Something dark. The evolution is harrowing. The magnificent finale of this past season, the show’s fourth, contained scenes of Leone-esque lyric potency, and a gut-wrenching – but sadly unsurprising – final twist, one that flushed much of the scant moral bedrock that remained in this world of lies, crime and murder. Walt has truly broken bad.
Make no mistake, Breaking Bad is not an easy watch. I’m unable to scarf down episodes like Garfield inhaling a pan of lasagna, something that can be done with shows like The Sopranos and Game of Thrones. You need time to catch your breath with this program. And, while the writing team and supporting cast all deserve heaps of praise (this is an 18-wheeler firing on all cylinders), without a convincing White at the center of it all the whole enterprise would flop about like an empty sock. Cranston has won multiple Emmys, but that seems woefully insufficient. Mere baubles at the feet of the king.
HEY, ISN’T THIS A BLOG ABOUT COMIC BOOKS?
Yes. Yes it is.
It occurred to me while watching early episodes and catching up on the past season that Walter White is very much a comic book superhero. I’m reluctant to call him that because of his seedy second life, but the moniker might fit. Perhaps an anti-superhero. Anyway, there are certain qualities that go into the superhero template. A character can lack some, and they can have them in varying degrees, but taken in totality these things are the primordial mud of which a four color hero is sculpted. I think there’s a mountain of evidence to back me up. Perhaps you’ll agree. Perhaps you won’t. Read on.
And there are no grand plot details revealed here, so read without fear of significant spoilers. Of course, if you want to stay fresh as a daisy before you queue up the show, then maybe you should peek through your fingers at the following paragraphs.
Here we go.
This is an obvious start. Walter White. It’s an alliterative name, by no means a prerequisite to a comic book hero, but a factor that certainly gets a foot in the door. Clark Kent. Billy Batson. Peter Parker. If you want to stick with the Ws, Wally West. This one’s pretty self-explanatory.
There’s usually something cataclysmic that gives a comic book hero the impetus to embark on his rather strange career path. Bruce Wayne had Crime Alley. Peter Parker had a radioactive spider and Uncle Ben. With Walt it’s the aforementioned cancer diagnosis and the mounting bills that threaten to crush the family that he’s going to leave behind. It forces him to take drastic surreptitious action.
3. SECRET IDENTITY
Walt operates in secret. His entire family (at least at the start) has no clue as to what he’s up to, including a DEA brother-in-law. He even adopts a moniker for his criminal escapades — Heisenberg. Heisenberg becomes somewhat of a bogeyman amongst law enforcement and the underworld, with few knowing who he truly is. Sound familiar? Like 99.9% of comic book heroes?
Walt doesn’t where a cape. There’s no cowl, nothing emblazoned across a spandex-encased chest. But at times he’s worn a simple outfit in his “Heisenberg” persona. It consists of a pork pie hat, sometimes with sunglasses thrown into the mix. IT’S MORE BADASS THAN IT SOUNDS:
I know, it’s not much. But if we’re going to let the Phantom Stranger into the club…
Walt can’t shoot lightning bolts out of his hands or crush a lump of coal into a diamond, but he has an uncanny, MacGyver-like ability to improvise chemical compounds, whether it’s explosives out of consumer products or a battery literally made from loose change. He has a gift. Maybe he’s a mutant or something, like Forge.
Jesse Pinkman (played by Aaron Paul) is a twenty-something addict (paging Speedy…) well on his way to an early grave when he comes into contact with Walt, his former chemistry teacher. Jesse, who has a good heart underneath all his emotional scars and baggage, becomes Mr. White’s (he always calls him Mr. White) outlet into the Albuquerque drug scene. They become partners, often antagonistic ones, but nevertheless a duo with a vague father-son dynamic. Jesse subconsciously craves Walt’s approval, and neither can bring themselves to betray the other, something that gets harder and harder to avoid as their activities escalate up the drug hierarchy. Paul is Cranston’s match when it comes to bringing humanity to the dark corners of existence. And the way things are going, when the whole show wraps up Jesse may be the true hero.
(There’s a scene in the second season where Jesse shows his childhood comic character creations to his girlfriend. That’s when the first germ of this whole comic book idea was planted in my head. I often need a kick in the ass to have even the dumbest idea.)
There’s no Batmobile here, nothing with flames shooting out of the back or weapons springing out of the grill at the push of a button. But Walt and Jesse do have a camper which they use as a rolling meth lab. The Heisenberg-mobile, if you will. For the first half of the series they travel out into the desolate New Mexico hinterlands to cook their meth without fear being caught. A part of the show from the very first minute, the RV is the setting for some of the best drama in the series. Here it is:
Remember in the Adam West Batman series when Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson would access the poles to the Batcave by pushing the bust of Shakespeare? Cool, right? Didn’t you want something like that in your house? Walt has a similar arrangement, but there’s no giant pennies or playing cards in his man cave. Later in the series, after the camper becomes passé, a rather terrifying drug lord constructs a state of the art lab for Walt and Jesse to brew their meth. It’s in the basement of an industrial-sized laundry facility, with the entrance hidden behind a giant washing machine. Flip a hidden lever and the washer tilts forward, revealing the door. HE HAS AN UNDERGROUND LAIR WITH A HIDDEN ENTRANCE. WHAT MORE DO YOU NEED?
And that’s it. Eight criteria that I think make Walter White fit right in with the capes and tights crowd. As they say in the legal world, there’s a preponderance of the evidence. I think it’s a fairly convincing case, and one that others have probably made. I just thought I’d write it into the record — spending a little time musing on this show is no chore, believe me.
Breaking Bad has one more season left in the tank. If you’re not on the bandwagon, then you’re more than welcome to join the fun. Heisenberg would want it that way.