Tony Soprano. Don Draper. Stringer Bell. Carrie Mathison. Who’s missing from this list of television’s great antiheroes? Some might think of Boardwalk Empire‘s Nucky Thompson or Scandal‘s Olivia Pope or Dexter Morgan of Dexter. But most viewers would probably fill in the blank with Walter White, Breaking Bad‘s central figure and one of the most fascinating characters in the history of TV.
Walt, Don, and Tony comprise a sort of unholy trinity of (white, male) TV drama protagonists whose similarities are so often remarked upon that their differences tend to go unnoticed. This is a shame, because at a moment when antiheroes are so ubiquitous that critics like Slate’s June Thomas have begun to get sick of them, Walter White doesn’t just stand out among this conflicted fraternity — he provides a necessary and welcome antidote to it.
Sure, he meets the dictionary definition of the antihero: he’s a protagonist characterized by his notable lack of heroic qualities. But that doesn’t entirely sum up the antihero as it has ossified into a more specific TV archetype. What Tony and Don (and Stringer and Carrie, etc.) all have in common is that each actually does have laudable and humanizing attributes. These characters do cruel, dishonest, violent, self-destructive things, but we can’t quite hate them because they genuinely care for their families or have crises of conscience or adhere to some semblance of a moral code. We get addicted to their stories because we find them fascinating, repulsive, and sometimes even likable all at the same time. Whenever we want to swear off them forever, they do something sweet or vulnerable or unselfish to suck us into their orbit again. Like Cubist portraits, how they look to us changes depending on the angle from which we view them.
If we graphed the trajectory of these characters’ likability, the resulting line would resemble a roller coaster: Don Draper might disgust us by cheating on Megan (or Betty) and then redeem himself by giving Peggy an invaluable career boost minutes later. In a classic first-season Sopranos episode, Tony kills a man with his bare hands (and narrowly escapes his own murder) in between stops on a college tour that highlights the big dreams he has for his daughter, Meadow.
Walter White’s graph would look a whole lot different. When we meet him in the pilot, he’s a high-school chemistry teacher whose 50th birthday coincides with the news that he has terminal lung cancer. That’s the high point of our empathy for Walt; while we might not respond to such a diagnosis with the decision to finance our treatment (and stockpile money for our family) by cooking and selling crystal meth, it’s hard to blame this pitiful, sick, disrespected figure for going off the rails after finding out he’s going to die. But it’s a fairly linear plunge from there, the slow decline punctuated by occasional precipitous plummets — that time Walt poisoned a child; that time Walt let Jane die — as he transforms into Heisenberg and wreaks unquantifiable destruction in the process. As Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan is fond of saying, in a metaphor that sums up his show so well that it became the title of the Museum of the Moving Image exhibition devoted to it, “This is a story about a man who transforms himself from Mr. Chips into Scarface.”
Just about every fan of the series knows that quote, but no one seems fully cognizant of the extent to which it sets Walt apart from the roller-coaster model of antiheroes who ascend and descend in our estimation so often that, for all their complexity, they end up stuck in the same frustrating cycle of damnation and redemption. In some senses, Walter White is the opposite of these characters. Not only is he on a long slide to pure villainy, but he grows less conflicted about it with each new episode; he began in the same morally ambiguous territory as Don and Tony, and every week we see him drained of just a bit more of that humanity. He isn’t a character we love despite or because of the flaws that torment him, whose quasi-relatable imperfections make us ask deep, dark questions about what kind of people we really are; he’s a man so simply horrifying we can’t look away. Even his attempts to keep his family together are presented as power-hungry manipulations by a man who insists on getting his way at all costs.
Watch too much Quality Television in 2013 and you may well begin to buy into extreme moral relativism. Amid all that complexity, there’s something refreshing about how unmistakably bad the figure at the center of Breaking Bad has become — how utterly and shamelessly he makes us loathe him. Just about every other character on the show may inhabit the same gray area as TV’s other great antiheroes, but we can thank Walter White for reminding us that pure evil really does exist.