Re-envisioning Walter White’s Fatal Flaw: Breaking Bad and Narrative

I recently re-watched the last couple of episodes from this season of Breaking Bad. I’ve always admired the show for its honest and direct writing, acting, and production values, and this season is no exception.

But I was struck by something different this time.

Walt’s ego clearly takes over in this season, which is not exactly a surprise considering some of the asides to the audience in the last couple of seasons. We know, despite how he portrays himself to family/friends/associates, that he is not going to suddenly become a reasonable man. Mo Ryan over at the Huffington Post elegantly describes this full on meglomania in Season 5.

But a much deeper thread stood out to me when Walt told Jesse about his mistake in cashing out of Gray Matter, the chemistry based start-up that he helped found.

While ego plays a huge part in Walt’s descent into madness (creator Vince Gilligan has made it clear he’s not going to “see the light”), it functions directly in relation to his concept of himself and “the story of who Walt is and how he came to be.” If you think about it that way, his own internal narrative drives everything in the series.

Consider this, there are multiple occasions where Walt has the opportunity to cash out, or say yes to business deals that have tremendous upside to him, yet he doesn’t say yes. Often times he argues it under the guise of “but we could make so much more” or “I have a better plan” but what he’s really saying is “I didn’t come up with this plan, it doesn’t fit the narrative I have of Walter White being in charge of his life and writing the story.” When you think back to Seasons 1 & 2, it starts to make sense why he got into manufacturing meth, not as a way to make money for his family, or even as a direct expression of his ego, but as a way to reclaim his own narrative. It’s brilliant writing and explains why we as the audience are not sure if we empathize with him or not. Walter White is constantly on the line between antagonist and protagonist. We admire his desire to be in charge of his own narrative while being horrified at the carnage he creates in doing so.

The brilliantly delivered moment where Walt forces a potential business partner to say his name is about one thing: Walter White writes this story, and it doesn’t matter what the ending is as long as he’s in charge. In that light, it’s no surprise what’s coming in Season 6. Walt’s un-doing isn’t really about achieving mastery over the drug trade, or his friends and family, it’s about being in control of his own narrative, something we all ultimately must give up. Those that don’t are destined to run into a brick wall.

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