When a man finds out he’s terminally ill and has got a very short time left, many things can happen. He can fulfill his bucket list like Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman did in the movie The Bucket List and attain some form of enlightenment and self-actualization or he can do the opposite and make a fuck-it list. Fuck society and its rules, fuck law enforcement, fuck convention, fuck ‘doing the right thing’ like his mom and dad taught him to do. Fuck everyone and everything who once stood in his way. He’s going to go out his way, guns a blazing, even if it destroys everyone in his path.
This is the dilemma of Walter White (Brayn Cranston), a suburban high school chemistry teacher from Albuquerque, New Mexcico, who got diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer (Stage 3A) and his prognosis is treatable but not curable. His salary as a chemistry teacher is not enough to cover their expenses and he’s taken on a second job at a local carwash to supplement his income. He has a teenage son with special needs, Walter Jr., who attends the same high school he teaches at, and after a long wait, his wife Skylar is expecting a little girl in a few months. It is in the midst of all of this, after he collapses at the carwash job, he finds out he has terminal lung cancer. The insurance he has through his teaching job is a HMO plan and is inadequate for the cancer treatments he will need. All of the good oncologists in town do not accept HMO and he would basically have to pay out of pocket for all of the chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The alternative would be to accept whatever substandard treatment plan that would be approved by his HMO.
His family rally around him and offer him any support he may need, but they do not have the one thing he needs the most, which is money for the treatments. For the first time Walter White is truly vulnerable. His wife Skylar doesn’t work and she’s unable to go back to work until after her baby is born. He begins to plan his next move, whether to go through with cancer treatment or not. They could borrow money and go into severe debt and only for him to die and leave his wife, son and baby daughter destitute. There are no good options for Walter. His family wants him to undertake cancer treatments but he is unsure.
Walter White’s brother-in-law Hank Schrader (the husband of Skylar’s sister Marie) is a DEA officer who regularly makes crystal methamphetamine busts, confiscating hoards of unsold drugs and cash. Usually bundles of 100 notes just lying around in some cook house. Hank, is a stereotypical drug enforcement officer; he is a blowhard, show off, racist and sexist all rolled into one. Sexist and racist jokes roll off his tongue, in front of his wife, other women, his nephew Walter Jr., even in front of his Latino partner. He does it all with a big guffaw and wink. He justifies his views as experiences acquired from his many years on the job. Hispanics in Albuquerque are almost all drug dealers, hag-faced middle age white women are meth-hookers, white people deal and smoke pot, and blacks don’t feature at all in his part of town. When Hank meets someone, he immediately susses them out to see if they criminals or law abiding citizens and because his views of each category are so narrow, he often misses the obvious signs. His in-laws barely tolerate him and they only do so because of familial affection and his position in law enforcement. He’s not someone they want to piss off, he will use the power of his badge to get his way. Because Hank likes to show off, he often offers his family and friends to ride along with him when he’s making a bust. Hank offered to take Walter White on busts but Walter always turned him down, saying that it’s not his thing. When Walter caught on the evening news one night how much cash was confiscated from a meth-lab (cook house), he decided to accept his brother-in-laws offer to go on a ride along to get a closer look on how a meth-lab works.
The character of Walter White is a character of contradictions. On the outside, he couldn’t have been more ordinary. He is a middle aged man (just turned 50), white, high school chemistry teacher in the Albuquerque suburbs. He is a devoted father and loving husband. Their son has special needs but with their loving devotion and care, Walter Jr. is on his way to living an independent life. He is a good teacher, has a lot of passion in the subject he teaches; the inadequate salary aside, he very much enjoys teaching and is the head of the school’s science department. His appearance is unremarkable and nondescript, one probably couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. Where as Hank is full of bluster and seeks to show off and dominate every conversation he’s participating in, Walter White is the opposite. Walter is quiet, erudite, nerdy but not just in the sciences; he’s a well read man and has no desire to show it off but wouldn’t hesitate to set someone straight either if they get their ‘facts’ wrong. He wouldn’t be described as ugly in appearance but he’s definitely not handsome. His face is lined with years of financial struggle and hardship. He has bore the hardships of life which was wrought upon him with grace and a sort of silent courage. Though a gifted chemistry teacher, he’s had to take on a second minimum wage job just to cover their expenses, which is a deeply undignified thing, he took it in his stride. Until he found out he was terminally ill.
The wiseman always warns us of the quiet ones. What appears to be his quiet dignity reveals itself to be hateful brooding. Brooding at fifty plus years of the Great Unfairness of Life which was doled out to him by the unforgiving Universe. When he was well, he had the motivation to remain an upright and law abiding citizen, for he might lose what little they have. But when he found out he was ill, and as a result of his illness and the inadequate nest egg which his job has left him, he decided to take action. His family will not be broke and depend on the charity and largess of family and friends to survive after he’s gone. And more importantly, while he is alive, he will not allow himself to become a charity case and a subject of pity. This would be one indignity too many. Which is why even when a graduate school friend of his who struck it rich and is a millionaire offered to hire him and give him excellent benefits and pay for all of his out of pocket expenses for his treatments, he flat out refused and raged at Skylar for divulging his illness without his prior approval.
Walter White chose the fuck-it list. The ride along he accepted from Hank turns out they were looking for a meth cooker called ‘Captain Cook’, which through Walter’s skills of deduction he discovers it was a former student of his called Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), who was not caught during the DEA raid, he was hiding next door. Jesse Pinkman is a flunkie, in school and in life. Though Jesse came from a very wealthy family and could have access to the best of everything to help him succeed, he chose the life of a criminal. He is a moderately successful meth cooker and dealer. But this last raid, he lost his cooking partner and all of their drugs, cash and equipment. He has to start over again, he took it as his sign to quit the meth business and go straight, until Walter White went to find him. Walter’s first exchange with Jesse reveals the depth of Walter’s ease with the world of criminals. He blackmails Jesse into partnering with him to cook meth or else he’ll tell his brother-in-law, a DEA officer the real identity of ‘Captain Cook’. Just earlier, he was a socially reticent and klutzy chemistry teacher, and now he’s threatening an experienced criminal with exposure.
Walter’s proposal to Jesse is simple and straightforward. Walter is a chemist, he knows how to cook the best crystal meth there is, and it’s Jesse’s job to go sell it. It’s first and foremost a business operation. Walter White is to deliver a product that is good, reliable and consistent every time. It will be a clean operation where no one gets hurt or killed. It will be a two man operation and Jesse is the face of the operation, Walter White is to stay behind the scenes as the cooker. Before they could even sell the first batch of crystal meth, Jesse the inverterate flunkie opened his big mouth about the identity of Walter White and even brought two mid-level Mexican cartel contacts to their cook site. They barely escape with their lives. Walter realized the drug business was anything but clean or clear cut. It was also his first test to see if he can stomach the business. When it became apparent that both of the Mexican cartel contacts needed to be killed, it tested Walter’s mettle, if he can do the deed if it became necessary. We find out not even halfway into season 1, he can. When it came to the survival of himself and his family versus morality, he chose himself. And the choice wasn’t as difficult as he imagined it would be. It was also fortuitous that the person he killed was a confidential information to Hank, so if that person had lived, Walter White’s secret life would have been blown.
Before season 1 ended, due to his chemotherapy treatment, he begun losing his hair, so he decided to shave his head bald, thereby giving him that menacing look which graces all of the Breaking Bad posters and billboards. The shaving of his hair is symbolic. He’s let go of his previous life as an honest and hardworking chemistry teacher; he’s now Walter White, an emerging drug kingpin of Albuquerque, New Mexico who cooks the best meth in town. Walter tries to convince himself (and the audience) that he’s doing this for his family and that this is the only way he can make enough money quick enough pay for his cancer treatments and leave enough for his family when he’s gone. But he knows and as well as the audience knows that it’s just a convenient excuse. He enjoys this line of work way too much. It came too naturally to him. This hard edged criminal side of him was just dormant. When he goes to confront Tuco, another Mexican drug cartel distributor, for stealing their drugs; Walter goes into Tuco’s den, with what appears to be crystal meth, except it’s not, it’s an explosive. He first asked Tuco politely to hand over $50,000 for the drugs they stole and recompense for beating Jesse to a pulp. As expected, Tuco laughs in his face, Walter detonates the explosive in front of Tuco. No one was seriously harmed but it got the respect of Tuco and they were in business. And Tuco paid up.
This exchange also highlighted the widely assumed cultural and class differences between the educated white middle class and uneducated but full of brawn and muscle working class Hispanics. White people think their way out of problems, while Latinos punch their way out of them. Jesse may have been beaten to a pulp by Tuco at first for demanding upfront payment for their drugs, but Walter went back there with a plan and a disguised weapon (explosives disguised as crystal meth) and got even plus some more. The message is clear. Brains always win. Logical thinking and application of linear processes (which can only be learned in school) as taught by the scientific disciplines will outgun the muscle. Even though Jesse is a flunkie, he comes from a privileged background and with it a certain amount of inherited arrogance and swagger. Walter White can’t stand Jesse but still comes to his aid and got him an extra $15,000 for getting beaten for trying to get payment for their drugs upfront.
Knowing what we know about Walter White now, it’s hard to know if he did it out of kindness to Jesse, or it’s self-interest to preserve the goodwill in the partnership or a combination of both. But it’s safe to say, the altruistic Walter White has died, if he ever existed at all.
It can only get worse with Season 2 and onwards.