Villains and antiheroes commonly make choices that turn their life from the path of right to the dirty backwater streets of wrong. Yet no one sets out to leave the world worse than they enter it. We all strive to be good people. Pablo Escobar continuasually saw himself as a Robin Hood figure dreaming of Colombian presidency. Whether it is fiction or reality, no one sets out to do evil. So why is it that a despicable figure like Walter White, never lost the audience? Why is it we root for these terrible human beings and even hate the factors (Skyler) that stop them from achieving their criminal goals?
Characters that fill the audience’s hearts with sympathy will always be able to carry stories. Breaking Bad could have been a story like that. A down-on-his-luck chemistry teacher that suddenly learns he will soon be dead. The underdog-tale is up for grabs. Yet the show soon veers away from that and as the story and seasons progress, the actions Walter White takes drop the sympathy level until it approaches absolute zero. Yet, we still watch. We remain captivated. We care.
While sympathy definitely is a strong method to create a bond between character and audience, it is not required. Yet no great character can exist without there being empathy. My dusty old dictionary defines empathy as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.T
The action of understanding the feelings, thoughts and experience of another. When you write someone going to the dark side you wouldn’t understand them if they made the choice to commit crimes and hurt people. Such clear choices between good and evil are predictable. Human beings want to be good. So such choices are examples of bad writing.
At the start of Breaking Bad the choice Walter makes isn’t between: “Make drugs” or “Not make drugs.” That choice is simple, it is two-dimensional.
The choice is between providing for his family through crime or die leaving behind a pile of debt.
Yet there is also an underlying motivation. A sub-consious one that is rarely said out loud.
At the core of any human heart is the desire to be appreciated.
Walter White was not appreciated. Not by his students, nor his family or the car-washowner.
is own birthday party wasn’t about him and what he achieved. People relished in rewatching the video of a drugbust as brother-in-law Hank Schrader smiled over a pile of money. Money Walter White never would have.
Ernest Hemmingway once said that what is moral and immoral to him is between what feels good and what doesn’t.
Walter White, a man whose genius brain was wasted on yawning sixteen-year-olds, could show off in the kitchen of the RV. He had a captive audience in Jesse Pinkman. He was providing for his family and he was doing something that no one else in the world was doing: making quasi pure meth.
The justifications came. I did it for my family. I wanted to provide. Over and over the same rational. Until he believed it himself.
At its heart though, he did it for himself. In his final conversation with Skyler he admits that it felt good and he felt alive.
We may not be able to justify what Walter does, but everyone knows that feeling. That’s what great characterization is… Someone whose actions, no matter how deplorable, we can understand.
I leave you with a video where Cranston talks about dealing with the death of Jane. The thought process he goes through in this video perfectly underlines this theory.