Per usual, this “complete series” post is for people who have watched the entire series described herein. If Breaking Bad is still sitting on your Netflix queue – stop reading now and watch an episode or two. You’ll thank me afterwards.
For mine own good, all causes give way. I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning would be as tedious as go o’er. Strange things I have in head, that will to hand, which must be acted ere there may be scann’d.
Macbeth, Act III, Scene IV.
Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations. Centuries after his conception, he is still the archetypal anti-hero of the English-language theater. To television viewers in the last ten years, Walter White is often the first character thought of when asked to name an anti-hero. He is more human and thus more relatable than Tony Soprano, and far more evil that Don Draper (whom I would argue is not really an anti-hero at all).
Like Macbeth, Walter doesn’t start out as an evil man, and the transition is so seamless that by the end of the series much of the audience is still rooting for him. He’s introduced to us as a family man, a teacher, and a cancer patient. He’s desperate and angry, and he turns to making meth to pay for his treatment and support his family.
How is this like Macbeth then? Macbeth is envious of Duncan and ambitious from the beginning, but it is the prophecy of the weird sisters that compels him to act. Walter’s envy and ambition may be more repressed than Macbeth’s at the beginning, but his illness acts as a catalyst for him to desperately right the perceived wrongs in his life (not, as we’re led to believe, to help his family). The main wrong – him not being on top.
Another similarity is that each man is essentially a wounded animal from the moment that they are compelled to action. Both take increasingly brutal and amoral actions throughout their stories. What sets Walter apart is that he is a far more dangerous animal than his Shakespearean counterpart due to his improbable luck.
Vince Gilligan takes careful steps to demonstrate the absurd improbability of Walter’s life. At the end of the second season, for example, we are shown a series of events that leads to an air disaster. Walter is somehow in the middle of this. He lets Jane die. He meets her father, who will be grief stricken and make a mistake. He personally sees the plane crash that results from that mistake.
The ending of the series has been criticized in some circles as too neat, too tidy, and too much a series of unlikely events. Walter is destroyed in “Ozymandias,” and dealing with the consequences of that destruction in “Granite State.” Were it any other story, even Macbeth, he would have died a broken man in “Felina.”
I would argue that a traditional, “ruined villain gets what’s due to him” ending wouldn’t have fit Gilligan’s story. Walter has been in the center of far too many bizarre events to have simple justice done to him. To me, it fits perfectly that he is able to undertake one last unlikely action to right at least some of his wrongs.
Did he deserve to be in a position to do so? Absolutely not – he deserved to die alone in that cabin. In this way, the ending isn’t earned – but I think that’s the point. Walter White doesn’t stop rolling sevens from the moment he gets sick – sometimes being portrayed as being a force of nature unto himself. When much of the audience turns against him by the end, when we recognize his evil and see his comeuppance, we want his luck to run out. It remains frustratingly consistent that Walter is equally as fortunate when we’re on his side at the beginning and when we’re against him at the end.
Only a man “untimedly ripped from his mother’s womb” can destroy Macbeth, but it seems that the only thing that could destroy Walter White is Walter White. It’s his own bullet, after all, that finishes him. How I wish it were anyone else’s.
(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe