Walter White faces the televisual afterlife
What will happen to Walter White after ‘Breaking Bad ’concludes tomorrow night?
Writer/producer Vince Gilligan (left) and the cast and crew of Breaking Bad appear onstage during the 65th Emmy Awards last Sunday in Los Angeles. Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Tomorrow, after five series of compelling drama, Breaking Bad reaches its grand climax, and the misadventures of the inadvertent drug kingpin Walter White will come to a gripping conclusion.
But what will happen to Walter White once he reaches the televisual afterlife? His narrative prognosis isn’t good – he’s got inoperable lung cancer for a start, and the violent trajectory of Breaking Bad’s fifth season doesn’t suggest a happy ending is on the cards. Outside the confines of Breaking Bad’s addictive plot, however, Walter is likely to be with us for a long time.
Bryan Cranston’s wonderfully empathetic performance is approaching the sort of iconic status reserved to only a handful of TV characters – those creations that come to exist outside the parameters of the programme that gave them life, cultural tokens as much as characters.
Tony Soprano is one, of course, the manifestation of the conflicted, self-doubting anti-hero. JR Ewing was another, a sort of cartoonish shorthand for 20th-century petro-capitalist avarice. Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw also falls into that bracket, emblematic of independent, careerist modern women.
It’s safe to say that Walter White is another, though what he signifies is still fluid. His journey from hardworking chemistry teacher and father to ruthless drug lord, not to mention cancer patient, is hardly widely applicable.
But perhaps what makes Walter so compelling is the way he functions as an unlikely personification of the squeezed middle class. Walter is representative of the diligent majority who operate on the assumption that hard work will provide a decent quality of life and health benefits, a home of your own, a secure retirement and the prospect that the next generation will enjoy a higher quality of life. And just as so many Americans are discovering that those assumptions are illusory, Walter feels let down by the fraying social contract that underpins the middle class and, what’s more, gouged by the medical industry.
Seen in that light, Walter’s desperate response can be seen as the acting out of America’s id, the violent and selfish behaviour that is the last resort of those left burned by the American Dream. That Walter so carefully rationalises those actions, while the audience so eagerly sympathises with him, only serves to reinforce how sinister that symbolism really is.