Character Analysis: Walter White/Heisenberg

One of the greatest flaws associated with people’s perception of Breaking Bad is that it is a drama.  This is not the case.  I can understand why people would have that idea, but it still isn’t true.  What the series is is a tragedy.  I would argue that it is one of the greatest American tragedies every written.  I would also argue that it is the completed version of what was meant to be the greatest America tragedy that could not have crashed and burned harder at the finish line.  Some of you might be able to see where I’m going with this, but for the rest, let me first give you some context into the difference between drama and tragedy.

Before we get too far into this, let me say that my definitions of these terms are open to dispute.  For real, feel free to argue the shit out of my statements and call me an idiot.  That’s fine.  But this is how I see things.

A lot of people think that the difference between drama and tragedy is that drama makes you feel happy and tragedy makes you feel sad.   That is oversimplification.  Here are the differences, from what I’ve gathered.  Drama is where ideals conquer rationality.  It’s where the thing that should happen does, not the thing that would happen in something more realistic.  A great example would be every film where the hero saves the day just in time.  The success of the hero, or their failure at the point of the plot, usually involves some kind of fate or destiny, either implied or obvious.

In contrast, in a well-done tragedy, rationality conquers ideals.  It is a story where the thing that logically would happen does, instead of the thing that we believe should happen.  The reason that this happens is because the hero of the story has one damning flaw.  They have some character failing that stops them from achieving the end that they desire.  A good example would be Willy from Death of a Salesman.  His horrible flaw is that he is lying to both himself and his family, and it is tearing the family apart.  It isn’t just about being sad and stuff.  No, the story has to make a point about the lead character(s) and how that flaw of theirs dooms their efforts.

Walter WhiteThis brings us to Walter White and his darker persona, Heisenberg.  When Walter started his dark descent into the world of cooking meth, his motivations were very pure.  He was trying to save a little money to help his family.  Granted, it was a plan that was born out of a combination of desperation and the desire to put his vast knowledge of chemistry to use, but it still had its roots in something good.  Or did it?  Walt had been burned out of a company he founded.  It was a decision that forever burned in his memory and made him filled with hate.  That was, in my opinion, the birthplace of Heisenberg.

His first hints are in a clothing shop when he is out with his family.  Having been diagnosed with cancer, the darker persona is creeping back in.  You truly get a good look when a bunch of bullies are making fun of his son who is suffering from cerebral palsy.  He attacks the leader of the bullies.  There are other smaller instances of his appearance, but in my opinion, Heisenberg doesn’t truly come back until the murder of Krazy-8.  Walt knows that he has to do something, but he is too weak to kill the man himself.  When he realizes that the man intends to kill him when he lets him go, Heisenberg appears.  He strangles the man to death.  This marks the first appearance.  The second is after Jesse is beaten and nearly killed by Tuco.  He is given his trademark appearance as he uses his chemistry knowledge to make a daring deal, following a controlled explosion at his headquarters.  This act, and the violence behind it, gives Heisenberg his shape.  It gives him the keys to desires for death and carnage that he never got to exact before and shapes the rise that follows.

The thing that marks every part of Heisenberg’s continual rise in power is death.  Each time he gains a new seat of power, people die.  It is because he is finally getting the recognition that he feels he always deserved.  After the mishap with Tuco, he truly achieves greatness when he allies himself with the drug kingpin, Gustavo Fring.  Gus has a massive operation that was posed to go worldwide.  The blue meth that Heisenberg was Heisenbergfamous for was now everywhere.  He had reached a level of infamy that Walt could never have dreamed, and this was what he wanted.  When he finds out that Pinkman was cooking behind his back, he gets violently angry, seeing it as an affront to his good name.  However, when he realizes that Gus is a problem, he then kills him in one of the most daring and impressive ways of using unlikely allies.

When Heisenberg has finally taken the throne from Gus, there is almost none of Walt left.  While he may sometimes sound like he is being amiable and nice, it is all part of the game.  He is consistently using people.  However, there is the fact that the goal in his mind of helping the family is something he has to fight against.  It is the last vestige of Walt that he can’t get rid of, no matter how dark his acts become and how hard he tries to not be the person Walt wants him to be.  However, the final ascent of the throne marks his downfall.

Like any good tragedy, there must be a downfall.  The downfall of Heisenberg comes when, by pure chance, Walt’s brother-in-law and DEA agent Hank finds a book in his bathroom that was a gift from a former associate.  That small thing that has the 1% chance of happening, like in all tragedies, does.  And it makes the fall of the main character.  Hank quickly figures it all out, but has no evidence.  It becomes a battle between Walt and Hank, which is reminiscent of the final parts of the duel between L and Light in Death Note.  And just like the end of that series, it all culminates in Walt’s lie being undone and Heisenberg being exposed to the light.  In the episode “Ozymandias,” it is just like the final sequence between Light and the people who have all busted him in how he takes it.  Even after Hank is killed, his fall continues.

The final end of Heisenberg is after he ends up in the woods of New Hampshire.  Having lost everything, he departs and leaves the broken remains of his former life behind.  At Fallen Walter Whitefirst, Walt is a destroyed man who has nothing left.  However, he realizes what he has to do and then something interesting happens.  Where once Heisenberg used Walt to help him get his way, Walt now uses Heisenberg in order to get a final redemption before finally ending his time on the world and leaving the legacy that he was so famous for behind.

The original Godfather films were meant to be a trilogy that was in the same vein as a Greek tragedy.  It was meant to tell of the rise and fall of Michael Corleone.  Originally, the third film was supposed to be a civil war between Michael and the last remnant of moral fiber in the family, Tom Hagan.  However, they couldn’t get Robert Duvall back on the project, and we all remember what we got.  Unfortunately.  That story was a lot like the rise and fall of Walter White.  It made for an impressive look into a very interesting and complicated character, with whom a lot of debate can be had about what he’s really like.  I made my opinion known, but maybe I’m wrong.  If you believe differently, great.  Let me know how you see this character and his role in the series.

I think I’ll close out with a quote from the man himself.

“My family hates me.  This is all I have left, and you want to take it from me.”

Peace out,


8 thoughts on “Character Analysis: Walter White/Heisenberg

  1. I too felt it was such a tragedy. He did everything possible in his power. Just when you think nothing could go wrong ever the absolutely unexpected happens and turning the whole table upside down.

  2. Indeed it is a tragedy, as our protagonist’s tragic flaw leads to his inevitable demise. What struck me was the one thing that both Walt and Heisenberg shared: an unshakable love for his family. His wife, from the start, was quick to believe the worst in Walt, and eventually completely turns on him, as does his son eventually. Yet regardless of their abandonment and the horrible things they say and do to him, Walt/Heisenberg never wavered. The one theme that no one seems to mention regarding the terrific writing of the show is that it was a study of familial love, and only Walt passes muster.

    • You do realize he outright said in the last episode that he wasn’t doing what he did for his family, right? He was about to tell his wife what it was for, and she said “don’t say this was for us again,” and he agrees. Said he did it so that he could prove himself as a chemist and show the world what he was made of. It’s part of what made his downfall so tragic. He held on to the idea that he did it for his family for so long, but in the end it was all for himself.

  3. I remember that, of course, but that didn’t dim his love for his family. His final acts were not to reignite his operation, but to help Jesse and his family. He started out with those intentions, and got sucked into the ego-stroke he enjoyed from being acknowledged as the best. But through all that he never stopped loving anyone, not even Hank. I think to hang everything on his admission that he enjoyed being Heisenberg is to draw the human character in one dimension. If the writers intended for that admission to prove Walter became only a ruthless kingpin, they missed an opportunity to comment on the degrees of love. It was as much a study of the familial love and bonds as it was a study of human depravity. Ask yourself this . . . Would Walter turn on Skylar if she had been the one to cross over to the dark side? I don’t think so.

    • And that’s where we disagree. I take what Walt said about doing what he did only for himself at face value. There were lots of instances in the show that backed it up. The dialogue between him and Jesse where he laid out what Gray Matter was and why it was so successful and how much it burned at him. He said that he did what he did for his family, but that was a lie that he told himself, which is what he admitted to Skylar in the last episode. His rescuing of Jesse was his small bit of redemption, but he knew that he was already dying from cancer. He needed to finish it. As for your question, if the situations were reversed, I agree it would have been different. But Walt realized in the end that he wanted to be Heisenberg far more than he wanted to take care of his family. It’s part of what makes his character so interesting. Heisenberg was his true love in all of that. The ruthlessness and power that he had been denied for so long, given to him because he was that cunning.

  4. Then why didn’t he just leave the country and become Heisenberg? It’s hard to imagine a man who loved his kids as much as he did, as a one dimensional monster who ultimately didn’t care about anything but his alter ego. He didn’t have to rescue Jesse, regardless of his cancer. In fact, his cancer would have been a good reason to do nothing for anyone. Anyway, this is silly. You think what makes you happy. I’ll do the same.

    • I didn’t say he was one-dimensional. See, the Walt part of him wanted to believe that this was for his family. That’s what made the conversation with Skylar at the end so good. He had finally accepted that the family was merely a justification, and being Heisenberg was what he really wanted. The battle between Walt and Heisenberg was what made this series so amazing. And wow, what a way to cut this off. It’s a lively debate. I’m not saying I think you’re totally wrong or stupid. Just that I disagree with your assertion and am presenting evidence for mine. Calm down, dude.

  5. I love this discussion, and happen to strongly agree with your take on all of this. To me, this series had the quality of a tragic opera – maybe like Carmen, where we see the fatal flaw in the title character early on – only to watch it destroy every one around that same character, including themselves in the very end. To me, the driving force of his love for his family rang hollow from the beginning. He had many opportunities to at least attempt to rectify that, but never did. Because that wasn’t truly his primary objective – the desires of Heisenberg were always in control. I would have loved for the ending to complete the trajectory of that story line, rather to a attempt a twist and end in a redemption that was not truly logical or earned.

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