Before we unpack what it means for a person to have a “Walter White Complex”, I’d like to be specific about my claim that Breaking Bad is an example of the Story Set known as the Faustian Bargain. In the last article in this series, I spent all of my time talking about the general cases of Myths and Bargains. It would be journalistic malpractice to assume everyone agrees Breaking Bad is what I say it is because I say it is.
In order to be an example of the type, an aspiring story must have three characteristics:
- The Devil [or a representative] offers a contract.
- In exchange for the Faust character’s soul, the Devil grants worldly success.
- The deal has a time limit.
It’s easy to see that Breaking Bad satisfies 2. During the course of his show, Walter makes in excess of 100 million dollars running his various meth enterprises. It’s equally easy to see that Breaking Bad satisfies 3. In the very first episode Walter is diagnosed with incurable lung cancer. The time before his death is never stated by his doctors, but we are led to believe it will be no more than a few years. [Interestingly, a case could be made that Walter lives EXACTLY two years from his decision to cook meth in the first episode until his “accidental” death in the final episode.] (1)
It is going to be much harder to prove that 1 is also true of Breaking Bad, since [in literal terms] no Devil, or representative of a Devil ever visits Walter and offers him a deal. Walter seems to get into the Meth business by a collaboration between his inability to deal with his cancer diagnosis, and the fact that his DEA brother-in-law [Hank] casually invites him on a meth bust during the one period in Walter’s life where he is susceptible to saying yes.
I will posit that the first [of many more] brilliant plot choices the show’s writers made is in NEVER telling us [exactly] WHY Walter agrees to go on the ride-a-long with Hank. When I watched the episode, I shrugged the choice off as Walter facing up to his Death realizing that he never did anything out of the ordinary and him not wanting to die with that fact still being true. He wasn’t content dying as a perfect human facsimile of Thoreau’s maxim about quiet desperation.
Having now seen the entire show, I almost willing to commit to the idea that the Walter White of seasons 1 and 2 has all the psychopathic traits of the Walter White of seasons 3-5. If this is true, then there is no arc for Walter. I am almost convinced because: you don’t learn to lie as well as Walter lies unless you always had that talent, you never become as comfortable with manipulation [and murder], as he becomes, unless you always had that talent too. If Walter was always a psychopath then the critic is forced to claim that the “Walter” in the backstory, and the “Walter” who moves recklessly through his first two seasons… that guy was the facsimile. He was a man unwilling to let go of the Story of Walter White—The Decent Man.
If Walter was always a psychopath, then accepting Hank’s invitation to attend the meth bust, implies he was already doing the ethical calculus which will eventually make him wealthy and famous [or notorious]. In this scenario, Walter agrees to go so he can see his cooking competition, and so that he can see the danger his new career choice will bring to him. In other words, at the time of Hank’s offer, Walter would already have decided he was going to cook meth. The ride-a-long is a mere fact finding mission.
Never having Walter articulate to the audience exactly why he went with Hank is brilliant because it allows Walter to hide behind his Good Guy façade for enough episodes that the audience forms an attachment to him. We want him to win; we want him to get away with his crimes—even after they approach the point that they are unforgivable. We wouldn’t have rooted for Walter if we had known all along that he was just a psychopath.
For our purposes, it also represents the elements of a metaphorical Faustian Bargain. The traits that make a person psychopathic are the very same traits that most religions AND DEFINITIELY Christianity consider sins.
Here are some of the highlights from a Psychopathic Checklist:
- Grandiose sense of self-worth
- Pathological lying
- Lack of remorse or guilt
- Lack of empathy
- Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
…and so on. Walter scores an A+ in all of these categories and also does quite well in most all the other items on the [only] checklist I bothered to read before writing this review. (2)
If Walter was always a psychopath then the deal he makes is with himself. He is going to allow himself to be “the one who knocks”. (3) It is beyond obvious then, that the most pressing question this review needs to answer before it continues is:
Was Walter always a psychopath? (3)
- In traditional medieval Faustian tales, the period of time is also exact—usually 10 or 20 years.]
- Just because I don’t cite all the behaviors on the list, doesn’t mean they are counter examples. Whether his creators meant him to be or not, Walter White turns out to be a certifiable psychopath.
- I’m pretty sure a lot of people will not entertain this conjecture. They will say that Walter BECAME a bad guy. [I believe this group of people includes the show’s writers.] Since I have never been one to be bashful with my opinion, I will say, unequivocably… In fact, I will refrain. I will, however, note that the answer lies in Walter’s first two murders.