“Breaking Bad” (Season 1, episode 6: “Crazy Handful of Nothin’,” AMC)
Imagine you are diagnosed with stage-three, terminal cancer. Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a high-school chemistry teacher, is forced to deal with this situation in the television show “Breaking Bad.” Because of his extensive knowledge of and skill in chemistry, Walter chooses to enter the world of drug production (specifically methamphetamine) in order to earn enough money to leave behind a large inheritance for his family. While very knowledgeable of chemistry, Walter is nearly clueless when it comes to selling drugs. He discovers one of his former students, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), is a meth dealer who is being investigated by Walter’s DEA agent brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), and uses this knowledge as blackmail to get Jesse to help him with the business part of his planned meth operation. In episode six of season one (“Crazy Handful of Nothin’”), Walt begins to buckle under the pressure of the two lives he is simultaneously living, and he goes to drastic measures in an attempt to regain control of his life.
“Breaking Bad” is an engaging and unique show because it features a main character that is an awful person, but it is still able to humanize him. Cranston’s ability to make Walter someone who can be empathized with is amazing, considering all of the terrible things Walter does. He is a hypocrite, a liar, selfish, and always over plays his hand (as the title of the episode implies), but it isn’t hard to connect with him and want him to succeed.
Walter must lie to his family in order to keep his source of income a secret. Walter is with his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), at a therapy session for cancer patients and she voices her concern about the amount of time Walter’s spending alone (cooking meth with Jesse). He lies, saying he spends the time appreciating nature on walks. He continues to distance his family with deceit, even though he claims his first priority is to take care of his family. Almost every time Walter is in a scene with a family member he is in some way lying to them.
Walter is extremely selfish in his partnership with Jesse. He scolds Jesse’s every move and always shifts the blame to him, even though Walter would be nowhere without Jesse’s help. After Jesse spends all night dealing meth by himself and returns to Walter the next day with $2600, Walter gets angry and says, “I am breaking the law here. The return is too little for the risk.” Talk about a superiority complex. He doesn’t appreciate or even acknowledge the risks Jesse has taken for him. He sees Jesse as inferior, and simply a pawn he is able to move.
Unfortunately, pawns are the weakest piece on the chessboard. Even though Walter is being selfish and not very rational, Jesse wants to help him out. He sets up a meeting with a high-level drug kingpin via a connection of a friend. Walter told him to find a high-level distributor, and he is simply following orders. This meeting goes awry and Jesse is beaten and hospitalized, losing both meth and money. Jesse put himself on the line for Walter once again, but this time failed because of Walter’s bad guidance and greed, and Jesse was the one to pay the price for it, not Walter. This is the first of many times that Jesse will take the punishment for Walt’s bad decisions. Walter will not hesitate if he has to inadvertently hurt Jesse to get what he wants.
In between all these moments of lying, illegal activity, violence, and cooking meth, we see Walter going through the struggle of a cancer patient. This is the episode where he first has chemotherapy treatment, and there are many scenes that show the cancer’s effect on him, as well as the effects of his medication. These brief moments are when Walter is seen showing vulnerability. He is no longer putting on the image of drug dealer who is a tough guy, and acts like who he really is: someone who is scared of his situation, and desperately alone and isolated because of the lies he has told his family. This makes him easy to feel sorry for and empathize with, despite how terrible he has acted.
When Walter finds out about Jesse he visits him in the hospital. Walter seems not to care as much about Jesse as he does Tuco, the drug kingpin. He asks Jesse’s friend about him and where he can find him. Walter’s selfish nature drives him to want to take back what is his and show Tuco that he is superior. He visits Tuco and is able to take back what was stolen from them with the help of an explosive chemical compound, as well as earn Tuco’s respect and his business in the process. As soon as Walt gets in his car with money in hand, he celebrates with a primal, guttural sound and then a brief smile flickers across his face before he drives away.
Despite all of the terrible things he had to do to earn that money, it is hard not to celebrate with him, especially since he is the ultimate underdog. How can you not root for the guy who is in way over his head, and also has a large quantity of highly explosive chemicals? On top of all that is Cranston’s amazing performance. Even with all of the illegal activity and deceit that Walter is involved in, he is still a man dealing with his own mortality. Cranston captures this highly emotional and unstable state perfectly in his acting, and that is why it is possible to relate to one of the most horrible characters on Breaking Bad.