Walter White: The Most Fascinating Man on TV?

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Breaking Bad / AMC

I realize I’m a little late here to be commenting on the most recent episode of Breaking Bad, but first I wanted to take a day and mull over a question that’s been rattling around in my head since the series returned for its third season: Is Walter White the most interesting male character currently on television?

I know there’s Don Draper, and Bill Henrickson, along with plenty of other strong contenders. But as far as I’m concerned, Walter is one of the few central characters that I mentally keep coming back to, in the days after a new episode. He confounds, excites and depresses me. He makes me question my own emotions, and the assumptions I’ve made about my own life. Just looking at that picture to the left, my eyes shift from the intensity of Bryan Cranston’s eyes to the tension of his lips, the anxiety on his forehead. This man is a live wire.

This being said, surely few leading characters have so radically altered course over the span of a series.

Walter has been the sick man with nothing to lose, the accidental drug dealer, the vicious drug overlord, the repentant father and now the mentally unstable loose cannon. He’s a normal guy who embraced his destiny, as the nothing-left-to-lose villain, until he decided that all he wanted to be was your Average Joe. The same can be said for his partner in crime, Jesse (Aaron Paul), the flunkie loner who was in it for the money, then for the girl, the drugs and now a lifetime of regret over those he feels responsible for killing.

Since early on in the second season, I’ve been saying that Breaking Bad is one of TV’s great explorations of modern masculinity. (Yes, sometimes I do say things that sound that pretentious) Since episode one, Walter’s been on a quest, to figure out how to be the best man he can be, whether that involves making a million bucks for his family, doting on his wife and child, donning that hat of drug kingpin to keep ensure his family’s safety or opting to cash out of the business. And in Sunday night’s episode we saw for the first time how clueless and confused Walter really is – how far away he remains from finding an answer to his central question.

In previous seasons he has seemed like a man with a plan, ambitious and fearless. But Sunday night, we saw a guy in full panic mode, making his wife into the bad guy at both home and work – as she finds herself grasping for her boss’ friendship, helping him cook the books – and all but manipulating his son as a prop to get back the woman he’s betrayed.

Jesse, meanwhile, exacts revenge against his parents by using a lawyer to make a lowball offer on the house they’re selling, and buying it for himself. In the process, he plunges deeper into his darker persona, accepting his new role as the villain that Walter created. In some ways, he’s taking ownership of the destiny that Walter is still fighting furiously to avoid.

The episode’s closing moments were fascinating in the way they framed Walter as the builder of a machine he longer comprehends. He has erected a drug empire, made some serious enemies, destroyed his family, and yet here he is breaking into his house, using the shower, singing his blues away. Woefully unaware of how close he is to being assassinated, saved only at the last second by Gus – a man who is in the midst of building a massive drug operation, who clearly spares Walter’s life as part of a larger plan.

Who’s thinking that Walter’s about to be dragged back into the meth game, whether he wants to or not?

Rarely does a show reinvent itself this often, to such success. The first season of Breaking Bad was about a good man getting sick and going bad, all under the guise of leaving his family with a towering nest egg. The second season was about removing that disease from the equation, witnessing how Walter’s greed went unfazed, and then about the dissection of a drug empire – from users to makers to dealers. And now here’s the third season, about two men coping quite differently with the consequences of their actions. These are the days of reckoning, and as big as the stakes were in season one, I think they are equally big here. For Walter and Jesse, there’s no going back. And there’s something almost Shakespearean in this arc, as we wait to see where this insecurity and volatility takes them. When Walter stepped out of his car in Sunday’s episode and belligerently attacked that cop verbally, it’s clear that he is falling apart.

And as unsettling as it was, the show’s final sequence Sunday left me breathless. Here’s Walter, naïve and clueless, breaking into his empty house. His family’s nowhere in sight, he’s been bugged by his own lawyer, his life’s been spared by forces beyond his control or understanding, and there he stands, a shrinking figure down a dark and ominous hallway – utterly alone. From dying man to drug dealer to flinger of pizzas, I’m still riveted by Walter White.

Or maybe that’s haunted.