Tuned In

Breaking Bad Returns: What Does Walter White Deserve?

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Frank Ockenfels/AMC

Walter White (Bryan Cranston)

Breaking Bad‘s fourth season, last year, had Walter White declaring “I am the one who knocks,” but it wasn’t until the final episode, as Walt engineered the death of Gus Fring, that he actually became that guy. Season five quickly makes clear that Walt’s troubles are not exactly over: he’s still a target of the law (including his brother-in-law) as the crystal-meth kingpin Heisenberg, and he’s still a non-natural-born killer in a deadly profession. But he’s also confident, victorious, imperious, almost serenely cocky.

I don’t know how this will all end. (It won’t, in any event, until the second half of the season next year.) It’s no spoiler, however, to assume that it will not end well–if for no other reason that any form of “ending well” for the morally depraved Walt would not exactly be ending well on the cosmic scale.

But how badly should it end?

This will be the biggest endgame for a TV antihero/villain since The Sopranos and The Shield in 2007, and back then, fans debated like members of a jury what would be the proper just deserts for Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey. (Then, in Tony’s case, disputed exactly what happened to him.)

Mackey’s fate–he wriggled out of jail one last time, but in a way that left him disgraced, alone and pushing papers in anonymity forever—was in its way as controversial as Tony’s. Many fans wanted him in prison, or dead, or killed in prison. Creator Shawn Ryan argued that it was a dire punishment for Vic to have to live with the aftermath of his corrupt choices for the rest of a pathetic, diminished life.

What would be justice for Walter White? You could make an even stronger case that death would be a kind of undeservedly heroic exit for him, a redemption, a return to the status quo ante—after all, we met him as an innocent man, a dying man, before he beat lung cancer. At one low point—season three’s “the Fly,” he not only wished for death but pinpointed the precise moment that it would have been right, with his nest egg secure, his family provided for, having seen his baby daughter come into the world.

Walt has always been about his family—at least his justifications have always been—so I have to think that his ultimate punishment would be losing them. Not for them all to die (I’m not that callous; then again, I don’t know what’s coming, so never say never). But to be caught out by Hank, say—or to be responsible for Hank’s death and then caught out?—to have his son and someday his daughter know what he actually was, would mean losing the very core of his identity.

Breaking Bad, after all, has been the process of Walt taking on one identity as a man after another: Mr. White, Heisenberg, The One Who Knocks and now The King. One of those identities has been The Provider—as Gus once told him in a defining conversation, Walt needs above all to be a man, and “a man provides.” To know that he hasn’t provided, that he has in fact taken away his family’s belief in his goodness forever, to know that he is The Depriver: that seems to be to me the worst kind of punishment for Walt, and if I have to guess where this show is going, that would be it.

But as I said, I don’t know any better than you do, and I’ll be watching eagerly to find out. I’ll be in this space Monday morning, reviewing Sunday night’s return episode. In the meantime, what sentence would you pass on Walter White?