The Age of the Antihero


"I find it interesting, this sociological phenomenon, that people still root for Walt. Perhaps it says something about the nature of fiction, that viewers have to identify on some level with the protagonist of the show, or maybe he's just interesting because he is good at what he does. Viewers respond to people who are good at their job, even when they are bad.?" - Vince Gilligan, creator of "Breaking Bad"

I didn't get caught up in the "Breaking Bad" phenomenon when it was on the air. But after reading and hearing a lot about it, I decided to get caught up on the series. I went through the whole thing and, on a lot of levels, I saw what all the fuss was about.

The show was well-written, particularly in the latter seasons, and well produced. It had good performances and certainly pulled you in (again, for me, mostly from the end of season three on). But it was interesting to observe the protagonist, Walter White. Or, more accurately, he might have been called the antagonist.

We are still in the midst of the Age of the Anti-Hero. And there's probably no greater example of this construct than Walter White in "Breaking Bad." He is deceitful, selfish, and cruel. He claims for most of the series to be doing everything for the good of his family, and Jesse, but his actions tell a different story.

Finally at the end of the series he comes to terms with who he really is. Watching the series, I recognized right away that Walter White was not the hero, he was the villain. But he hid it well. In fact, it reminded me of a quote from "The Dark Knight," when Harvey Dent says, "You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." If Walt's cancer had gotten him early, maybe he could have fooled people into the former. But he certainly lived long enough to be revealed as the villain.

Yet, I knew people revered and loved him as a character. I couldn't help but wonder why. Vince Gilligan, who created the series, wondered the same thing as his series was drawing to a close. If you watched the show through the creators eyes, it would be easy to see that White was no hero. In the end, he was a broken man who damaged everything he touched.

Even those things he claimed to love.

Consider Jesse. Now, one could argue he wasn't on a great path before he began cooking with Walter. But Walter manipulated him, took those important in his life, and prevented him, on many occasions, from getting himself together. Walter was about Walter, and his empire, not about anyone else.

What about his family? Well, Hank doesn't fair too well, nor does Marie. And while Walter may or may not have succeeded in setting up his children financially, his son is damaged by what his father had done and his wife is left bitter and broken.

Everyone else Walter met? Well, they pretty much ended up dead.

Does that sound like a hero? No, it doesn't. Walter White isn't the hero, he's the villain. That's clear at the end, but it should have been clear to those watching the story along the way. That it isn't or wasn't is a commentary on where we are as a culture, and one that's worth mulling over.

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