The Increasing Ugliness of Walter White

Breaking Bad's main character is making more and more enemies in this last season.

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AMC

It's difficult to write about Breaking Bad without focusing on Walter White. Showrunner Vince Gilligan has repeatedly and emphatically described Walter's arc on Breaking Bad as an attempt to "turn Mr. Chips into Scarface." But Walter's ascent to the top of the meth chain—marked by the death of Gus Fring in the fourth-season finale—has marked a fascinating shift in the series' central narrative. At this point in its run, the series isn't about Walter's ascent to power/descent into evil; he's reached the far extremes of both categories. Breaking Bad has shifted from being a show Walter's actions to being a show about the way the people around Walter have been affected by his actions—and the results are getting uglier with each passing episode.

It's become increasingly clear that Walter is now incapable of having a genuine relationship with anyone. His wife, Skyler, has become his "hostage." His "emotional breakdown" with Hank in last night's "Dead Freight" is a cold, calculated means to plant a bug in the DEA's office. His relationship with partner/surrogate son Jesse is built on a series of secret betrayals. And even his relationship with his actual son, Walter Jr., is poisoned by his strange, manipulative obsession with undermining Skyler.

We've watched Walter's motivations change over the course of the series. But Breaking Bad has always been much more reticent about providing insight into its supporting characters. Jesse's surprising upper-class background wasn't revealed until the middle of the first season. Gale's solitary home life wasn't explored until well after his death. Tidbits about major characters like Gus Fring or "Mike the Cleaner" were parceled out over entire seasons before the characters' true motivations were finally revealed. By limiting the information we have, Breaking Bad keeps us on the same level as our "hero," Walter—and maintains suspense by avoiding revealing which characters have the most important roles to play in the series' master arc.

As Walter's arc has approached its endgame, Breaking Bad's fifth season has introduced two new major characters: Lydia, who's been marked for death since her debut episode, and Todd, the ambitious Vamonos Pest employee (played by Friday Night Lights' Jesse Plemons) who turns the railroad tracks into a literal "dead zone" at the end "Dead Freight." Breaking Bad has told us almost nothing about Todd. We know that he's amoral enough to have been stealing from the clients of his extermination business, and to lend his services to the train heist without a second thought. We know that he's savvy enough to prove his usefulness within minutes of Walt and Jesse's first day on the job, when he disables a potentially threatening nanny cam without being asked. And we know that he listens to each order carefully and obeys it to the letter. (Which isn't to say that his "superiors" don't slip up: note that Walt is reckless enough to use Jesse's name in front of Todd before the heist begins, despite Mike's strict orders that Todd refer to the men as only "yes sir" or "no sir" earlier this season?)

But most importantly, the shocking end of "Dead Freight" shows us that there's no legal or moral line Todd is unwilling to cross. There's something sociopathic about Todd's literalist interpretation of Jesse's order that "no one can ever know that this robbery went down," which leads him to smile and wave at an unlucky child before drawing a gun and shooting him in the chest. It took 46 episodes of Breaking Bad before Walt was willing to harm a child. It took Todd three.

The cold-blooded murder Todd commits leaves a chilling question for Walt, Jesse, and Mike to answer: Is Todd's unexpected ruthlessness a reason to push him away, or a reason to keep him around? As it stands, Breaking Bad's moral scale wavers somewhere between Walt, who's willing to do whatever he deems necessary to win, and Jesse, whose conscience repeatedly leads him to compromise and mercy. (Let's just call Mike lawful evil.) Whatever the fallout from the murder turns out to be, Todd represents a threat to the uneasy power triad that has driven the first half of Breaking Bad's fifth season. Earlier this season, Mike offered Walt the Breaking Bad equivalent of a zen koan: "Just because you shot Jesse James, don't make you Jesse James." Robbing a train doesn't make you Jesse James, either. But as Walt continues down the road of an outlaw—moral consequences be damned—it's worth remembering that for all the risks he took in life, in the end, Jesse James was killed by an ally and friend.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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