When we first meet Walter White, his daily life is an endless parade of humiliations. His students disrespect him, his pregnant wife emasculates him, his alpha-male brother-in-law mocks him, and his employer abuses him. To make things worse, he is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Yet Walt seems to see this final indignity as no indignity at all. It's an opportunity for change, to take control over his life. “Right from the start it’s a death sentence," he later explains. "That's what they keep telling me. Well guess what? Every life comes with a death sentence … Maybe even today day I'm going to hear some bad news, but until then. Who's in charge? Me. That's how I live my life.”
Frequently in those early episodes, he uses his newfound sense of power to dole out punishment to deserving strangers: a dumb jock who mocks his disabled son, an obnoxious businessman with a fancy car. Breaking Bad's initial appeal was partly as revenge fantasy, with Walt's violent outbursts counteracting the painful reality that good things often happen to bad people, and vice versa.
But at first, Breaking Bad could have also been interpreted as a defense of the old order. The white male patriarch who ruled suburban society for so long gets recast as an avenging underdog, allowing the viewer to sympathize with him and his aggression anew.
Such an unfavorable reading might be supported by the show's inability to create a single non-infuriating female character. While Vince Gilligan and Anna Gunn have both publicly expressed shock that the character of Skyler White has inspired vitriol among viewers, Gilligan elsewhere acknowledged that Walt's wife was originally presented less as a fully formed character than as yet another stressor to remind Walt of his impotence and weakness. It isn't, as Gunn has suggested, Skyler's lack of passivity that irks Breaking Bad's audience, but her abundance of passive aggression.
Similarly, corrupt corporate exec Lydia's most interesting quality is her comfort with violence. Yet the show's writers undermine this characteristic by having the chivalrous Todd gently guide her through a field of dead bodies as she shields her delicate eyes from the very massacre she'd orchestrated. Even if this was an attempt at humor, it was a cheap, sitcom-y one that helped reinforce old ideas of gender. The other show's other women, even at their most sympathetic, came with clichéd feminine flaws as well. Marie natters; Jane lures her man to ruin.
But ultimately, Breaking Bad was tougher on its men and more critical about masculinity than its use of stereotypes would suggest. The traditional rules of what it means to be a man are eventually shown to be decidedly ill-equipped for Breaking Bad's version of the real world. They are standards to die by, not to live by.
Time and time again we saw characters, driven by desire to prove their masculinity, make stupid decisions. Hank, for example, ensures his demise by insisting on going it alone against Walt, cowboy-like ("What are you, Lone Wolf McQuade?" Marie asks). In fact, the most foolproof method of manipulating a character throughout the series was via an appeal to, or questioning of, his manhood. Gustavo Fring gets Walt to return to the trade—a decision that turns out disastrously—by positing that a man provides for his family with no expectation of gratitude or love. Fring is then lured to his own death by a need to similarly impugn his mortal enemy, a decrepit cartel lord: "What kind of man talks to the DEA? No man." Likewise, in one of the series finale's most riveting moments, the shrewd villain Uncle Jack invites his and his gang's death over a perceived slight, the suggestion that he would ever partner with a rat.
Walter's original folly, after all, came when he turned down charity from his rich friends. It was a decision driven in part by gender-coded resentments: Elliott Schwartz made billions off of Walter's ideas, and he married Walt's old girlfriend Gretchen. But it was primarily motivated by the idea that a man provides for his family, alone. In the finale, Walt forces his former partners to pass on his drug money to his son, while still insisting they contribute none of their own funds—a testament to how deeply Walt's abhorrence of charity runs. Which is precisely why the resolution was so satisfying for viewers who had come to simultaneously root for and despise our protagonist. There is a painful irony in the fact that Walt, Jr. will forever think his father's legacy was an act of generosity on the part of Walt's former business partners—the very same generosity that Walt, to his death, refused.
But the climax of Breaking Bad and the most satisfying release of the entire series happens not when Walt ensures a sizable inheritance for his son and takes a final dig at his former associates, nor when he slays the Nazis who'd murdered his brother-in-law, nor when he frees his captive student and partner. It happens when Walt makes the weary admission that his actions were motivated solely by a desire for personal fulfillment.
“If I have to hear one more time that you did this for the family…” a furious Skyler warns.
“I did it for me,” Walt responds, “I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really—I was alive.”
The stereotypically masculine quest for greater power begins as a quest to get things done—to provide for family, to get vengeance for a loyal partner, to help create a sense of order and justice in a seemingly chaotic and amoral universe. But Breaking Bad suggests that quest ultimately isn’t about family or a greater good. It’s just about gaining more power. And as we saw in the final run of episodes, the results can be devastating for everyone involved—including the one who knocks.