From Bad to Worse: Walter White and Society’s Celebration of Toxic Masculinity

Frannie Staszak, Contributing Writer

A simple search of “Breaking Bad” leads you down a long road of commentary, breakdown, and conspiracy theory articles and videos diving deep into the show as a whole. Picking any source, it’s very likely that the critic will mention that Breaking Bad is widely considered one of the best shows on television. And to some extent, they’re right. The cinematography, acting performances, and writing is nothing short of incredible, clear in the show’s 248 award nominations and 92 wins.

However, as I finally sat down to watch the show everyone had raved about, something wasn’t sitting right with me. I didn’t go into it blind, but I wasn’t completely certain of what the show was about. The only prior knowledge I had was what I had heard from countless YouTube commentaries, primarily those of men, praising the show in every aspect. For those unfamiliar with the story, a simple synopsis: set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the series follows Walter White (Bryan Cranston), an underpaid, overqualified, and dispirited high-school chemistry teacher who is struggling with a recent diagnosis of stage-three lung cancer. Walt turns to a life of crime and partners with a former student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), to produce and distribute crystal meth and thus secure his family’s financial future before he dies. Meanwhile, he must navigate the dangers of the criminal underworld.

The show interests me largely because of its portrayal of masculinity. The Oxford English Dictionary defines masculinity as the characteristics of men or boys. But as with most things, a simple definition often isn’t enough. What are the characteristics of men or boys? Defining masculinity is like trying to squeeze every type of man into the same mold. Masculinity is often identified with the cold, authoritative men who don’t let people push them around, who take what they want, and are above those around him, but is this the final word on the topic?

What about the man, for example, who treat those around him as equals? The one who calls his mother and brings his spouse flowers? What is it when a man can play a game with his children and read them a story when they wake up from a nightmare? Do the soft, compassionate moments a man shares with his loved ones or the kindness he extends to a stranger make him any less of a man? I’d argue that these qualities are what define manliness—more so than the ideas of recent generations. Being able to be vulnerable, wanting to protect your family, and being comfortable with yourself is a healthy way to think of masculinity, but it’s not a completely accepted one.

As Walter White shifts from a loving family man to a criminal drug lord, every aspect of his life changes, including him. He begins his life of crime with his family in mind, hoping to leave them enough money after his death. He is the man of the house, and he wants to be able to provide for his family. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Wanting to make sure that your family is okay when you can no longer be there for them is a noble intention; and though being the breadwinner is primarily associated with “being a man,” I don’t think that this is a toxic way of expressing manliness, doing it for benevolent reasons.

However, when it comes to Walt, the notion is no longer that “he will provide,” but “he will provide.” He wants it to be known that he is the one bringing in all the money. He wants his actions to receive praise and gain him respect. But with his line of work, such acclaim is not plausible. His brother-in-law is actually a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent and heads up the investigation to catch Walter’s alias, “Heisenberg,” so Walt alone can relish in his accomplishments.

As the seasons play out, Walt’s drive no longer comes from the need to protect his family and leave them comfortable after his death. His actions have less to do with love for his wife and children and more to do with his egotistical obsession with power. The lack of recognition takes him further down this road and drives him crazy in the process.

When some men watch the series, Walt is the hero. He is the epitome of masculinity because he holds his own against the dangers of the criminal world and the powerful men who test him. This mindset is not only incorrect; it is also dangerous and damaging. Whose fault is that? (Spoiler alert coming.)

The creator of Breaking Bad, Vince Gillian, says, “It felt right and satisfying and proper to us that [Walt] went out on his own terms; he went out like a man.” Still, despite the ending shot of Walt lying on the ground, surrounded by equipment that he used to build his fortune, destroy his life, and cause countless deaths, he’s still praised. In the world of Breaking Bad, several characters bring up notions of masculinity, but for the audience, one thing is meant to be clear: Season 1 chemistry teacher Walter White is not a man. He’s written to be timid, quiet, and subordinate to everyone around him. As he grows as a character, all of these former traits fade away, and Heisenberg is born.

The writers perfectly showcase Walt’s spiral into madness and cruelty, but as they do so, Walt’s new life as Heisenburg is glorified. Heisenburg, fueled by power and greed, instills fear. Heisenburg doesn’t let anyone or anything get in his way. He uses violence and abuse to take what he wants and justifies his behavior simply because he’s “doing it for his family.” That’s a man, or so we’re told.

In the context of the show, Walt’s dangerous actions put him a step ahead of his competition. He blows up buildings, engages in shootouts, and stands up to the show’s biggest antagonist without blinking an eye. He doesn’t have to face the consequences of his actions very often; and even when he does, the show resolves it in a way where Walt is still on top, and the credits roll. Portraying the protagonist of the show as a heartless monster, doing it well, and still having your audience sympathize with said character is not an easy task, but Breaking Bad manages to do it. Still, one could argue that, despite all the damage he causes, Walt is still meant to be idealized.

Were Walt’s actions intended to be overlooked because of what we’ve previously learned about him? “He’s a husband and a father who has cancer, and he’s only doing what he thinks is right” is an explanation I’ve heard countless times. Nonetheless, I can’t excuse his actions just because he “thought it was right.”

There are many threats and antagonists who present themselves to Walt in the series, and every one of them is eliminated. One after another, they all lose, and Walt stands victorious. So what happens when there’s no more threat? Who is the “bad guy” when there’s no more danger? Is Walt still a hero if there’s no one left to compare him to, and no one left to protect?

Another character who is worth discussing is Skylar White, Walt’s wife and mother of their two children. A common opinion, at least on the internet and among the men who idolize Walt, is that Skylar is a she-devil who doesn’t value him. To this way of thinking, she is the worst character in the entire series.

When Skylar learns of Walt’s crimes, she asks him for a divorce, promising not to turn him in or tell their children what he’s done. When Walt refuses, she begins having an affair with her boss to spite him. Many viewers consider her irrational and horrible because she doesn’t excuse Walt’s actions just because of the money he is acquiring from them. In my opinion, as a woman, this is an incredibly irrational, disgusting, misogynistic attitude that Skylar does not deserve. She protects her children (something that Walt swore to do), and she doesn’t turn him into her brother-in-law, leaving Walt his freedom. Later in the series, she actually teams up with Walt to help him launder his money. Despite all that she does for Walt, she is still made out to be a horrible monster who is incapable of making any good decisions.

As I watched Breaking Bad, I could only sympathize with Skylar. By the end of the show, Walt has completely ruined his now ex-wife. Even though Skylar never does anything remotely as awful as Walt, she is still attacked when Walt is not. After five seasons, Walt has destroyed the lives of almost every person he has come into contact with, and I can’t find any sense of humanity in him. When I asked the opinion of several people, almost everyone disagreed with me. At least, the men did. Hating Skylar White and having no other reason than she fought back against Walt is the sort of blatant misogyny that comes from some viewers who praise the show. Thinking that Skylar is completely and utterly in the wrong the entire time solidifies what a person thinks about Walt as well. By knocking Skylar down, they put Walt on a pedestal.

I spent the entire five seasons wondering when Breaking Bad would blow me away, and it never did. I couldn’t put my finger on why I constantly felt underwhelmed—until, with the help of another show, I was able to express it.

In the third episode of the second season of The White Lotus, entitled “Bull Elephant,” the characters have a discussion about The Godfather. In the scene, a family with a generational gap is discussing the film. The older men praise The Godfather and say it’s the “best American module ever made.” Where have we heard that before?

After this, the younger man immediately chimes in and says that the reason the older men consider it to be such a good film is because they’re “nostalgic for the solid days of the patriarchy” and the entire movie is a “fantasy about a time when they (men) could go out and solve all their problems with violence.” And that’s when it clicked for me. The main reason that I don’t enjoy watching Walt commit gruesome crimes to get the upper hand, manipulate his loved ones to remain in control, and ruin lives with the benefit of money and power is because that doesn’t appeal to me personally. I don’t need to be Walter.

Many of the people who praise Walt long for a time when men were considered above women by default. These are often the people who believe that in order to mean something in life, we should follow in Walt’s footsteps. Walt drastically changes his life, becoming rich, feared, and respected through mercilessness and brute force. That’s what matters—not the lies, violence, abuse and horrors he put his family and loved ones through, but the fact that through it all, he came out the other end a legend.

Walt is an infamous character who, unfortunately, shapes and continues to shape the way many people think about masculinity. Skylar is a punching bag for fans who can’t accept the fact that Skylar is one of the only characters who acts and responds rationally. When Walt is the face of masculinity, the men who view him as such will believe that violence and power are the only way to achieve what you want and be respected. But in reality, violence and fear will only drive people out of their lives.

In the end, Walter gets what he wants. He gets money, fame, and power through Heisenberg, plus the respect of those who fear him. When the writers glorify this life, they set the tone for modern masculinity, and society hasn’t even begun to fully recover. This has an impact not just on men but all those affected by toxic masculinity. Walter White is a perfect example of how the need for power can corrupt men. Once the Breaking Bad fan base realizes that Walt is a malignant protagonist (and has been all along), the rethinking can begin.

Masculinity is not an ideology that is set in stone. No two men are the same, and masculinity is a spectrum. Although one thing can be certain, at least in my mind: Walter White has the option to be a man by loving and protecting his family, but he throws it all away to satisfy his ego and a need for power.