Even though Breaking Bad has long since reached its conclusion, I find myself asking the same question every time I rewatch the series: why do we root for Walter White? Walter is not a great man, or even a good one. In fact, by the end of the series he is as much a villain as any of the enemies he’s vanquished. Walter is defined by his hubris, his selfishness, and his desperate need for control—all characteristics we find in so many iconic villains. But in Walter we accept it, and even encourage it as we celebrate his victories over the course of the series. We enjoy seeing Walt find his way out of bad situations, whatever the cost.
We are conditioned to cheer on the protagonists of the stories we love, but when that protagonist is an antihero or a villain, it complicates the relationship between character and audience. If we as viewers relate to a morally repugnant character, what does that say about us? In Walter White’s case, at least at the beginning, most viewers can relate to his feelings of powerlessness and injustice. We’ve all had revenge fantasies play out in our heads and we can take some pleasure in them, even though the majority of us have no intention of acting on them.
Walter White’s story is one big revenge fantasy—one the viewer takes pleasure in even though it comes with a pretty hefty body count. The few characters that make it out still breathing are left with shattered lives and severe emotional trauma. Breaking Bad showrunner Vince Gilligan has been quoted as saying that he wanted Walt to “die like a man,” but given how destructive Walter White’s journey from Mr. Chips to Scarface was, what does that say about what it means to be a man?
Throughout Breaking Bad, there are countless examples of how toxic masculinity both drives and destroys its characters. But before we dive into what the show tells us about the idea, it is important to define it. The concept of toxic masculinity is unnecessarily controversial, yet when some people read those two words, they bristle and push back against the very idea without understanding what exactly it is. There is a misconception about toxic masculinity—that it is anti-men—and this could not be farther from the truth. The concept of toxic masculinity, and discussions surrounding it, are actually for the benefit of men, all of whom suffer under the societal pressures to perform their gender in unhealthy ways.
In “The Difference Between Toxic Masculinity and Being A Man,” Harris O’Malley defines toxic masculinity as:
a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly “feminine” traits – which can range from emotional vulnerability to simply not being hypersexual – are the means by which your status as “man” can be taken away.
In another article, “Reclaiming Manhood: Detoxifying Toxic Masculinity,” O’Malley states that toxic masculinity “reduces the idea of ‘what is a man’ to someone who’s emotionally repressed, thuggishly violent, sexually aggressive almost to the point of mindlessness and inherently self-centered.” Perhaps most applicable to the story of Walter White, O’Malley goes on to say that “even expressions of theoretical selflessness—the idea of ‘a real man provides,’ for example—are at their core aimed at maintaining their masculine credentials rather than caring for the well being of one’s spouse and family.”
As Walter fights one cancer, another type—undetected but just as destructive—is consuming him. Toxic masculinity is a cancer in our society that harms men as much as it harms women. This need for men to prove their masculinity to other men can lead to physical violence, but much more commonly it takes a severe emotional toll. Men are forced into impossible roles because they are conditioned to think they are supposed be a certain way. They are taught to repress their emotions and to hide their vulnerabilities, especially when it comes to their physical and mental health. They are taught that to show any sort of weakness (physical or emotional) is to be a “bitch” or a “pussy”—essentially, to be a woman, and in this toxic construct of the masculine, being likened to a woman is just about the worst thing one could be.
Toxic masculinity traps all men in a box and tells them they need to be strong and stoic. They must be in control of both their internal and external lives. They must be dominant—the alpha male—in order to feel fulfilled. This isn’t restricted to dominance over women, although that is certainly a large and especially destructive part of it. They must also be dominant over other men. It’s an impossible situation to be placed in because there will always be someone who has more power, who is stronger or wealthier or better looking. When society sets up men to fail, it is impossible to avoid the feelings of powerlessness and injustice that Walter White struggles with. The desire to regain control is a natural reaction to this sense of frustration, and when dominance and strength are held up as masculine ideals, this can very easily lead to violence.
When we’re introduced to Walter White in the show’s pilot episode, “manly” is certainly not the first thing that comes to mind. We first meet Walter with his pants off, wearing tighty-whities and looking completely out of place in a desert landscape straight out of a classic Western film. But John Wayne he ain’t. We soon learn that Walt is a down-on-his-luck high school chemistry teacher who is struggling financially and forced to take a second job at a car wash to make ends meet. A brilliant chemist, Walt once had a promising future but his life did not work out as he’d hoped. Walt doesn’t have much going for him, but he is the smartest guy in the room—at least, he always thinks so.
In terms of physicality, he’s not stereotypically masculine: he wears glasses and has a dad-bod that is not at all physically imposing. He is also sexually passive, as demonstrated in the pilot by the saddest hand job ever committed to film. Oh, and he’s got lung cancer, even though he was never a smoker. Walter’s lack of control over his life is echoed by the loss of control over his own body as he’s ravaged by a (seemingly) inoperable form of cancer. He has lost control on a cellular level as his own biochemistry betrays him.
Walter is consistently emasculated by various people in his life. His students disrespect him both in and out of the classroom. Bogdan, his boss at the car wash, is always forcing him to work late and take on tasks that he doesn’t believe to be his responsibility (and which he thinks are beneath him). But most notably, his brother-in-law, the hyper masculine Hank Schrader, is constantly making fun of him and putting him down in ways that are explicitly tied to his masculinity—“breaking his balls,” if you will.
The dynamic between Walt and Hank is your classic Nerd vs. Jock scenario. Even though Hank undergoes some significant character development over the course of the series, in the beginning he is a straight-up bully. He uses brute strength to knock around prisoners and demeans those around him using racist, sexist, and emasculating language. He’s the macho touch guy, the lawman in charge who knows his way around a gun. He’s always the loudest guy in the room, a crass “guy’s guy” who makes his own beer in his garage (and even goes so far as to name it after himself). He is the alpha to Walt’s beta.
Walt will never be able to best Hank in a physical fight, but he CAN outsmart him. What Walt has over Hank (and most of his other foes) is his intelligence and ability to think his way out of tricky situations (especially when those problems can be solved using chemistry). Walt cannot make himself physically stronger thank Hank but he can use his brains against Hank’s brawn. While being intelligent (i.e. a “nerd”) is not considered manly, the power that comes from being smarter than one’s opponent gives a man like Walter the sense of control he so desperately needs as his life falls apart around him. Walt’s pride and self-esteem come from feeling like he is smarter than everyone else. In the case of the chemistry, this is always true. In the ways of the world, it almost never is.
One scene in the pilot pretty much sums up Hank and Walt’s relationship. It is Walt’s 50th birthday party—an occasion which should be all about Walt, but Hank always needs to be the center of attention. Hank holds court in Walt’s living room, showing off his gun to a group of men, including Walter’s teenage son, Walter Jr. Guns are masculine-coded objects and often phallic symbols, but even if you don’t subscribe to that particular Freudian interpretation, there’s no denying that Hank takes pleasure in demonstrating to the room that Walt is not competent when it comes to firearms—and is less of a man for it. When Walt comments on how heavy the gun is, Hank replies, “that’s why they hire men.” After a half-ass birthday toast (during which Hank takes Walt’s beer), Hank grabs the attention yet again when a news story about his latest DEA bust comes on TV. The room gathers round to celebrate Hank’s accomplishments, while Walt drinks alone in the corner. Even on his 50th birthday, Walter gets no respect from his family and friends.
The fact that these men are family complicates their relationship. Walt has a lot of resentment and anger towards Hank that has absolutely nothing to do with his drug business. Hank has on many occasions acted as a father figure for Walter Jr., which is something that infuriates Walt. It threatens Walt’s identity as a father—one of the few traditionally masculine traits he possesses—as well as his ability to be the sole provider of security for his family. Nowhere is this more clear than in “Over” (S2E10), when a struggle for dominance between Walt and Hank plays itself out over a bottle of tequila.
What starts out as an innocent tequila shot—a dad letting his teenage son have a little taste before he’s legally allowed—turns into a power struggle between Walt and Hank. Walt forces shot after shot of tequila onto Walter Jr. and becomes enraged when Hank dares to try and stop him from getting his sixteen-year-old son drunk. Walter Jr. is so desperate to impress his father and his beloved Uncle Hank that he takes more than he can handle. Walter Jr. doesn’t particularly want to drink more than one shot, but he feels the need to “man up” in front of his adult male role models.
This scene shows us exactly how far Walt is willing to go to prove his dominance over Hank, and that he’s willing to sacrifice the well-being of his own son to do it. One can try to make excuses for his appalling behavior by saying he himself was drunk during this showdown, but the fact remains that he put Junior’s safety at risk simply to wrest control away from Hank. In front of everyone at the party, Walt yells at Hank to bring him back the bottle of tequila: “It’s my son. My bottle. My house.” At this point, he both looks and sounds like Heisenberg, but in his own home, with his own family, he is not respected or feared. It could easily have come to blows had Walter Jr. not fallen over and vomited in the pool.
It’s worth noting that this occurred at a party celebrating Walt’s remission, which is something that should make him feel more in control of his life but actually makes him feel more powerless in the face of an uncertain future. Walt broke bad thinking he didn’t have much time left, and now that he may have his life back, he’s forced to confront the fact that he may have to face consequences for his actions.
For a long time, the viewer can rationalize Walt’s behavior because “he’s doing it for his family.” After all, society tells us that it is a man’s responsibility, as the head of household, to provide both physical and financial security for those in his charge. In order to keep Skyler, Junior, and baby Holly safe and secure after his death, Walter knows they will need money. The problem is that Walter believes that this money must come from him and only him. Charity, especially coming from another man (like Hank or Elliot Schwartz), is unacceptable. Accepting this charity means that he has failed as a husband and a father. It means he has failed as a man.
The relationship between Walter and Elliot, his former partner at Gray Matter Technologies, is a complicated one. Not only did Walter walk away from Gray Matter before it became successful, he used to date Elliot’s wife, Gretchen, who currently owns the company with her husband. Gretchen and Elliot are extraordinarily wealthy as a result of Gray Matter’s success, but that success was built (in part) on Walt’s work. He is the “White” in Gray Matter, and no one denies this fact. Walter’s decision to walk away from Gray Matter in its early days was a result of complications between him and Gretchen, who was his girlfriend and lab assistant at the time he sold his shares of Gray Matter to Elliot for a mere $5,000.
While the show never explicitly states why their relationship ended, actress Jessica Hecht (who played Gretchen) stated in an AMC Interview Q&A that:
Vince Gilligan told us exactly what went down between the characters off screen: We were very much in love and we were to get married. And he came home and met my family, and I come from this really successful, wealthy family, and that knocks him on his side. He couldn’t deal with this inferiority he felt — this lack of connection to privilege. It made him terrified, and he literally just left me, and I was devastated.
Walt’s pride would not allow him to be with a woman who was and always would be superior to him in terms of wealth and social status. Gretchen ends up marrying Elliot and running Gray Matter with him, and Walt resents both their wealth and prestige in the scientific community, which he believes should be his. But the reality of the situation is that, however much Walt likes to feel like he was in some way wronged by Gretchen and Elliot, it was his own choice to leave—a choice rooted in the toxic idea that a man must provide for a woman, and not the other way around.
The idea of man-as-sole-provider is one that the show addresses via Gus Fring, arguably Walter’s most worthy opponent. In “Más” (S3E5), Gus explicitly lays out this definition of manhood for him: “When you have children, you will always have family. They will always be your priority, your responsibility. And a man—a man provides. And he does it even when he’s not appreciated or respected, or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it. Because he’s a man.”
It is notable that this definition of manhood comes from a man who has the wealth, power, and social status that Walter craves. Gus is an intelligent, feared, and respected drug kingpin who is able to successfully fly under the DEA’s radar. He is what Walter wishes he was: a man in “the empire business.”
While Gus’s definition doesn’t address all aspects of toxic masculinity, the specific idea of man-as-provider is something that is essential to Walter’s story. From the very beginning, Walt’s absolute abhorrence of charity is what gets him deeper and deeper into the meth business. The closest he gets to accepting help is in “Gray Matter” (S1E5), when he almost accepts a position at his old company. At Elliot’s birthday party, Elliot asks Walt to come back to Gray Matter, claiming that they could use a fresh pair of eyes. However, once it becomes clear to Walt that Skyler has told Elliot about his cancer, he refuses to take the position (and the offer of straight-up payment for his treatment that follows). What could have been the answer to all Walt’s problems—the ability to work for his own money doing something he loves at a place where he is respected and appreciated—is rejected because Walt’s pride will not allow him to accept help from another man.
In “When Masculinity Fails Men,” O’Malley addresses the issue of man-as-provider:
A man, we are told, provides for his family no matter what it costs him. The problem, of course, is that once again, this reduces manhood and masculinity into an external factor, something that can be taken… or destroyed. If a man is defined by being the provider (and it’s always the provider, not a provider) , then he is perpetually at risk of losing his manliness. If your status as a man is dependent on your financial situation, then your manhood is entirely at the whim of your employer.
Over the course of the series, Walt’s money is made and lost and made again and lost again. He is constantly seizing power and control only to lose it again due to various circumstances, some external and some of his own making. While Walter has complete control over the chemistry aspect of producing methamphetamine—a skill which is his only real source of pride and accomplishment—he finds himself at the mercy of the business side of things. And when it comes to drug trafficking, the “business end” is all about violent and deadly power struggles. To be on top, you must take out everyone standing in your way. You must be respected. You must be feared.
One of the series’ most well known scenes addresses this particular facet of toxic masculinity. In “Cornered” (S4E6), Skyler confronts Walt the morning after his pride (combined with a lot of wine) caused him to admit to Hank that the murdered Gale Boetticher is not the Heisenberg he’s looking for. Skyler is putting the pieces together, and she’s (rightly) afraid of what may come. She attempts to get Walt to admit that he, too, is afraid, and that his admission to Hank was actually a cry for help. Walt becomes more and more incensed by Skyler’s insistence that he is in over his head. He finally snaps after she says that he is in danger and gives his iconic speech:
Who are you talking to right now? Who is it you think you see? Do you know how much I make a year? I mean, even if I told you, you wouldn’t believe it. Do you know what would happen if I suddenly decided to stop going into work? A business big enough that it could be listed on the NASDAQ goes belly up. Disappears! It ceases to exist without me. No, you clearly don’t know who you’re talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks!
Walt cannot admit to Skyler or to himself that her fears are legitimate—that he is in over his head and that they are all in danger as a result of his actions. Feeling emasculated by his wife, Walt lets Heisenberg come out to play. He speaks aggressively and menacingly to her, first pointing to his wealth and importance within the organization as a way to shut her up. But most importantly, he makes it crystal clear to Skyler that he is not afraid. On the contrary, he is the man others should fear—”the one who knocks.”
Despite the inevitable pitfalls “real men” must suffer in their quest for dominance, society also tells men they are not allowed to emote. Being emotional is considered a feminine trait, and a negative one at that. Children are taught that “boys don’t cry.” Men are taught that they must always stay strong no matter the circumstance, and that being emotional means you are not in control. The problem inherent in all this is that it doesn’t mesh with the human experience. All people—regardless of gender—experience some level of emotional distress in their lives. When men are forced to bottle up these perfectly normal and healthy emotions, it creates a powder keg inside of them and when it inevitably explodes, it does so using the only acceptable “manly” emotion: rage. Some men turn this rage in on themselves, seriously damaging their self-esteem and mental health. Others express this rage externally, which leads to emotional abuse and physical violence against others.
O’Malley addresses the relationship between toxic masculinity and violence in “When Masculinity Fails Men”:
The brittle fragility of manhood means that men must always be on their guard against moments when their masculinity might be destroyed… As a result, any vulnerability must be defended against because weakness means that somebody else will take your power–your manhood–away. A sleight against your power or status must always be answered or else you will be tacitly acknowledging that you are that person’s bitch. You have to establish your alpha dominance in the group by taking away other people’s power, or else they are in a position to take yours. There is no in between when it comes to manhood–you’re either a man or you’re a pussy, no in-between. And the most common way of establishing this power? Violence and the threat of violence.
There is so much violence in Breaking Bad that it would take an entire book to analyze it all, but a running theme throughout is that violence is seen as the solution to all power struggles, especially those between men. When Walt is backed into a corner, he’s willing to use violence in its various forms to come out on top. At the beginning, it’s all about self-defense and protecting his family. Walt becomes a killer in the first episode of the series, using his chemistry knowledge to produce a toxic gas that kills Emilio. This is an obvious case of self-defense, but when it turns out that the gas doesn’t kill Krazy-8, he’s forced to kill the man with his bare hands. It takes him days to build up to it, and he almost lets him go, but ultimately Walt knows that Krazy-8 will kill him if he doesn’t kill him first so he does what he feels needs to be done.
As Walt gets deeper into the drug business, he becomes much more comfortable with violence, although it’s worth noting that he tries to distance himself from a lot of it either by using chemistry to make poison (considered a “feminine” method of killing someone) or by having someone else do the actual killing. In the case of Jane Margolis, he kills her via complete inaction. In the finale, Walt takes out all of his enemies in a hail of machine gun bullets and his final act of violent vengeance is rewarded with a relatively peaceful death next to the lab equipment he loves so dearly. After all the destruction he’s left in his wake, he is allowed to die like a man.
While Walt’s acts of violence empower him, it is important to note that other male characters in the series are brought very low by their experiences with violence. Both the hyper-masculine Hank and the feminine-coded Jesse Pinkman are consistently traumatized by the violence they witness and perpetrate. These two men could not be more different, but one thing they have in common is that they are both appalled by violence. They both suffer severe emotional trauma as a result of their experiences, but they process their feelings in different ways. The traditionally masculine Hank bottles it all up, while Jesse—the only male character on the show who is consistently allowed to express his feelings—uses drugs to numb his emotional pain.
Hank Schrader is a man who is uncomfortable expressing his emotions. He isn’t one for heart-to-hearts, which makes his experience during Walt’s intervention in “Gray Matter” amusing on the surface but indicative of the larger problem. Hank can’t process his emotions about Walt’s cancer diagnosis so he speaks metaphorically, using typically masculine activities like sports and gambling to express himself. He has absolutely no clue how to comfort another person, especially another man. The only person Hank seems even remotely comfortable expressing emotion to is his wife, but even his relationship with Marie has some very dark moments when Hank is unable to communicate his feelings to her.
Hank’s inability to emote manifests both in internal turmoil and occasionally (as was the case with his vicious beating of Jesse) external rage. Often, the two are intermixed. Hank may act tough when it comes to guys like Tuco Salamanca and the rest of the cartel, but the actual experience of violence and murder is upsetting to him. When his DEA coworkers give him an especially macabre gift to celebrate his victory over Tuco, it disturbs him. Tuco’s grill is meant to be a token symbolizing Hank’s victory over the Bad Guy, and he pretends to like it for a while, even displaying it prominently on his desk. But for all Hank’s performative bluster and bravado, the physical symbol of Tuco’s death haunts him.
Hank starts having panic attacks not long after the shootout with Tuco. His first panic attack comes in the elevator at work, after he is promoted to the task force in El Paso. Never one to show vulnerability, Hank pulls himself together before the elevator reaches the ground floor, where his partner Steve Gomez is waiting to take him to lunch. Not long after, Hank is triggered when he mistakes the exploding bottles of Schraderbrau in his garage for gunfire, and he ends up throwing Tuco’s grill in the river.
Hank’s experience in the El Paso office is another instance where his propensity to repress his emotions takes a toll on him. When the cartel sends the DEA a little gift—the severed head of their snitch Tortuga, attached to a living tortoise—Hank has a visceral reaction and begins to panic. He is mocked by the rest of the men as he retreats to the car to stave off a panic attack. But interestingly enough, it is the fact that he allowed himself to feel fear that ended up saving his life. Those who had mocked him a second earlier are all caught in the explosion, either injured or killed, while Hank comes out (physically) unscathed.
There’s no evidence to suggest that Hank suffers from chronic (i.e. biochemical) panic disorder. He’s suffering from situational anxiety where the feelings he’s so desperately trying to control are bursting out in the form of powerful physical symptoms. Hank’s misguided attempt to control his emotions by suppressing them actually results in the complete loss of control over his mental and physical state.
Jesse Pinkman is the only male character in Breaking Bad who is ever allowed to express emotions other than anger, although he does not do so in healthy ways. Jesse loves very deeply and mourns very deeply. He’s not afraid to cry (and does so often). But even though Jesse can express emotion, he does not know how to process that emotion. Jesse has limited options when it comes to the healthy emotional expression. He is estranged from his family and his closest friends are basically just partying buddies. He can’t exactly talk to a therapist about his trauma considering it’s all wrapped up in a variety of illegal activities. So he does what so many people do—he self-medicates to numb himself. When he feels powerless and out of control, which is pretty much all the time, he turns his rage in on himself and self-destructs with drugs and partying.
Of course, none of it helps. All the meth and heroin in the world won’t change the fact that he has hurt people and killed people. Jesse is especially affected by damage done to children. He’s deeply disturbed by the destructive effect of his own product on the young son of addicted parents. He is driven to violence after the death of his girlfriend, Andrea Castillo’s brother, Tomas, and again when Andrea’s son, Brock, is poisoned. Jesse goes completely off the rails when their train heist results in the death of young Drew Sharp at the hands of Todd Alquist, who doesn’t register even the slightest bit of remorse after murdering a child in cold blood to protect their operation.
Jesse has what one might consider a “maternal” instinct to protect children—one that Walt, who actually has children, does not even possess. For all Walt’s talk of protecting his family, Jesse is the one who seems to truly care about children. Walt only cares about his own progeny, but even his paternal instincts are complicated by his toxic ideas of what it means to be a father, which include a self-centered and narcissistic obsession with his own legacy. Walt actively damages his own children in his pursuit of empire building, whether he chooses to acknowledge it or not, where Jesse actively puts himself at risk trying to protect (or avenge) the children who have been harmed—either directly or indirectly—by his actions.
Breaking Bad is endlessly fascinating to me in the way that it both glorifies and criticizes toxic masculinity. I can admit to cheering Walt on as he blows up KENWINS’s car and attacks the bully making fun of his son’s physical condition. I can even admit to sharing in Walt’s satisfaction when he defeats his greatest enemies. But those moments of satisfaction are disquieting when one looks beneath the surface. Would KENWINS be such an asshole if society didn’t tell him that the relentless pursuit of money and status is what defines him as a man? (Probably.) Would the guy bullying Walter Jr. find it amusing to do so if physical strength and ability weren’t considered the norm? (Maybe.) Would Walter even have enemies to vanquish if he wasn’t so desperate for control? (Definitely not.)
The problem inherent in the societal construct of masculinity is that, in reality, there is no one way to be a man. We are all unique individuals but society pushes us into restrictive gender roles that can be incredibly harmful for those who don’t fit the mold—especially for men. The world would be a much kinder and less violent place if society would allow men to be vulnerable and process emotion without demeaning them for it.
But that’s not the world we live in—at least, not yet— and perhaps the most frightening message contained in Breaking Bad is that in the heart of every Walter White lurks a Heisenberg.
Some viewers interpret Walter and Heisenberg as two chiral entities—mirror images, identical yet opposite—and the show practically begs us to do so during one of Walt’s first chemistry lessons. While this interpretation has merit, I disagree. I see Heisenberg as the Platonic form of what Walt considers a “real man” to be: wealthy, powerful, and most of all feared. In the pilot, when he tells Jesse, “I am awake,” it is not Walter White who has awoken; it’s Heisenberg. And if, as we are led to believe, the Walter White we meet in the pilot is the Everyman, then Breaking Bad is telling us that perhaps the best course of action is to tread lightly.