Walter White and the Construct of 'Family Man'

Curator's Note

The prevalence of the antihero in American television dramas of late can be traced to the era of film noir. At its core, noir focused on social and economic inequalities as seen through the identity crises of male protagonists who succumbed to their dark urges because the American Dream had failed them. Breaking Bad's Walter White is unquestionably one of the more complex characters to dissect in this regard through his paradigmatic role as father, husband, and provider within the confines of his hero-turned-villain story arc. Breaking Bad is rather direct in its attempt to deconstruct and redefine manhood in relation to the modern family and the seemingly obliteration of the American Dream. It is, after all, the underlying reason—to provide for his family—that Walt starts cooking meth. Worthy to explore is the ways in which Walter conflates prior societal constructs of the "breadwinner" and/or "family man" with an emerging construct resulting from post-recession America in order to justify his bad decisions. Gustavo Fring is the crucial character to enter Walt’s world who exemplifies the former construct. He also unwittingly provides the schism between the antihero's noir predecessor and its torturous but candid evolution to present.

By the midpoint of season 3, Gus represents two important aspects to Walt's plight and, perhaps, explains why we continue to root for Walt. First, Gus is the purveyor of an extensive and successful drug business, all the while straddling a carefully crafted alias as an upstanding citizen; something for which Walter aspires and, ultimately, fails in doing. Second, he also embodies the recognizable construct of "a man provides." In this pivotal scene, Gus states what has been implicit in Walter's motivations up to this point: that is, he helps further justify Walt's actions as his duty by giving him the absolution he so desperately desires. Gus gives us license to sympathize with and abhor Walt simultaneously, even to the bitter end.

So what would make for an exploratory yet satisfying fate for Walt at the series end? The most apt would be for him to live. That is, to live miserable, alone, and under yet another mundane alias, stripped of everything that he allowed to define him.

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