Walter White as a Tragic Hero

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I realize I’m coming late to the game with my analysis of Breaking Bad, but I just finished season five this weekend. Somewhere in the middle of the last season I realized that the series played out like a tragedy with Walter White as the typical tragic hero, and I needed to write about it.

A tragedy, in the Ancient Greek tradition, includes the following traits:

  1. The hero meets his downfall through a combination of his pride, “fate, and the will of the gods“.
  2. The hero eventually encounters some limits as a result of his quest to attain his goals, usually due to “human frailty  (flaws in reason, hubris, society)“.
  3. The hero must undergo a change in fortune or revelation or recognition (anagnorisis) at the end.

So let’s examine how Breaking Bad adheres to these rules (Warning: spoilers abound from this point on):

The hero meets his downfall through a combination of his pride, fate, and the will of the gods

At the beginning of the series, Walter White is a meek, science geek schoolteacher, well-liked by the people around him.

Walt’s pride rears its ugly head when he begins cooking the purest form of crystal meth the market has ever seen, something in which he takes pride.

The second thing that sends Walt on his downwards spiral is the discovery of his lung cancer (the will of the gods). This prompts him to continue cooking in order to earn enough money to keep his family safe upon his death.

It is only a matter of time before his DEA brother-in-law, Hank, catches up to him (fate). Walt’s only human, and though he does a good job of covering his tracks, making it hard for the DEA to track down the elusive Heisenberg, and for Hank to draw the connection between Heisenberg and his brother-in-law, he eventually slips up due to human frailty where Jessie is concerned, arranging for him to start over rather than killing him when he has the chance.

The hero eventually encounters some limits as a result of his quest to attain his goals, usually due to human frailty

Walt is nothing if not frail. He manages to beat his cancer only for it to return in the final season. Knowing it will get the better of him, Walt figures he has nothing to lose. Consequently, this is also when he is at his most bold (hubris). Love is the most powerful human frailty contributing to Walt’s downfall.

Family is a powerful motivator for Hank (flaw in reason). His main imperative is to keep his wife and children safe. When Jessie begins to break down and Walt realizes he has become his Achilles’ heel, Walt orders his murder. Because he considers Jessie family, he insists it be quick and painless. In the end, his desire to make things right with Jessie is what leads to his death. When Todd and his uncle’s gang of thugs hold Hank at gunpoint, Walt insists Hank is family and should be allowed to live.

In the end, it is only when Walt’s family renounces him they are truly safe. Walt stages a phone call convincing the police (limit from society) wife Skyler was coerced into participating in his drug empire, forcing her to keep her distance. His son wishes him dead. His sister-in-law tells him to kill himself. His brother-in-law is dead as a result of his doings. He assumes pseudo-son Jessie is also dead, having ordered the hit himself.

It is at this point Walt experiences anagnorisis.

 The hero must undergo a change in fortune or revelation or recognition (anagnorisis) at the end

Walt experiences a host of ups and downs throughout the series, always managing to escape his situation and come out on top through sheer dumb luck. He reasons away every death by his hands as necessary for his survival, but at some point that changes. I believe the turning point is Gus Fring’s death. Though one could successfully argue Fring’s death is necessary, the same could not be said for Mike Ehrmantraut’s. Walt kills Mike in a fit of rage, not because he poses a threat, but because Walt wants him dead.

Walt’s change in fortune is simultaneous with the return of his cancer. The DEA becomes aware of his connection with Heisenberg at around the same time. I have to admit, though I never really liked Walt as a protagonist, I began to hate him from this point forward.

It’s not until he’s hiding out and tries to find a way to get his remaining money to his family that he begins to redeem himself. Walt begins to experience recognition with Hank’s death, but it’s not until he speaks with Skyler and admits he stayed in the business because he liked it that his redemption begins. Anagnorisis occurs when he sacrifices himself for Jessie and he accepts his death in the last seconds of the final episode.

What do you think? Is can Breaking Bad be best described as a tragedy? Is Walter White a tragic hero? Weigh in with your comments below.

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