Walter White as a Tragic Hero

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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Rumplestiltskin as a Tragic Hero

The classic definition of a tragic hero according to Arisotle is that he must be of noble birth, has a tragic flaw which leads to his downfall, suffers a reversal of fortune, his actions bring about an increased sense of self-awareness and self-knowledge and the audience must feel pity and fear for the character(1).  I submit that Rumplestiltskin, aka Mr. Gold on ABC’s Once Upon A Time (OUAT) is a tragic figure. While he is not of noble birth, he does have a tragic flaw (cowardess) which leads to his downfall, he suffers numerous reversals of fortune (the loss of his son, wife, and lover), his actions bring about an ongoing increased sense of self-awareness (recent confessions made by the character), and the audience feels both pity and fear for the character.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with OUAT, the show is about storybook characters coming from their familiar storybook existence in Fairytaleland (FTL) to our world and settling in Storybrooke, Maine (SB).  Robert Carlyle plays Rumplestiltskin in FTL and Mr. Gold in SB with menacing relish. In the original tale, Rumplestiltskin is an impish character that is able to spin straw to gold. He agrees to teach the miller’s daughter the trick, provided she pay the sum of her first born to him. The miller’s daughter marries the king and has a child but does not want to give it up. Unable to resist a deal, Rumplestiltskin agrees to let her keep the child, provided the (now) queen can guess his name. After the second try, certain that he would receive the child, he was praising himself by the fire when someone heard and reported his name to the queen. Upon hearing  his name come from the queen’s lips,  Rumple got so angry he tore himself in two (2). In OUAT’s version, Rumple is the village coward. Shunned by others in his village because he ran when the ogres attacked rather than fight, his wife (Milha) has run off with Killian Jones (aka Captain Hook). Determined to become powerful and earn the trust of everyone including his son, he kills The Dark One and assumes his powers. Shunned by others because they fear him, he saves his son from fighting in The Ogre Wars only to lose him when he falls into a portal to another land and closes before he can follow. Alone, he finds his wife and kills her by literally taking and destroying her heart. Lonely, he makes a deal with a king to save his subjects from the ogres in exchange for his daughter, Belle, with whom he falls in love. Believing himself unworthy of being loved, he banishes Belle from his castle and Regina, The Evil Queen, convinces him she returned to her village despondent and  ostracized for her involvement with him and she kills herself. After Regina enacts The Curse causing FTL characters to be transported to SB, he finds Belle when the curse is more changed than broken and reunites with her, but finds it hard to shake his beastly ways.

The Tragic Hero is of Noble Birth

Granted, Rumple himself is not of noble birth, but he does become elevated to the status of nobles when he becomes The Dark One. He has the same powers and wields them to his advantage as do the other royals in FTL. Take, for example, King George, who takes a peasant boy to replace his son when he dies only to threaten his mother and his twin brother’s life if he does not do the same when the replacement dies. Or Belle’s father, Sir Maurice, who is willing to trade his daughter for peace in his kingdom (granted Belle decides to go on her own, but in the long run, Maurice remains passive when his daughter leaved). Then there’s Regina who pushed her mother into a portal and has made her life’s mission to wreak havoc in Snow White’s life for a transgression occurring in her childhood. Like the other royals, Rumple is feared for his power and revered by those who come in contact with him by people who offer (as Macbeth, another royal and tragic hero laments) “mouth-honour”. As the owner and benefactor of SB, Rumple, aka Gold, maintains his power over the characters and seems to enjoy that they fear him. He is the proprietor of the local pawn shop which houses many of the character’s prized possessions with which they made deals with Rumple back in FTL.

The Tragic Hero has a Tragic Flaw Which Leads to His Downfall

As far as personality flaws go, Rumple has many. The story begins with him as a coward, then becoming addicted to and drunk with power as The Dark One. He clings to this power, valuing it even over the love he seeks. This is demonstrated when, after his magic seems threatened by Belle’s love for him, he sends her away rather than explore his heart’s deepest desire.  Betrayed by many including his wife, his apprentice (Regina) and many of the townspeople when they try to get out of the bargains he strikes, Rumple trusts no one. Rumple’s biggest flaw is his desire for acceptance and love. He places himself in a vulnerable position when he allows himself to mistake August (aka Pinocchio) for his son, and again when he prostrates himself to Belle in the library after admitting to her he is still a coward.  It is this flaw more than the others that will ultimately lead to his downfall, as a man as powerful as RumpleGold cannot afford to wear his hat on his sleeve in such a manner.

The Tragic Hero Suffers a Reversal of Fortune

When Rumple agrees to kill The Dark One in order to release him from his misery and gain his power, he thinks life can only get better. Rather than ostracize and ridicule him as being the village coward, the villagers will be forced to revere him or he will turn them into a snail and crush them like the bugs they are. Instead, people ostracize him further. Instead of their disgust, he garners their fear. If he is The Dark One, he surmises, his wife will beg to come back to him and he will win back his son’s respect. Instead, he loses them both. Perhaps worse, he loses himself in the bargain. As we have seen with Regina, magic is addictive. In a brilliant turn of events, Regina runs to psychiatrist Archie Hopper (aka Jiminy Cricket) when she falls off the magic wagon. Like Regina, Rumple is addicted to magic. He does not know how to interact with others without offering them some sort of magical deal and, as previously stated, he chooses magic over securing his deepest heart’s desire. It seems to me that there is no lower ground to which a man who kisses a soldier’s boot in front of his son can stoop, but Rumple seems to do it. At times I am left to wonder, which is better—being ridiculed for cowardess but still having my son, or having all the power in the world at my fingertips and being utterly alone in, not one, but two, worlds.

The Tragic Hero’s Actions Bring About an Increased Sense of Self-awareness and Self-knowledge and the Audience Must Feel Pity and Fear for the Character

As writers continue to flesh out Rumple’s character, we learn he is very much self aware. The mystery in season one questioned who, out of all of the characters, remembered their FTL past. I love the scenes in which Rumple and Regina verbally spar. In one of these scenes, Rumple is in SB’s jail and Regina is compelled to sit and talk to him (she must do whatever Rumple says when he says “please” as a part of the original curse). The moment where he reveals he remembers his FTL name is an incredible step toward his admitting he is still The Dark One and the audience can’t help but fear what will happen to him if the others regain their memory and learn of his name. In season two, the Rumbelle ship continues to sail on very choppy waters. As they battled a wave that threatened to sink their ship, Rumple admitted to Belle that he is still a coward. What a brilliant moment toward Rumple’s self-awareness of the man behind the beast. At that moment, I felt nothing but pity for the character played to expertly by Robert Carlyle. He still loves her. And in admitting that he needed her, he revealed a vulnerability that instilled fear in audience members such as myself who watch the show primarily for this character. Many in the blogosphere believe that Hook will seek revenge for Rumple’s killing Milha on Belle. Having begun his descent out of the pit that is his addiction to magic, I can’t help but fear that without Belle he will fall back to magic to seek his own retribution, and thus descend into madness as well.

Time, of course, will tell, and I don’t mean time on the clock swallowed by the crocodile in the original Peter Pan tale because in OUAT’s version, Rumple is the famed crock as well. As I write this, Hook and Emma, still trapped in the ruined FTL are about to discover Jack’s beanstalk in their quest to find a portal to SB so Emma and Snow can be reunited with their family and Hook can “skin” the crock that took his hand and his love. My hope for Rumple is that he remains intact for the balance of the series, however long that may be, and not fall prey to the death visited on most other  tragic heroes at the end of the tale.

(1)    http://shakespeare.nuvvo.com/lesson/4435-elements-of-a-tragic-hero-in-literature

(2)    http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/Rum.shtml