Being Walter

Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln, Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy and Breaking Bad’s Walter White has an unlikely dopplegänger

breaking-badbychristopherjonesweb.jpgOf all the great tragedies facing us as a society, the fact that there are only eight remaining episodes of Breaking Bad has to rank among the most dire. (Sorry, overpopulation, peak oil and the continued existence of the word “selfie.” You had your chance.)

It’s a sad time for fans, yes, but it’s also bouncing-off-the-walls exciting as we get to the final run of one of television’s best series at 9 p.m. August 11 on AMC.

We only know a couple of things about this last stretch, most of which we gleaned from the Season 5 debut’s flash-forward sequence: Walter White will find himself on the run posing as a New Hampshireite with a fake name; he’ll be spending his 52nd birthday eating an ominous, lonely man’s breakfast; Ghost Mike will serve as a scrappy sidekick and comedic ne’er-do-well.

What we know overall is how series creator Vince Gilligan has repeatedly described the overreaching story arc of the series as Walt’s journey from Mr. Chips to Scarface. Which, as anyone who’s seen Scarface knows: Things didn’t work out so well for Scarface.

Aside from the Western shading and the general frontier sensibility the show adopts for its Southwest setting, though, Breaking Bad shares a spiritual connection to Las Vegas: Gilligan’s show pitch essentially describes Oscar Goodman’s career in reverse. (Careful: Everything moving forward is one long spoiler. Here be dragons.)

As far as starting points go, when we’re first introduced to Walter White, he’s mostly naked and careening his meth-lab RV out of control before a hurried video message to his family he precedes with, “To all law enforcement entities, this is not an admission of guilt.” He’s a cartoon—a two-dimensional Mr. Magoo of a drug lord who’s as endearing as he is toothless (in the metaphorical way, not in the meth-y way).

Shaken, out of his depth, confused about the way the legal system works and pantsless. It’s all so un-Goodman-like, isn’t it? Not that Goodman ever reached “meth kingpin and near-child-murderer” level, but coming out of law school in the ’60s, he did immediately establish himself as the assured defender of men such as the “Mob’s Accountant” Meyer Lansky (who could’ve been the Gus Fring of organized crime). And Goodman did it in a suit. With pants and everything.

They each even had their justifications for their dalliances with the criminal element: Walt was trying to make as much money as possible before cancer took its toll. Goodman has said he felt like he was protecting the sanctity of the legal system and combatting government overreach.

Gilligan pinpoints Walt’s turning point as coming early in the series—when he decides he’s going to cook meth to pay for his cancer treatments instead of accepting charity. But to most everyone else, Walt’s real heel turn came at the end of Season 2, when he allows Jane to choke to death on her own vomit while she sleeps. He was right there; he could have done something. He didn’t. It was the point of no return.

It’s just like in ’99, when Goodman went from “the guy who battles the government” to merely “the government” upon being elected mayor. As far as career arcs go, there’s nothing that screams “turning point” quite like attaining a prominent office, or watching while your crime partner’s meth-addled, blackmailing girlfriend goes full-on John Bonham as he sleeps next to her. It just depends which way you’re trending on the side of angels.

The first half of Season 5 sees a different Walt. He comes to rule a meth empire, serving an insatiable overseas market until, finally, his wife takes him to a pile of money in a storage unit, asking him “I want my kids back. I want my life back. Please tell me, how much is enough? How big does this pile have to be?” Walt agrees to give it up and is preparing for a life as kingpin emeritus.

Term limits did to Goodman what a giant mountain of cash did for Walt, and now that he’s out, he’s turned into something of a mascot for Las Vegas, as endearing as he is toothless. (In the “can’t give direct orders to people and make the government spring into action” way, not in the “still exerts considerable influence” way. Or the meth-y way.)

There are other, smaller parallels with the show and Goodman. Both Walt and the former mayor are profoundly intertwined with strong women who exert themselves on the family business. They’ve both made boasts that could get them in trouble (Walt’s drunken bragging to DEA brother-in-law Hank that one-time suspect Gale was just copying another, smarter man’s work; Goodman telling a bunch of fourth-graders the one thing he’d take to a desert island would be gin). Walt had a narcorrido song written about him, Goodman played himself in Casino.

But then again, maybe we’re looking in the wrong place. Maybe the parallel isn’t so much with Walt. Maybe it’s between Goodman and Walt’s lawyer, Saul. Saul Goodman, in fact. When actor Bob Odenkirk was being interviewed about a potential spinoff based on his strip-mall attorney, he told The New Republic, “Saul Goodman should be mayor of Las Vegas. He could work in any city. It’s just that in Vegas he could be the mayor one day. He’d really be an upstanding citizen.”

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