Everyone loves a bad boy don’t they, the boys aspire to be them and the girls want to be with them. Now, seemingly everyone wants to watch them. Hit US television series’ such as Breaking Bad, Homeland, The Sopranos and The Walking Dead play on our morals constantly. Every episode finds us asking ourselves the same questions as our ‘favourites’ commit horrible deeds. Can someone commit something bad for the right reasons? Does performing terrible actions make a terrible person? Are they heroes, villains or maybe both?
Storytelling has traditionally played on the premise that a tale needs both a hero and a villain to create conflict and a palpable sense of right and wrong. Films tend to stick to this assertion too yet mediums such as books and television can delve a little deeper into a character and perhaps better explain why they do what they do. With more room for complexity you can include more characters like the proverbial Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. These characters are driven men who leave a path of destruction in their wake yet we still root for them.
Perhaps it is us, the viewers, who are to blame for coming back in our droves. Even when we know our favourites have committed monstrosities we let them back into our living room week after week. All of us are like mothers in that more than anything we want to be able to find something good in even the darkest characters. Television has always been escapism and we want to resist the clutches of our their mundane lives and The Daily Mail, away from the bankers, paedophiles and terrorists to turn to something dark that we can watch safely in their favourite chair. We overlook the bad behaviour because we look for the good and want to believe that everyone has a conscience. Above all, we can have heroes like these because we cannot believe that anyone is genuinely evil.
The lines have become blurred and over time we are going to look at characters who kill to survive yet can still be looked upon as a hero, at least in the eyes of the viewer. We’ll start with the modern day Dr Jekyll, Mr Hyde as portrayed by the irrepressible Bryan Cranston.
#1 Breaking Bad – Walter White/Heisenberg
From the start of Breaking Bad you felt sympathetic for Walter White, how could you not? A laughable excuse of a Chemistry high-school teacher diagnosed with terminal lung cancer who cannot afford his treatment on such a pathetic wage. Then he reached notoriety with his incredibly well-executed meth business and found himself in some dangerous territory. At some point greed manifested itself and he himself manifested into the warlord ‘Heisenberg’, capable of intense intimidation and devious means of killing to extend his empire.
For him the killings were an added expense, the real harm was done in being the best damn meth cook. Obviously the destruction of blowing people up was far more thrilling than watching families destroyed by his product. Breaking Bad never really delved into the ill-effects of his product in Albuquerque and the surrounding boroughs. Sure, we see Jesse enjoy the blue and then suffer the consequences through the loss of his girlfriend, Jane, but that sort of a tragedy could be played out a countless number of times by those on the streets. Walt barely ever saw this played out in the real world and even when he caught a glimpse the money kept on rolling in and he was quite content in his laboratory making another sublimely pure batch. You cannot really blame Vince Gilligan, if you want to see the effects of drug addiction on a local community you can always watch The Wire.
Hero – A former Chemistry teacher who created a popular product to fund his medical bills then toppled down drug cartels using his ingenuity. When he got in a little over his head at the beginning there was a sense of the heroic underdog as this mild-mannered weed of a man confronted the big daddies and took them down. Most notably there was passing off mercury fulminate as meth on unsuspecting drug barons which was a genius move of Bond-esque subtlety. Most poignantly, in the final episode he secured the financial future of his family even if they were with his substantially ill-gotten gains. It’s almost the American dream.
Villain – He watched Jane die when he could have at least TRIED to save her. By the start of season three Walt’s cancer was actually in remission yet having gone in so deep he carried on cooking. Perhaps it was the greed or maybe he had simply found something he was good at and wanted to continue ignorant to how many lives he would ruin with the product. As for actual killings he shot Mike in a fit of rage and then there was Gus. However, his carefully orchestrated death could be construed as business in that he gets rid of the competition for the sake of the empire. There were also the orders to kill Gus’ organisation and Gale but when you could wield such power you can make someone else do your dirty work.
Quote – As Walt: “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 is not appreciated – or respected…or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it…because he’s a man.”
As Heisenberg: “No, you clearly don’t know who you are 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!”
Verdict – Villain
For not getting out when ahead and supplying the product that destroyed countless lives you really cannot excuse Walt. Apparently 190 men, women and children died directly or indirectly as a result of his business, that’s a lot of people. Submerged by greed and a lustful taste for domination he became ‘Heisenberg’ and eliminated the competition by brutally foul but highly entertaining means. In short, he was badass, even with that silly facial hair.