All this week, we’re presenting the Vulture TV Awards, honoring the best in television from the past year. We move on now to Best Villain. It says a lot about the television cycle that things that aired less than a year ago feel like ancient history — but a list of TV events that are eligible not only for the purposes of our Vulture TV Awards, but also the upcoming Emmy Awards, would include the Dexter finale, Sharknado, and the Miley Cyrus performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. The final run of Breaking Bad also qualifies, and as Deadwood creator David Milch discusses here, Walter White is the year’s best TV villain.
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in all of television’s kingdoms more heinous than Joffrey Baratheon. Or more devilish than Frank Underwood. Or more politely chilling than the eponymous Hannibal. For these characters, villainy is as much a vocation as avocation: Joffrey is a teenage tyrant; Frank is a scheming politician; and Dr. Lecter a sinister shrink. When villainy is a job requirement, why not delight in it?
But there is nothing inherently villainous about your mild-mannered chemistry teacher — the one who took a medical leave when he developed lung cancer. He’s so nice, after all, and his family is so sweet. He’s just like you and me, and we’re not so bad. Are we? Walter White’s transformation into the monster Heisenberg is compelling because he does bad things for good reasons. We might even do the same, if pushed far enough. We see a little of ourselves in him, and that’s precisely why we should fear him most.
In the final season of Breaking Bad, Walter has completed that transformation and quit the business of blue meth. He’s already shot, stabbed, poisoned, and bombed anyone who threatened his burgeoning empire. He’s made more money than his family could ever need.
But with Hank and Jesse finally at odds with him, he still has things left to do. Though he doesn’t wear the porkpie hat, he uses the different facets of his persona to manipulate those closest to him. He’s Mr. White, the genteel teacher, when he has to convince Jesse to change his identity for everyone’s protection. He’s the helpless cancer victim and loving patriarch when Hank finally realizes the truth about his brother-in-law. His time is running out, Walter promises, and a pointless prosecution for a dying man will only harm his family. When those approaches fail, Walt is the brutal drug lord who plots to kill Jesse, implicates Hank in his own crimes, and leaves his wife bloodied and sobbing in front of their home after kidnapping their infant daughter. He turns his family against itself. In doing so, he reshapes the world around him so that everyone breaks bad.
Marie, never the bastion of sanity, Googles untraceable poisons when Walt doesn’t follow her recommendation of suicide. Skyler eschews her own husband’s moral standards and tries to convince Walt to finally murder Jesse. Even Walter’s other protégé, Todd, is merely an extension of him. He adopted the brutality of his Uncle Jack and the Opie attitude of “Mr. White.” When Todd and the Aryans leave Hank in a desert grave, torture Jesse, and murder Andrea, who is only guilty of unwittingly playing the pawn, it’s not in spite of Walter, but because of him.
And then, in the wake of fleeing Albuquerque, Walter refuses the opportunity to save Skyler by surrendering to the police, claiming that he wants to ensure his family receives the remainder of his money. In reality, he can’t accept that his empire has perished.
When Walter finally admits that he did it all — the meth, the money, the murders — because he liked it, because it made him feel alive, that vanity motivated him more than charity, it reflects how our own ostensible altruism is often just the lie we tell ourselves to excuse our dirtiest deeds.
He does attempt redemption. He comes out of hiding to ensure Skyler isn’t punished for his crimes. He kills the Aryans and rescues Jesse. He succeeds at providing Walt Jr. with roughly $9 million. But he achieves these small acts of contrition through violence, or at least the promise of it. He’s already doomed, and he shows how far each of us can fall.
Was Walter White the best villain on television this year? You’re goddamn right.