Breaking Bad: Charting the Increasing Evil of Walter White

Photo: AMC
Photo: AMC

When we first met Walter White on AMC’s Breaking Bad, he was a meek high-school chemistry teacher who, on his off hours, got yelled at by his car-wash boss. One cancer diagnosis and four seasons later, he has a thriving meth business, millions of dollars to be laundered, enemies on both sides of the law, and an ever-increasing body count. It’s quite a transformation, but this kind of swerve toward villainy didn’t happen in one episode. On the occasion of the season-four premiere (Sunday, July 17 at 10 p.m.), we decided to systematically break down Walt’s progression to the dark side, looking at the major events of the series and estimating where they pushed him (or pulled him back) on a scale of Badness, which goes from 1 (boy scout) to 10 (pure evil).

In the pilot, milquetoast science teacher Walter learns he has terminal lung cancer. He recruits former student and current burnout Jesse Pinkman to sell the high-grade meth he makes with his extensive chemistry skills in order to build a nest egg to provide for his family after he dies. Badness: 2. A major criminal move, yes, but at this point his motives — if misguided — are as pure as his product. He’s not in it for kingpin aspirations, simply to raise more cash than his public-school life insurance (and car-wash bonuses) might provide.
Walt kills one of Jesse’s drug-dealer associates by trapping him in their camper/meth-lab-on-wheels as it fills with deadly chemical fumes. Badness: 3. Again, he has a fine excuse: Emilio (and his cousin, Krazy 8) were threatening to kill them and steal their meth. Nevertheless, Walt does move another point up the scale because if we’ve learned anything from hit-man movies, it’s that once you kill one person, it makes it a lot easier to do it again.
Walt and Jesse try to dispose of Emilio’s body by melting it (and, inadvertently, the bathtub and floor) with chemicals. Badness: 3.2. Small uptick: Technically it’s just self-preservation, but so goes the slippery slope. Plus, so little regard for Jesse’s security deposit.
It’s his turn to take care of one of their desert attackers, so Walt strangles Krazy 8 in the basement with a bicycle lock. Badness: 3.8. A lot of caveats here: Walt really wanted to let him go, sucked in by a tender tale that turned out to be a scam. Only when he realized that Krazy 8 meant to slash him with a plate shard did he snuff him out. So again, it’s technically self-defense, but that excuse can only be used so often. With two people now up on Walt’s kill board, it’s starting to look like a habit.
Walt learns that crime pays. Now he can pay for an expensive cancer center himself and not have to rely on the help of the former lab co-workers whom he still resents. Badness: 3.8. No move here. He just gets to keep his pride, and technically it’s a victimless crime, in that he already had the money so there’s no further wrongdoing. However, in claiming that he did take his old friends’ money, he’s expanding his roster of lies to his wife Skyler, and that’s no way to keep a healthy marriage.
After drug distributor Tuco beats up and robs Jesse, Walt cuts a deal with him to move their product. He also adopts a shaven-headed, dark-clothed street identity and the name Heisenberg.Badness: 4.5. Big leap here. Once you start working with blatant sociopaths, cooking meth is no longer a hobby. Plus, the addition of a porkpie hat and alias is a clear turn off to a dark road: It’s the first thing every super-villain does in their origin story. All he needs now is an underground lair and an army of robots. Photo: AMC
In the first-season finale, Walt completes his buy with Tuco, entering the big time. After the deal, he watches helplessly as Tuco viciously beats down one of his lackeys.Badness: 4.4. He still seems to be capable of being shocked by the violence in his new career, so a slight step back for that glimmer of humanity.
Walt forces himself on the pregnant Skyler until she screams, “Stop it!”Badness: 4.6. Normally in shows about once-meek husbands, this kind of scene finds the wife startled and aroused by her husband’s newfound aggressiveness. In Breaking Bad, it seems to be going that way for a while … but then Skyler gets weirded out. Turns out Walt isn’t all man, he’s becoming all creep.
Walt expands his business, recruiting Jesse’s buddies to sell more drugs and intimidate the competition. Badness: 4.8. Yes, he’s showing more entrepreneurial druglord instincts, and that’s not good. But it’s not a huge leap because no self-respecting aspiring badass would hire this bunch of yahoos as his muscle.
When wheezy goofball dealer Badger gets busted, Walt enlists the help of lawyer Saul Goodman by kidnapping him. Saul arranges for an ex-con to pretend to be Heisenberg and take the fall. Badness: 4.8. No movement here, because using illegal tactics to convince Saul of something is the only tactic he respects: It’s like playing hardball with Warren Buffett. As for getting ex-con Jimmy In-’n-Out to take the blame, Jimmy likes prison and is thrilled to be going back and get paid for it. It’s like paying a kid to go to camp, and what’s wrong with that?
Walt gets greedier. Anxious to ramp up production, he and Jesse nearly die when they attempt to cook 42 pounds of meth over a long weekend and their camper battery dies in the desert.Badness: 5.0. His greed isn’t just overshadowing his conscience, it’s also clouding his good judgment: How many mistakes does Jesse have to make before Walt realizes that if he just upped the salary a bit he could get a better quality partner who at the very least is more careful about leaving the keys in the ignition?
Walt misses the birth of his daughter by rushing to complete an inaugural deal with the powerful drug and chicken kingpin Gustavo Fring. Badness: 5.4. This makes for quite the philosophical conundrum: Do you go for the short-term importance of witnessing your daughter’s entry into this world, or seal a deal that will help her get through the rest of her life? Of course, most philosophers would then say, “What, the deal involves dealing meth? Why are we even discussing this?”
Jesse’s girlfriend Jane blackmails Walt. He pays up, but when he later returns to their apartment and finds Jane strung out and choking on her own vomit, he watches her die.Badness: 6. If he were a war photographer, he could have used the excuse, “It is not my job to interfere with tragedy, simply to document it.” But he is not a war photographer, he is a meth dealer. Perhaps he should have bought a camera and saved himself the extra 0.6 points.
A conflicted Walt sets his meth money on fire, then thinks better of it and extinguishes it. However, he does confess his entrepreneurialism to Skyler, and she kicks him out.Badness: 5.8. Points for honesty, but not many; it’s not like he offered to stop making meth. Or let the money burn.
Walt makes a pass at his school’s principal, Carmen. He is put on indefinite leave.Badness: 5.8. Sleazy and stupid, yes. But no movement because, to be fair, Skyler had just told him, “I fucked Ted.” So not so much “bad” as “out of his mind.”
Walt reconsiders his career, but ultimately decides not only to keep making meth, but he makes a deal with Gus that gets him a gleaming new high-tech lab and a salary of $15 million for one year’s output. Jesse is cut out of the deal.Badness: 6.6. With Walt separated from his wife and fired from his day job, he is now officially no longer just moonlighting. No more ifs, ands, or buts: He’s a major drug player who just happens to have cancer … and that’s even in remission. If the show started here, it wouldn’t be pitched as a show about an antihero, it’d just be Albuquerque Scarface.
Aware that Hank is trying to find their old camper, Walt rushes to dispose of it. Jesse hears about his plan and tries to intercept him to protect his wheels … bringing Hank, who has been tailing Jesse, right to it. Soon Walt and Jesse are trapped in the camper as Hank approaches, and Walt gets Saul’s secretary to call Hank’s cell, pretending to be a nurse alerting him to the fact that Marie was in a car accident and needs him. Badness: 6.6. No movement here, because as psychologically and emotionally cruel as it was to prey on Hank’s feelings for his beloved kleptomaniac wife, it was quick thinking. And nobody really got hurt, except for the subsequently crushed camper.
Skyler announces that she is now Walt’s business partner, and tries to convince him to launder his money through a car wash and not — Saul’s idea — a laser tag gaming center.Badness: 7.7. While this isn’t technically an action of Walt’s, his life has indirectly corrupted Skyler. For shame, Walt. What next, Walt Jr. mapping out turf? Baby Holly delivering meth in hollowed-out diapers?
To protect Jesse (friends once more), Walt runs over two rival drug dealers in his car, then shoots one of them in the head. Badness: 7.5. Before, all of Walt’s kills were either indirectly caused or an act of self-preservation. Now he’s just a cold-blooded, premeditated killer.
With Jesse in hiding, and the upbeat Gale hired as his replacement, Walt realizes that he will be kept alive only until Gale has mastered his formula and can take over. In one of the final scenes of last season, he confidently tells Gus’s henchman, “Your boss is going to need me.” Then he recites Gale’s address, to where he has dispatched Jesse. The episode ends with Jesse knocking on the door and firing point-blank at Gale. Badness: 8. This is where we pick up Walt this season: a cold businessman with a shrewd criminal mind. However, he’s still more trapped than in control; yes, he’s bought himself more time with Gus, but he certainly won’t be getting an Employee of the Month plaque at Pollos Hermanos anytime soon. Violent and ruthless though he may be, he’s still only at an 8: Creator Vince Gilligan has said that he expects the show to end after season five, so we have to leave Walt some room to grow into a 10 over the next two years. We certainly don’t expect him to be doing any backsliding.
Breaking Bad: Charting the Increasing Evil of Walter White