Good guy, bad guy, family man, hit man, teacher, junkie, mogul, peon. Among other things, Breaking Bad is a show about roles and how hard it is and then suddenly how easy it is to be someone else. For a show that’s so much about power structures, responsibility, and consequences, though, there’s a hole in Breaking Bad’s social fabric: The show’s technically about a father, one who got involved in the drug trade in the first place to provide for his family, but we sure don’t see a lot of fathering going on. All the instances of real fatherhood are polluted, all the guidance warped. Breaking Bad doesn’t have a dad.
It should be Walt. But like so many Maury Povich guests, Walt is not the father. He barely parents his actual children, and the moments where it seems like he’s parenting Jesse (their relationship constitutes the real father/son dynamic on the show) are fraudulent. On this past Sunday’s episode, a concerned Walt rubbed Jesse’s shoulder’s as the protégé sobbed hysterically. Walt was soothing and patient, so very paternal as he calmed his panicky sidekick. Except the situation was a lie, and Walt had orchestrated every single piece of emotional anguish that befell Jesse. That doesn’t count as help. Whatever fathers are supposed to do for the children, and maybe for their sons in particular, is not what Walt has done for Jesse. Jesse was better off when Mr. White was just his chemistry teacher, because when that person said “apply yourself,” it was so Jesse could learn something. Now when Walt wants Jesse to apply himself, it’s so Walt can have something.
There are, of course, the actual father/child relationships on the show. Like that of Walt and Walt Jr. The most important episode in their relationship is “Salud.” In it, a badly beaten Walt misses his son’s 16th birthday. Walt Jr. shows up at his father’s house, only to have his dad breakdown sobbing and apologize. Catharsis time! Except that, in his addled state, Walt calls his son Jesse. That apology wasn’t for Walt Jr. Later in the episode, a more clearheaded Walt tries to explain to his son that he doesn’t want to be seen in this decrepit state. Walt explains watching his own father die, slowly and in agony, until his father’s breath sounded like “shaking an empty spray paint can.” It’s a haunting scene, maybe even a beautiful one, but it’s not a scene about Walt being a father. It’s a glorified flashback. It’s a scene about Walt being a son losing his own dad.
In “Phoenix,” Walt holds his infant daughter in one arm as he peels back insulation with the other, revealing stacks upon stacks of cash, piled up inside the walls of their house. “See what your daddy did for you?” he coos. Walt didn’t do this for her, at least not all of it, no matter what he claims in that weird tender moment. He did it because he likes it. “You get used to it,” he told Skyler on last week’s episode; the guilt, the doubt, the fear. Boy, did he. Holly will only ever know her father as The One Who Knocks. That might mean he’ll die before she’s old enough to remember him, or it might mean she’ll only know him when he was scary and dark and brave, unlike her brother, who knew him when he was sick and small, too.
The rest of the dads on the show don’t fare much better than Walt does. Jane’s father tried valiantly to help her, but he couldn’t save her from heroin or from Jesse or from Walt, and his grief caused the deaths of dozens of people. Jesse and his father don’t get along, so much so that Jesse bought his childhood home just to spite his folks. Ted speaks vaguely of his children. We know Mike only as a grandfather, not as a father. (And actor Jonathan Banks suggests Mike’s relationship with his unseen son is what lead him down such a “dark path.”) Jesse tries to be a father figure to Brock, but the child end ups almost dead thanks to Walt poisoning him, maybe the least fatherly act imaginable.
Instead of dads, we see uncles and cousins and brothers. The real father figure in Walt Jr.’s life is his Uncle Hank, whom he worships and who seems to adore him right back. The head of the Salamanca family isn’t a father, it’s a tio, and Gus’s chicken chain isn’t Los Pollos Padres. The guys who come after Hank are cousins.
Breaking Bad’s characters live in a world of decay, their lives rotting and sinking right around them. (At least that’s what Vince Gilligan says.) The show tells stories about the disrepair we wreak on each other, about the times we lose balance and find chaos instead. Times when you might really need your dad.