armchair analyst

A Psychiatrist Analyzes Breaking Bad’s Outraged Walt Jr. and Others

Walter White, Jr. (RJ Mitte) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) - Breaking Bad _ Season 5, Episode 14 - Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

If you were feeling a little traumatized by Sunday night’s Breaking Bad episode, “Ozymandias”well, you can take comfort in the fact that your father isn’t a child-kidnapping meth kingpin. That’s the ugly truth that Walter Jr. was finally forced to confront and will have to live with for the rest of his life, if he survives the season (all bets are off at this point). According to UCLA faculty psychiatrist Dr. Paul Puri, Junior is actually handling things pretty well so far. We called up Dr. Puri to get his professional evaluation of Walt Jr.’s trauma, as well as Walt Sr.’s inner battle with his Heisenberg alter ego, Skyler’s battered-spouse syndrome, Marie’s inferiority complex, and, of course, creepy Todd.

Let’s start with how the revelation that his father is evil will affect Walter Jr. It’s just like that Sally Draper situation we discussed, but infinitely worse!
Yes, I think it’s probably more extreme to learn that your primary role model is a meth kingpin, and to watch him get into a knife fight with your mother. On the flipside, while Junior was in shock for a large part of the episode, what came out of the struggle was actually a moment of maturation and individuation. While it seemed at first like, “Oh my God, he’s just going to be scarred and it’s going to be the worst thing ever for him,” he ended up taking on the role of the father, or the protector, in the family.

He definitely stepped up very quickly.
Earlier in the episode, he was still blaming Skyler and trying to make her culpable, saying, “You’re just as much to blame for this because you lied.” And then he really saw how malicious his father can be, and in trying to protect his mother from harm, he finally steps from child to adult role, for the first time in the show.

Just to get a little more Freudian, I felt that the point at which Junior began to turn around was when he found out that Walt probably killed Hank, Hank having been a better father to him than Walt, in a lot of ways.
I would totally agree with that. I don’t think that Walt had the respect of Junior for a good portion of the time period of the show, which is what, two years? So I think that Hank during that time was the guy that Junior envied; he was a tough guy, he was masculine, he had machismo, all of those things that Junior would love to have, because with his CP, he didn’t have much physical strength. And so Hank would become a figure to idealize in that model. So I think learning that Hank was dead was probably definitely a big part of Junior’s transformation. If you really wanted to go Freudian, you could go down an Oedipal road of him destroying the last remnants of his father, and when he takes the father figure role, that’s fulfilling the Oedipal fantasy.

Let’s talk about Walter White. One thing that’s been coming up in these Vulture conversations with the writers and directors is that he’s torn between being Walter and being Heisenberg. In this episode, in particular, we see lots of contradictory behaviors: begging to save Hank’s life and then ordering Jesse to be killed, for example.
He may be compartmentalizing Heisenberg, who is this cold, calculating, tough guy, and Walter, who is the well-meaning father figure. But I think we’ve seen a decent amount of evidence that from the beginning — it was shown directly in this episode with the flashback where he calls Skyler — he plays Mr. Nice Apologetic Guy to cover his tracks, even when he’s being Walter, not Heisenberg. You could say that was beginning of Heisenberg right there, where it’s kind of a duplicitous role, and the division of the two people.

How about kidnapping Holly, then calling Skyler to exonerate her to the police?
When Junior ends up siding with his mother, Walt basically says, Okay, I’ve been now abandoned by the people that I did all of this for, so what should I do? I should take the one person who has not abandoned me or judged me or left me, and that’s the baby. And so he grabs the baby and then along the way, he maybe has a change of heart and says, well, I need to do whatever I can to protect the rest of my family. When he calls up Skyler later, while the writer’s intent is there, an alternative interpretation of it could be that he’s playing out the only thing he has left with his family, which is being threatening, because that’s the identity he has left. He’s casting aside his identity by leaving town, and the only one he has left is Heisenberg.

Walt has become more emotional and irrational as the season has gone on. And he’s been cold and calculating up to this point. What do you think triggered that change?
I think that he has experienced his first sense of loss in this season. I think he had it in the beginning, when he had such a grim outlook on his life – but at no point was there an apparent threat of loss of his family, up until this point. Now he’s actually losing the things that he tells himself he’s done all this for: his family, his children, even his money. And that I think makes him feel, for the first time in a long time, actual grief over the loss of things. It’s reached a point where then he starts thinking less rationally, because now the cold and calculated approach is not working anymore.

How does that affect the theory that Walt is a sociopath?
People say that sociopaths don’t have feelings, but it really exists on a spectrum, in terms of the severity of certain traits or characteristics. And so Walt probably has minor aspects of it, but he plays them up quite extremely. He’s a master manipulator. But he’s not a person who seems to thrive on cruelty to others, which is probably what Todd does. Todd is probably the real sociopath.

The other thing that changed this season, it occurs to me, is that Walt tried to quit the meth business. In terms of the dissociation theory — there’s Walt, and then there’s Heisenberg — he began going off the rails when he tried to cut out the Heisenberg part.
The nature of real dissociation, when we see it clinically, is that these are things that cannot be suppressed. These are usually representations of needs, drives or other things within a person that can’t be directly suppressed, and when people try to suppress them, they come out in more difficult ways. And so there are whole areas of dissociative phenomena, like feeling like your arm moves on its own. So when we talk about it on a personality level, it would make just as much sense with Walt that [Heisenberg] has been something he suppressed his whole life, and now he’s finally let it out of the bag to where it has room to grow, and it takes on a life of its own where it really exists out in the world, and he can’t get rid of it even if he wanted to, to the point that it is destroying everything that Walt actually values.

Do you think his attempt to suppress it could be one reason why he’s become so much crazier?
I think that’s very possible.

Skyler has experienced some extremely dramatic changes in her worldview this season. How would you describe her psychological state?
In so many ways, we could make the argument that she is the embodiment of a battered spouse, where she has been walking on eggshells around Walt for so long, avoiding “the one who knocks.”

There’s some Stockholm syndrome kind of stuff going on too.
There is, and I think that there became a point where she agreed with Walt’s rationalization that this was all to support the family, and that the family has to live together or die together. That’s why she created the videotape; that’s why she started to identify her family as the smaller unit, as opposed to the larger one that includes Hank and Marie, because otherwise, there didn’t seem like an out where everybody would survive. I also think with that, what happens with a lot of trauma is that many people can get disconnected from their feelings. She may be manifesting that in many ways also, where she seems very numb or like she’s locked away her actual feelings. When she’s finally challenged by Marie and Walt Jr., where she has to face all of the truth, then she just breaks down. She can’t hold it back anymore.

I think one thing that might make it challenging for people to see Skyler as a battered spouse is that she becomes so pragmatic in terms of laundering the money and covering their tracks. How would you explain how those two things go together?
Many people think about this simplified version of a battered spouse, which is that they are cowering and hiding and they just kind of nod and go along with things. Whereas in reality, it’s much more complex than that. There’s whole level of rationalization, like you said with Stockholm syndrome. Typically, there’s what’s called the cycle of violence, and there’s a period of battering, followed by what is called a period of apology, and then the honeymoon period where everything seems like it’s going to go great, and the batterer says it will never happen again. And then there’s a slow buildup of tension and walking on eggshells. So along with all of that comes the delusion that the reasons the batterer makes up are actually legitimate. “Oh, if only I didn’t make too much noise, then he wouldn’t have to hit me” — something like that. “Well, as long as we can launder all of the money, all the stuff will go away. He’ll go back to the old Walt and Heisenberg will disappear.” And so I think that there’s a large factor of that, where she has really gone along with it, partially because she’s been threatened, and not been allowed an escape, and also because he has said that he was going to give it up. I mean, this was after her trying to drown herself, where she couldn’t go along with it anymore.

Marie has always been an emotional mess. How is she holding it together so well in this episode? 
Well, I think she reached a point of moral superiority where she felt she was the only one who knew right from wrong, and wasn’t willing to cut corners to do it. And then when Hank arrested Walt, she was the one person who could come to Skyler and say, “Now, we will do what we can to protect you, but you have to come clean to everyone.” And that was a tremendous position of power to her. This is a woman who was originally a kleptomaniac, and had to kind of sneak away any secrets, or little “power steals,” so to speak, to feel important in her life. And so this was a tremendous thing for her, and now that she knows Hank is dead, it’s going in a completely different direction. What will likely happen is this will lead to a great bonding between her and Skyler, as they both grieve the loss of their husbands, and maybe that will shift the dynamic between the two of them where Skyler isn’t the superior one anymore, but Marie has a more dominant position.

Anything else to say about Todd? He’s a pretty cut and dry sociopath, right?
Probably. They said it pretty clearly, when Nazi Jack told Walt: “My nephew really respects you.” That’s about as good as you’re gonna get from a guy like Todd. He believes in pride in his work, and there’s no show of remorse in any of his acts of cruelty to get what he wants. The portrayal so far is that he’s not a particularly intelligent sociopath, but he uses the tools he has — which means violence, for the most part. And Walt has given him a taste of some other things that he’s trying to develop.

Do you have advice for viewers to deal with their feelings of trauma?
They can dissociate like everybody else on the show is. Separate yourself from your feelings! [Laughs.] I think viewers can take heart in this as being a moral lesson of what not to do, and to recognize that even though good people can get involved in bad things, and tell themselves they do it for good reasons, it can still turn out horribly, and that we shouldn’t get our hopes up that we’re going to get away with it. And the whole purpose of the show is to get us emotionally involved. It is deliberately done, very well, and that’s why it’s powerful, because we’re drawn in and we’re feeling what we’re feeling. So take stock that you are responding well to what the writers are trying to put out there. Beyond that, just remind yourself that this is fiction.

A Psychiatrist Analyzes Breaking Bad’s Walt Jr.