He’s the bad guy. He’s the obstacle. He’s the one that the hero must outwit. To put it more succinctly, he’s the one who knocks. Call him what you want. Say he’s a villain, an anti-hero, and an antagonist. We know who these characters are and we understand their role.
Then, Walter White came along and ran the concept over with his car. Villains, heroes, and antagonists have not been the same since.
Some may argue it has improved the way in which we tell stories. Some may argue that it has been a detriment, creating a race of sorts to abandon old ideals and make every character feel all too human. For fictional characters not bound by the crushing limits of the real world, this can be a race that no one should want to win. However, I believe the rise of Walter White and “Breaking Bad” has raised the bar for characters of all types.
I call it the “Walter White Effect.” I know that’s not very original, but it sheds light on a concept that has been permeating pop culture since “Breaking Bad” became a phenomenon. We’ve seen it in movies, TV shows, comic books, and video games. What else explains Dr. Doom becoming the new Iron Man?
It’s just not enough for villains to be villainous anymore. It’s not enough for anti-heroes to have an edge anymore. Walter White has changed the way we think about protagonists, antagonists, heroes, anti-heroes, and everything in between. As an aspiring erotica/romance writer, I’ve already felt the effects of those changes and I even welcome them.
This is an issue that spins right out of my recent discussions on the nature of evil in humans. In discussing such a morbid topic, I tried to keep things basic while also trying not to make too many people want to spit in their own gene pool. For this discussion, however, I want to focus on just one of those trees in the vast forest of human evil.
In doing so, I know I’ll rile up those who don’t believe that Walter White deserves to be classified as “evil.” I understand that argument. To call Walter White “evil” the same way we call IRS agents evil is to cast too wide a net on a remarkably complex character. However, for the purposes of this discussion, I want to focus on the traits that highlight the “evil” qualities of Walter White and characters like him.
Those who have binge-watched “Breaking Bad” know Walt’s story well. He started off as this affable, sympathetic man who endured one too many bad breaks, if that’s not too fitting a term. He had a family who loved him, a baby on the way, and friends who supported him. On the surface, he had every reason to be a good person.
Then, the bad breaks added up. He was diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer and given only a couple years left to live. Being a grossly overqualified high school chemistry teacher, he was destined to leave his wife, son, and newborn baby with nothing. Something had to give. It led him down a dark path, one that eventually brought out the worst in him.
It’s a story that puts a major twist on the familiar “Hero’s Journey” that we know so well. In some respects, Walt started out as a hero, doing bad things for good reasons. He did what he did to provide for his family, not to snort crank off a strippers ass. However, that journey morphed into something very different, one that has set a new standard for heroes and villains alike.
Bit by bit, sin by sin, and excuse by excuse, Walter White descended into this evil mindset. He killed former partners. He also lied to others. He even abandoned his initial reason for becoming a criminal. It was no longer enough to just provide for his family. He was in the “empire business” as he put it.
These are not the thoughts, actions, and traits of a hero. This is no longer a character who deserves such sympathy. Walter White became a true villain. In the end, he basically admitted as such. He said outright, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it.” It effectively completed his journey into being a villain.
In doing so, Walter White proved something that nobody thought to prove. He showed through “Breaking Bad” that a villain’s journey could be every bit as compelling as a hero’s journey. It’s not enough for a villain to just be an egocentric, mustache-twirling asshat who wants to take over the world. Villains need just as much depth as heroes.
This presents a new challenge for everyone from movie producers to aspiring erotica/romance writers. It’s hard enough writing a compelling protagonist. The success of Walter White as both a villain and a protagonist effectively raises the bar.
Villains are now the new heroes. Anti-heroes generate more interest. What else explains the success of characters like Deadpool? It’s not enough for Superman, Batman, and Captain America to save the day anymore. We need villains who have better reasons for being who they are.
This effect has already skewed the standards somewhat and not just in the sense that it helped make Deadpool one of the most profitable movies of 2016. Just look at the villains in “Captain America: Civil War” and “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Nobody is going to mistake Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor or Daniel Brühl’s as Helmut Zemo for Walter White anytime soon.
We can, however, forgive some of these shortcomings because the Walter White Effect is still very new. It’s still sinking in. People are just starting to try and emulate the success of Walter White and not just through “Breaking Bad” spinoffs.
It happened with westerns. It happened with sci-fi movies. When someone stumbles upon a winning formula, others try to recreate it with varying degrees of success. What else explains the glut of “Die Hard” ripoffs in the 90s?
Even if this does mean we’re in for multiple Walt wannabes over the next decade, I believe the lasting impact of the Walter White Effect will be a positive one. I think it’s better for all mediums, be they movies or erotica/romance novels, when both protagonists and antagonists alike are compelling.
The challenge, however, is making that journey into evil a compelling one. Walter White’s journey was long and difficult. There were times he could’ve stepped off that path, but didn’t. In the end, as others have pointed out, Walt always had this evil tendency within him. He just needed the right push in the wrong direction.