Everyone loves Breaking Bad, and for a multitude of good reasons. The thing I love most about the series is that it made us care for and empathize with Walter White, who became one of the most narcissistic characters put on a screen of any size. Realistically, we should all have hated Walter White by the end of the show, but most of us didn’t.
I was rooting for Walter like he was my hometown baseball team. I wanted him to beat the cancer, decimate his enemies, take his millions of dollars, disappear, and keep right on cooking that sweet, blue crank. But he didn’t, and it made me sad. Part of me wanted him to reconcile with his family, but mostly I was in it for the drugs, money, and power. This generally positive view of Walter is something that baffled the show’s creators, who intended to (and did) make a show about a good man turning evil, and had serious doubts that even giving him terminal cancer could make viewers care about him as he spiraled downward.
Walter White displays most of the symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, all of which become more evident and intense as the series progresses. He believes that he is smarter and better than everyone around him. He feels entitled to consistent praise and admiration from his colleagues, and we watch Walter become visibly agitated when he cannot demand the same praise from his family members. On multiple occasions, he comes extremely close to outing himself to his DEA brother-in-law just to bask in momentary praise of his criminal mastermind.
Money was Walter’s primary ambition, and he spent much of his time fantasizing about it in constantly increasing amounts, at first to provide for his family after his imminent death. Each time he meets this total, or loses his stash in some mishap, that total grows. Money became a measure of his self-worth, and since he felt extremely important, only an obscene amount of money could begin to convey that.
Walt feels special and misunderstood by others. During the show we see him briefly consider others his equal, but this dissolves as his grandiosity expands, ever outward. Because of his exponentially growing ego, he has little difficulty manipulating the people closest to him to achieve his own goals. When these manipulations involve hurting, poisoning, or murdering people, Walt quickly and cleanly justifies his actions. There are times when we see him expressing remorse, or empathizing with others, but this is all in an effort to further bend a situation to his will. He will get what he wants, at any cost, because he is special and deserves it.
Heisenberg, Walter’s criminal alter ego, is even more evidence of his narcissism. Prior to fully embracing villainy, Heisenberg allowed Walter to compartmentalize his negative actions and continue to consider himself a good person. He used the name to garner the praise of his associates and enemies. He used it to feel powerful. Primarily, though, he used it to protect himself from the truth – that he was a criminal and a murderer. He used it to maintain his feelings of grandiosity as both a dying martyr, racing death to provide for his family, and a criminal mastermind who was unparalleled in intelligence, ruthlessness, cunning, and chemistry.
As his ego grows to become the only aspect of his personality, jealousy consumes Walter. He is jealous of his son’s preference for his mother and uncle. He is jealous when Jesse becomes close with Mike and Gus. He is jealous when Gale is given credit for his work. He is jealous of the lavish lifestyle that his former partners are able to afford. Despite the abundant evidence of insecurity, Walter consistently assumes that everyone is jealous of him and his empire building abilities.
Walter White is one of the worst people cast as a main character in the history of television, but we were collectively on his side for the duration, no matter how ruthless and narcissistic he became. This isn’t exactly out of the ordinary. Tony Soprano, Nancy Botwin, Nucky Thompson, and Dexter Morgan are all examples of horrible ‘hero’ characters. I wouldn’t even consider them anti-heroes, they are much closer to villains, and truthfully are unlikeable, yet we remain steadfastly in their corner week after week.
As we have become more narcissistic as a culture, we increasingly identify with narcissistic characters in our entertainment. Gone are the days of the good guy in the white hat. We have no interest in that. Give us characters with ruthless ambition, who get what they want, when they want it, no matter the cost. Nobody really cares that these characters are usually the bad guys. It takes far too long for the good guys to earn enough cash to fill a storage unit, and we are no longer in the business of waiting for what we want as a society.