Breaking Bad: The evolution of Walter White

By Hannah Tattersall

Hannah Tattersall reflects on the evolution of Walter White

Bryan Cranston facing off against his brother-in-law in the fifth and final season.
Bryan Cranston facing off against his brother-in-law in the fifth and final season.

This story contains spoilers for episode S05E09 of Breaking Bad, entitled Blood Money.

In 2004, former The X-Files writer Vince Gilligan was casting around for something new to work on. A friend made a joke about Gilligan putting a meth lab in the back of a campervan and driving around trying to make money while he waited for the next project to come along.

Of course, anyone familiar with Breaking Bad will immediately recognise the seed from which that show - about a high-school chemistry teacher named Walter White who builds a meth lab inside an campervan - was born.

"Very quickly this character presented himself to me, this character that I did not have a name for but that would become Walter White," explains Gilligan.

Breaking Bad, along with shows such as The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men, are often cited as being responsible for the third golden age of television.

What each has in common is a compelling anti-hero for whom audiences continue to battle despite their flaws.

These shows are also much like novels, written with an ending in mind and characters that grow and evolve as the series progresses. Fans may not want Breaking Bad to end, but they also realise it must. Setting it apart from other shows on television is the fact that its protagonist changes dramatically from the first episode to the last: over the course of five seasons Walter is transformed from a meek and mild chemistry teacher with a terminal illness, into Albuquerque's most notorious drug kingpin, code-named Heisenberg.

"Every action that we take in our lives has a reaction as well, whether big or small - and this is not something I see typically in television," says Gilligan of his character's trajectory. "Television is about status and maintaining characters in the parameters that we know and love them ... There's a comfort in knowing that you tune in and get the same character."

Walt, however, is a completely different person in the first and final episodes. "He was very much a law-abiding citizen who by force of will and extraneous circumstances decided to become a bad guy, decided to become a criminal," says Gilligan. "That's what was interesting to me from that initial moment of conception and it's what's interested me ever since."

The actor who has brought that character to life over the past five seasons is Bryan Cranston. Having cast him in an episode of The X-Files and seen his comedy work on Malcolm in the Middle, he was the only actor Gilligan knew who could play someone so frightening yet likeable at the same time.

The wide-ranging role, in which he plays a teacher, father, husband, meth cook and murderer all at the same time, has been "the greatest role of my life", Cranston says. "Usually they go, 'okay you're the vixen, the slut, the kidnapper, you're the goofy fun neighbour' and you usually stay in your slot. And mine just goes all over the place. That's why I didn't get bored. I was always looking forward to the next script, ready to go. It constantly surprised me."

Apart from the transformation of its central character, over the years Breaking Bad has delivered its fair share of memorable moments. There's the pilot episode where audiences first meet Walt in a pair of tighty whiteys; the episode where Walt's sidekick Jesse Pinkman (played by Aaron Paul) dissolves a dead body in acid in the bathtub, only to have it drop through the floor. There's the episode where the severed head of drug criminal "Tortuga" appears on a live tortoise and then blows up; and of course the unforgettable finale to series four where meth leader and chicken shop owner Gustavo Fring walks out of a nursing home, adjusts his tie and reveals half his face has just been blown to smithereens.

Series five has been split into two parts. At the end of the first part, we saw Walt's brother-in-law, DEA agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), sitting on the toilet and having a revelation - Walt was the mysterious Heisenberg, who he's been looking for all this time.

"All along it was YOU," Hank shouts in Monday night's opening episode. "I will put you under the jail!"

"In six months you won't have someone to prosecute," replies Walt, who is dying from terminal cancer. "Maybe your best course would be to tread lightly."

Norris, whose Hank started off the show as comic relief but who evolved through the seasons says the series coming to an end is bittersweet.

He says the success of the show comes down to its ability to mix intimate moments with larger, operatic scenes and its blend of comedy and drama - that toilet scene is a great example.

As for the finish, Norris says his character, Hank, is in a tough situation. "The only good ending would be if he somehow maintains his dignity and his moral core - which I think he has, for better or worse, sometimes to his detriment. If he can end the game somehow with his inner dignity intact, that's a good thing."

Of course, the main thing everyone wants to know is what will become of Walter White. Will he die of natural causes or otherwise? In eight more episodes will come the answer. It's not likely to be pretty.

What: Breaking Bad, part two of the fifth and final season
When and Where: SoHo from Monday, 9.30pm (repeated Thursdays 7.30pm)
Also: Part one of Breaking Bad season five screens from today at 4.20pm

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