When Breaking Bad premiered in 2008, series creator Vince Gilligan said his mission was to transform his protagonist, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), from Mr. Chips to Scarface.
Four seasons later (the fifth season premiere, "Live Free or Die," debuted last night), Walt has been directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of scores of people. Many, many more than Scarface. So many that I've lost count. Here are the deaths that I can recall off the top of my head (remember, Walt didn't murder all of these people with his own hands, but he did initiate them in one way or another):
That's 178 people, and I'm sure I'm forgetting a whole bunch.
Incredibly, all of these deaths occurred in less than a two year period within the show's internal chronology.
To put the scale of Walt's descent into villainy in perspective: after a few minutes of the most morbid Googling I've ever done, I discovered that Walter White's body count of at least 178 would be tied with the bombings in Kano, Nigeria for 24th on the all-time deadliest terrorism attacks list. He would be the 4th deadliest serial killer ever, just behind the Chicago World's Fair killer of the 1890s, H.H. Holmes.
It's not just the countless murders that make Walt a world-class scumbag. He's committed plenty of non-lethal acts of villainy since his lung cancer diagnosis. First and foremost, he dragged Jesse (Aaron Paul), his former student and a kid in desperate need of a positive male role model, down the rabbit hole with him. By Breaking Bad's standards, Jesse is a relatively moral human being. His heart is 96.2 percent pure gold, and yet he took another man's life at the behest of "Mr. White."
Walt is a guy who tried to force himself on his pregnant wife, he missed the birth of his daughter to meet with a meth kingpin, he creepily came onto his boss at school (to be fair Skyler had just "I.F.T.-ed"), he poisoned a child, he scammed Eyebrows McGillicutty out of his business, he got his handicapped and underage son drunk on tequila, he tricked his elderly neighbor into acting as a decoy for cartel hit men, he blew up a wing of a nursing home and risked the lives of dozens of old folks.
The Walter White of Season Five is just as villainous as ever, if not more so. If one were to chart Walt's evilness, I suspect it would resemble an exponential growth curve. He wasn't always always a bad guy; it took him a while to work up to it. Clearly one can't go from Mr. Chips to Scarface without being Mr. Chips first. But once the ball was rolling, it picked up steam and there was no stopping it.
What makes Walt's particular brand of villainy so terrifying is his lack of remorse, his lack of empathy and compassion even for the people closest to him. It should be noted that concern for the people closest to him is what drove him to cook meth in the first place. At this point, he's cooking meth (and killing his enemies) for no one but himself. He could have walked away a dozen times, but something inside of him has turned rotted and turned black. And for that there is no remission in sight.
No only does he lack remorse, the Walter White of Season Five (and parts of the last couple of seasons) takes a perverse pride in his evilness. For him, being "the man who knocks" is a badge of honor. While Walt doesn't commit any particular heinous acts in "Live Free or Die", it's clear that the awful things he's done in the past have metastasized into a terrible arrogance, a feeling of invincibility. His (well, Jesse's actually) plan to use magnets to destroy surveillance footage works because he says so. Saul's time with Walt, which has routinely put his life in jeopardy, ends when Walt says it ends.
There is a particularly memorable scene in "Live Free or Die" during which Walt lovingly goo-goo-ga-ga's with his infant daughter while a terrified Skyler (Anna Gunn) watches in silence. As awful as Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) could be, we never shuddered when he dropped by Meadow's dorm with cannolis or broke A.J.'s balls while stuffing gabagool down his gullet.
All of this anecdotal evidence begs the question: Is Walter White the greatest villain in the history of television? The question is, of course, subjective and the answer is impossible to prove. Regardless, it's a fascinating argument. If Walt isn't the all-time king of evil, who gets your vote? Extra credit for anyone who votes for Veena Sud. Chime in with your thoughts in the comments section.
Yeah, bitch. Magnets, oooh!
This story was written by TVGA Chief Breaking Bad Correspondent Lucas High.