Breaking Bad: The Appeal of Walter White
How is it possible for an audience to watch a television character deceive, steal, and kill for five years and still root for him? To answer the question, Aristotle, who says that “there are three things, besides demonstrations, which an audience believes. These are intelligence, virtue, and goodwill,” has an answer (Golden 73). However, even Aristotle has his limitations. Modern psychological research also explains the audience’s appeal towards Walter White. He justifies what he does by saying that everything is for his family. The audience believes him because he demonstrates character (integrity), intelligence (capacity to act), and good will (others’ perceptions of your intentions as good), thus, continues to root for him.
Walter White does not have integrity; his moral character is shady. Nevertheless, he appears to show integrity, and that is enough to believe his justification. According to Golden (talking about Aristotle), someone’s character is the “speaker’s integrity judged by the apparent truthfulness of the statements he or she made” (73). And that is the main difference, between appearance and reality, Walter White seems truthful, and the audience believes him. He appears to be a good high school teacher, a good husband, and a good father, so there is no reason to turn against him. He is innocent until proven guilty. His son, on a website he created to help fund his father’s cancer treatment, describes him as “amazing, and funny,” and “after [their] family, chemistry, and teaching kids, is what he loves the best” (“Walter White”). By presenting a good teacher, father, and husband façade, and being reinforced by his son, Walter White establishes his character and integrity.
Moreover, the audience believes Walter because there is a truth bias. The truth bias states that everybody assumes friends and family are telling the truth instead of lying. In a research study, half of the participants paired with friends and the other half with strangers. Both friends and strangers lied to the participants, but the results showed that people were more accurate at detecting deception by strangers than by friends (Floyd 424). People scrutinized more the strangers’ messages than friends’ messages because the truth bias, the tendency to believe people are truthful in nature, was stronger with friends than with strangers. If Walter White appears integral, his son, his wife, and the audience believe him. He is innocent until proven guilty. There is no reason to turn against him, so the audience believes his initial reasoning.
Walter White is not only intelligent, he is a genius, which makes him a more believable character. As his son said: “he’s annoyingly smart. I mean, super brainiac annoying” (“Walter White”). In one of Walter’s genius moments, he and Jesse got stranded in the desert with no water, a dead battery, and a dead cell phone. In a desperate attempt to survive, Jesse challenges Walter to “think of something scientific” (Catlin). Then, Jesse suggests to “pick some of these chemicals and mix up some rocket fuel,” or even build a “dune buggy” (Catlin). Even with the idiotic suggestions, Walter comes up with a solution: to create a battery with money change, “washers and nuts and bolts and screws and whatever little pieces of metal we can think of that is galvanized” (Catlin). Genius.
His idea works, and they survive the desert. Walter’s intelligence and capacity to come out of the most difficult situations make him an enviable character. Not only in Aristotle’s mind but in American pop culture, intelligence is valuable to someone regardless of the way he or she uses it, i.e. every anti-hero in television. Not only Walter, but characters like Dexter, Tony Soprano, and even Dr. House are as intelligent as a super-evolved dolphin descended from dolphin Stephen Hawking. The audience loves it. These characters, due to their intelligence, are always ahead of the game, and the audience is in for the game. The audience is ahead of other characters along with Walter, so they feel just as intelligent. It does not matter if their intelligence is for evil or to survive because the audience recognizes his genius, and, in turn, goes along for the ride. The audience recognizes Walter’s intelligence, feels as intelligent as him, and loves him for it.
Finally, Walter White shows good will, which is what holds the good relationship between the audience and him together. Walter’s moral justification for his criminal life is to provide for his family. He has cancer, no health insurance, and no money to leave to his family, so becoming a drug dealer to make easy money and leave it to his family is the logical choice for him. Whether his real intention for becoming a criminal is his family or not is irrelevant because a character’s good will is “judged in terms of the listeners’ best interests,” and the listeners’ best interests are to root for the character they already like (Golden 73). In the same way as integrity, Walter appears to have good will, so the audience goes with it.
Walter first establishes his integrity and intelligence, among other things, which forms a bond between the audience and him. Then, he establishes his good will by saying that all that he does is for his family. At this point the audience has two choices to make: he is either telling the truth or not. If the audience believes him, then they can continue to watch the show without moral regret, but if the audience decides that he is lying, then they have to either continue watching a liar commit crimes, or stop watching. Thus, it is in the listeners’ best interests to follow Walter’s logic. Walter’s “good will” is what holds everything together.
Although Walter White is a fictional character, the way the series portrays him and the way he makes decisions show those of a real human being. And here, Aristotle reaches his limitations. Even though Aristotle was a great thinker, and some would even call him an early psychologist, his understanding of human nature is not as insightful compared to the knowledge gathered by modern psychology. The understanding of evil, and how people make decisions is better explained by psychologists such as Steven Pinker than by Aristotle. Nevertheless, Aristotle explains why we like Walter, but not how we like him. Breaking Bad is truthful in its representation of human decision-making, and with the help of modern psychology, the understanding of Walter goes beyond Aristotle.
But first, if Walter White reflects real people, there are characters in life that show character, intelligence, good will, and some type of evil behavior, and yet be liked. So, let’s look at Hitler. Now, breathe. It might be hard to imagine Hitler as a human being today since Hitler equals evil in popular culture. But Hitler “had a point of view, and historians tell us that it was a highly moralistic one” (Pinker 495). From his point of view, he saw “Germany’s sudden and unexpected defeat in World War I and concluded that it could be explained only by the treachery of an internal enemy” (Pinker 495). Of course, he was wrong, but he appeared to have goodwill: “a moral vision in which heroic sacrifices would bring about a thousand-year utopia” (Pinker 495). He was a good and charismatic public speaker, and he was also an intelligent man.
The façade that Hitler used to commit treacherous acts is like Walter’s own appearances. Of course in the spectrum of evil acts, Walter does not get near Hitler, but both “evildoers always think they are acting morally” (Pinker 494). One is doing it for the financial betterment of his family and the other of his nation. Both are great strategists, and as long as they meet their goals, they do not hesitate to act. Finally, they try to appear integral, when in fact they are not. Photographs of Hitler holding a baby, or playing with kids are not uncommon. Just as Hitler appeared to have, in its time and to his followers, moral character, Walter White appears moral to his most rabid fans. Breaking Bad appeals to the audience because it gives a moralistic goal to his fans.
The Audience Lets Evil be Evil
Aristotle states three characteristics to prove ethos; Walter White follows them. By showing character, intelligence, and then holding it together with good will, Walter White does not become another criminal, he is a righteous man doing everything possible to help his family, just like Hitler. If the audience does not believe his claim, then his righteousness falls into pieces. Yet, the audience believes him. The audience roots for him. He poisoned an innocent kid, yet the audience does not seem to care. The audience wants him to get away with it. The audience lets Walter be evil; justifies his evil. His evil is not a mysterious force that tempts him from the underground but a man killing for his family, a criminal who needs money to survive, a Walter White with a strong ethos. Evil is mundane. Nevertheless, the audience has the power to shatter his righteousness into pieces, but the audience, quite blindly, justifies his actions. The audience lets him be evil. The audience shouldn’t justify evil. The audience shouldn’t let evil be evil.
Catlin, Sam, and Vince Gilligan. “4 Days Out.” Breaking Bad. AMC. Albuquerque, New Mexico, 3 May 2009. Television.
Floyd, K. (2009). Interpersonal communication: The Whole Story. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Golden, James L., Goodwin F. Berquist, and William E. Coleman. The Rhetoric of Western Thought. 9th ed. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Pub., 2009. Print.
Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking, 2011. Print.
“Walter White.” Save Walter White. Web. 16 May 2016.
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