Macbeth and Walter White: the death of the tragic hero

This post is about the conclusion of Breaking Bad and contains spoilers.

A tragedy such as Shakespeare’s Macbeth has to end with insight for the tragic hero and catharsis for the audience. The last episode of Breaking Bad broadcast on Sunday, September 29th had both. As a result, it left its viewers stunned but satisfied.

Macbeth realized how futile his murderous efforts to seize power had been when his beloved wife and partner went mad and killed herself. He had already concluded that his power had been paid for with loss of friendship and respect:

And that which should accompany old age,
As honour troops of friends,
I must not look to have, but in their stead
Curses, not loud but deep,

After Lady Macbeth’s death, his despair deepened:

Out, out brief candle,Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is seen no more.

Nevertheless, he whales into battle, vowing “At least we’ll die with harness on our back”. He refuses to “play the Roman fool” and fall upon his sword when it is obvious that he will lose the battle. “Lay on, Macduff, and damned be he who first cries ‘Hold, enough’.  Exeunt fighting. The next sight we have of Macbeth is his severed head, flaunted by Macduff.

He became an awful man and we are truly glad he is dead, but we are also sad and shocked by his catastrophe. Pity and fear have washed us clean.

Walter White was of the same sort of heroic stature.

His insight is clear when he confronts his wife Skylar in her downmarket accommodations. When he begins to talk about why he did it all, she says, “I don’t want to hear you say you did it for the family once more.” He continues, “I did it for myself. It made me feel alive.”

He has already arranged for his few remaining millions to be transferred to his son in trust on his 18th birthday, ostensibly from his wealthy ex- business partner and philanthropist. He sets out to rid the world of Lydia, who now owns his meth business – ricin in her stevia, Todd, Uncle Jack and his gang, in the process freeing Jesse from enslavement. He does not take revenge on Jesse when he has the opportunity nor does he force Jesse to shot him. He even acknowledges that he wants to die.

We see him in the meth lab, caressing a piece of apparatus – he loved what he achieved, 97% pure blue crystal meth. He was a brilliant chemist. Only then does he realize he has been shot – in the right lung. He falls to the floor of the lab. From high above, we see the police enter and stream around his body as the Badfinger lovingly sings, “It’s all over now, Baby Blue”.

Insight and catharsis! Like chemistry, tragedy is all about transformation.

See also

Macmeth: Walter White begins his tragic fall

“Macmeth” turned up as a search word used to get to my blog, so I decided to put it into Google myself. There I found a series of short videos posted on Youtube, beginning with the 3 witches in a decidedly un-90%-pure lab, said witches sporting southern drawls and declaiming really bad lines. On a later post, we were told these scenes were intentionally bad. Wise disclaimer. I once had a grade 11 class that did a Jamaician Macbeth, which was really funny and also referenced illegal substances. Alas, we were living in the dark ages then and it didn’t make it to Youtube.

Here you are if you are interested:

This post is a follow-up to my previous post, “Walter White: A Macbeth for our time” in which I looked at the protagonist of Breaking Bad and compared him to Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Now to get back to Walter White. SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t watched Sunday, Sept 2nd’s show, turn back, turn back!

Unless like me, knowing the ending just adds to your pleasure. Yes, I read the end of novels first, even sometimes mysteries. So you see I am in a unique position: I understand the pure evil that lurks in the human heart: evil bad enough to read endings first.

It was Tuesday morning before I could sit down to watch. I had had my admin assistant (Joyce) clear my calendar. Then I had the cook (Joyce again) prepare me a light lunch and serve it to me (Guess who? Joyce) in front of the television set. It takes a lot of person-power to keep the renowned critic going. I wasn’t unprepared, my sister, Georgia took time out of her birthday celebration to describe the entire plot of “Gliding Over All”, the final episode in this half of season five, the last season.

Look at the reviews and you will see that people are seriously ticked off at Walter. He didn’t actually shoot the kid on the dirt bike in the desert, who saw them robbing the train of thousands of gallons of the meth precursor. That was trigger-happy Todd. And it is possible that if the child had been allowed to live, he wouldn’t have caused a problem. After that, Jesse had a breakdown and refused to continue as Walt’s assistant cooker. Mike, who was in charge of distributing, also opted out, but, alas, Hank, Walt’s DEA brother-in-law, seized Mike’s money. When Mike sought to flee, he didn’t get far. Walt suddenly shot him in the stomach and he died sitting on a river bank, saying, “Let me die in peace”.

By now Walt has not only contributed to the inevitable decline of all his blue meth users, he has had Jesse kill his rival Gale Boetticher, he has poisoned a child with Lily-of-the-valley, he has arranged for a paralyzed pensioner to blow himself up taking his archenemy Fring with him, blown up Fring’s state of the art meth lab -complete with eyewash stations and safety equipment, robbed a train, allowed the boy’s murder, shot Mike and in this episode, arranges for the murder of 9 of Mike’s crew and their lawyer.

How does that stack up against Macbeth? Well, he began by carving up his king who was his cousin, who had honoured him lately with a new title and who was a guest in Glamis, Macbeth’s castle. He went on to eliminate his friend and fellow officer, Banquo, but failed to kill Banquo’s son, Fleance. He attacked Macduff’s castle and finding that Macduff had fled to England, made do by murdering Lady Macduff and their children. Meanwhile he ran the country into the ground. The people turned against the once popular general and a great military force was being marshalled to invade Scotland.

Is Macbeth worried? No. For the three witches have promised that no man born of woman could kill him and that he will reign until Birnam Woods shall come to Dunsinane. He hadn’t apparently heard of Caesarean birth, although Macduff had and even those who never read the play can figure out how a woods can move. By then Macbeth is grief-stricken over his lady’s suicide. He’s has had enough. He cries, “Lay on Macduff and damned be he who first cries hold, enough!”

I have been known to cry that myself.

So what of Walter White? Certainly he is a tragic hero about to meet his downfall. There is speculation that his cancer has come back. After his MRI he looks at the towel holder in the washroom that still bears the imprint of his fist, but he is completely controlled. Something is going to knock him off his prideful perch. The cancer? Some disaster relating to a child of his? Some machination of Lydia who thinks she has a deal that he will supply the Czechs with his great product? How can he in fact step back out of the meth business?

And then there is Hank who has discovered an inscription in a book in Walt’s bathroom, a book of Walt Whitman’s poems, that leads him to remember the “W.W” in Gale Boetticher’s notebook and what Walt said about it. Whatever else happens in next summer’s season, Hank will have to pursue Walter, without somehow bringing himself down in the process.

Ah, those were simpler times, back in Macbeth’s day. Evil comes in more shades now, not those 50 shades of gray, but black and ever blacker.

The worst downfall might be that Walter gets to live with what he has done.

Walter White, a Macbeth for our time

I’m on the point of cancelling a week at a cottage. So far my satellite company has not posted Sunday’s schedule and I can’t set my TIVO/PVR to record Breaking Bad. I am supposed to leave tomorrow morning, but how can I go away and leave Jesse at the mercy of an ever-worsening Walt?

I know. I’m deranged. That’s what comes of watching Season 4 in its entirety and the first  4 episodes of Season 5 in 4 days.

I’m catching up. I saw only an episode here and there in the first 3 seasons, but when Season 5, episode 1 proved incomprehensible -what happened to Ted and why is it Skylar’s fault? how did Walt blow up the meth lab? what happened to the little kid?- I decided to back track to season 4. By a miracle, I actually found Big Daddy Video up on Dundas St., next door to a shuttered Blockbuster. (I haven’t made the jump to an Apple box and Netflix obviously.) There was a flaw in my plan, of course, because there were things I didn’t get about the beginning of Season 4 because I hadn’t seen Season 3. Never mind.

What I want to say is that Walt is a latter day Macbeth, a good, highly competent person who makes a choice to go over to the dark side.

Macbeth is the charismatic leader of King Duncan’s army and has just successfully defeated a rebellion against the old king. The throne of Scotland is not strictly hereditary, Duncan’s son is young and inexperienced and if Macbeth had not been so impatient, he might well have become king without resorting to violence. In addition, he has the three wryd sisters plotting to make him the devil’s agent and his social-climbing wife calling him a coward if he does not take the knife to Duncan, his cousin and a guest in his castle.

Walt has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, has lost his job as a high school chemistry teacher and, therefore, has no medical insurance. He has a teenaged son with physical disabilities and, at this point, a new-born daughter. Knowing he is going to die sooner rather than later, he wants to provide for them and what better way than to become the cook of the purest methamphetamine possible.

Walt’s wife Skylar is not instrumental in pushing Walt into a life of crime. Initially, he keeps it a secret from her. But by Season 4, she is in on the act and is laundering the money, always cash of course that he is making. And she is making decisions that are equally questionable.

Macbeth has a good friend in Banquo, who is almost his equal in Duncan’s army, just as Walt has his former student, Jesse, almost his equal as a chemical genius. Banquo and Jesse enable an exploration of the theme of loyalty, although Banquo doesn’t survive until Act 5 as Jesses has.

Duncan, the good, mild old king has a polar opposite in Gus, the cold, meticulous target of Walt’s homicidal urge.

At first after the initial murder, Macbeth’s true nature asserts itself and he is appalled by what he has done. Lady Macbeth imagines that she is not so lily-livered and goes back to the murder scene to plant the knives on the drunken guards. After that, Macbeth grows in evil, committing or commissioning murder after murder, reaching his lowest point when he has children slaughtered.

Surely, you say, Walt would not stoop to that. Watch Season 4 very carefully. And what about all those meth heads that hung out at Jesse’s?

Walt’s brother-in-law, Hank, the DEA agent takes the role of nemesis, the agent of justice, and has only narrowly failed to catch the cook of pure meth, nicknamed Heisenberg. Macbeth’s nemesis is Macduff, he who lost “all his little ones”.

The trouble for viewers is that they actually want the hero (protagonist is just such a long word) to succeed. At least at first. And what does that say about us?

True most people have gone off  Macbeth by the time Banquo’s ghost crashes the banquet, although we may falter momentarily when Lady Mac, who was not so tough after all, kills herself. “My way of life is fallen into the sere and yellow leaf….” By the end, Macbeth is dead as he should be, a truly tragic figure for he could have been so much more.

Walt is getting nastier and nastier and more remote from human relationships. Even Skylar is afraid of him. Without a doubt, the second half of Season 5 when it arrives next year, will bring us Walt’s demise as well. Will we still be cheering for him?

Hey, I just remembered. The cottage gets the same satellite service as this place does. I’ll just have to arm wrestle the remote away from the other 10 people staying there.