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.