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"Walter White is a brilliant man and an accomplished liar who lies best to himself."
Vince Gilligan
Season 3 Walt

Walt with his money.

Walter White starts off as a milquetoast, highly overqualified high school chemistry teacher. The job does not pay well, so to supplement his income, he has another job at the local car wash. Though hired to work the register, his boss forces him to wash cars outside, which often proves to be extremely humiliating when he has to clean the cars of his students. At home, his sex life appears to be passionless; Skyler seems more involved in selling their household items on eBay than sharing an intimate moment in the bedroom, and Walt has trouble getting "inspired" in any case. Furthermore, Walt has an alpha-male brother-in-law, Hank, who has a flashy job as a DEA agent and is infinitely more impressive to Walt Jr. than his own father. It is clear from the start that Walt is suffering from a mid-life crisis. He feels frustrated, overwhelmed, beaten down, stretched thin, passed over, cheated, unappreciated, emasculated, exploited, and unfulfilled. Even the field where he has the most skill, chemistry, falls on the deaf ears of his disrespectful, apathetic students. Even before his diagnosis, Walt felt like a failure, unable to adequately provide for his family and fulfill the role expected of him by American society. The news of his terminal lung cancer leaves Walt numb and he shows almost no emotion upon learning of it, as if he was already dead. Learning that his life will be unexpectedly cut short, coupled with the knowledge that he's going to leave his already financially struggling family bankrupt, is the final slap in the face, the last humiliating insult life can dish out.


Walt attempting to burn much of his drug money ("No Más")

When Walt partners up with Jesse to make meth, he claims that his motivation is his family. He says that before he dies he wants to be able to take care of his loved ones. He wants Skyler to be able to pay off the mortgage, to cover college educations for his children, and medical bills for the whole family. At one point he even calculates an exact figure of how much money he needs to make in order to provide the essentials for his family over the next 20 years ($737,000), and then he'd quit selling drugs once he reaches that number. While deciding to make meth is morally dubious, the anger Walt feels about having to scrounge for every dollar while being trapped in an monotonous cycle, his life passing by day by day without any job or fulfillment, is legitimate, and it's compounded by the importance placed on the "traditional" patriarchal family unit, as well as the pressure and expectation put on men to provide for their families.

After surviving his first foray into the dangerous drug underworld - a foray that was life threatening, terrifying, and violent - Walt feels invigorated for the first time in years. He goes home and sleeps with his wife. Skyler, surprised by his sudden sexual advance, asks, "Walt, is that you?!" as she gasps for breath. When Jesse questions Walt about his decision to enter the meth business, Walt reveals that he feels "awake." In addition to his chemistry expertise, Walt was shown to be a good mental calculator, as he calculated most of the numbers to his deals within his head and with no calculator.

Walt more frequently uses the concept of providing for and protecting his family as a justification for his actions and crimes, but his true motivations are gradually revealed to be personal satisfaction, pride, authority, and power. He wants to shed the image of the nerdy science teacher who can't take care of his family. Walt wants respect, and wishes to seek revenge against the society that he views as having screwed him over, undervalued his worth, and overlooked his potential. Walt does what he does to give himself a sense of worth and pride, and he justifies his murderous, nearly insatiable greed by claiming he's just doing it for the good of his loved ones even as he pushes them away. Underneath that thinly veiled altruistic excuse is a naked desire to dominate others for the sake of unfettered growth and power. Walt finally reveals to Skyler in the final episode of the series that truly everything he did was for himself, admitting he enjoyed it and that it made him feel alive.


Walt inspecting his "Heisenberg" hat ("Fifty-One")

Series creator Vince Gilligan has described his goal with Walt as "turning Mr. Chips into Scarface", and he deliberately made the character less and less sympathetic over the course of the series. Gilligan said, "He's going from being a protagonist to an antagonist. We want to make people question who they're pulling for, and why." Over the course of the series, Walt has evolved - or devolved - into a ruthless, dangerous and amoral drug kingpin; a man willing to ruin and even end lives in the pursuit of greater riches and, more importantly, the nourishment of his own ego. As he says, he's in the "empire business." He wants to conquer, dominate, to bend the world to his will, and enrich himself without limit for the sake of obtaining power, even if it means to hurt or kill other people.

Maybe he's still out there

Walt suggesting to Hank that Heisenberg could "still be out there".

Walt is an extremely prideful, egotistical and arrogant man who takes criticism extremely poorly and his pride blinds him to the point that he makes poor and costly decisions despite having high intelligence. Despite his massive ego, he does have genuine insecurities though he almost always refuses to acknowledge or confront them. A notable example of his fragile pride and ego is evident when he and Skyler need to buy a business to launder their drug money, Walt becomes determined to purchase the very same car wash that wounded his pride when Skyler mentions that the owner, Bogdan, insulted his manhood. Walt also refuses to let Bogdan keep his framed dollar on the wall, and out of spite he decides to use that dollar to buy a soda from the vending machine ("Cornered"). Walt's pride, ego and arrogance is what keeps him from accepting any form of financial aid such as Gretchen and Elliot's "charity" (offering to pay for his treatment) and an offer to return to Gray Matter and is further shown by his barely concealed fury and disgust at his son asking for donations through the website Furthermore, he tells his son Walt Jr that he doesn't want to be remembered as a weak, dying man ("Salud"). He later even kills Mike in an ego-driven rage for having insulted him and blaming their failures on his pride, ego and desire to upstage everyone ("Say My Name"). While drunk at Hank and Marie's house, Walt's can't stand listening to Hank (who has ended his involvement with the case) laud Gale's genius. A prideful Walt insists Gale was not a genius, but was rather copying off someone else's work and that this genius could still be at large. This action convinces Hank to re-open the case, which eventually leads him to evidence incriminating Gus ("Shotgun") and Walt himself ("Gliding Over All").

It is evident that Walt is also a complete hypocrite and his beliefs and claimed moral standards rarely conform to his own behavior. His hypocrisy is mainly exemplified by his common excuse and justification that his reasons for becoming a meth manufacturer and kingpin are solely to provide for and protect his family when in reality it is all for his own interest and pure enjoyment, with his family's welfare being barely a second priority and constantly makes decisions that only further endanger his family. Walt also rarely, if ever, admits responsibility for problems that are clearly his own fault and is quick to blame others and find an excuse for said problems. Notable examples of his ignorance in this regard include him bitterly blaming his former colleagues Gretchen and Elliot for ruining his life and stealing his work all the while completely ignoring the fact that he himself chose to leave the business he helped to co-fund, later revealed to be due to feelings of inferiority to Gretchen's family and set himself down pathways to failure. Another noted example is evident when he blames Mike for screwing up and putting the DEA on his own trail while refusing to admit that his killing of Gus did nothing but cause disaster and put the DEA on all of Gus' former associates. Walt's severe ignorance makes him almost the polar opposite of Jesse who actually faces and feels remorse for what he has done and accepts responsibility for it. This is highlighted by Jesse blaming himself for Jane's death (even though Walt is responsible) and the subsequent aircraft disaster caused by her father, Donald while Walt is quick to point out other variables such as a possible radar malfunction and poor technology and overall claiming he blames the government for the disaster rather than himself.

Every time Walt comes up against someone with more power than he does, instead of retreating he systematically destroys them directly or indirectly and takes their place, starting with Krazy-8, then Tuco, Gus, and finally Mike, until only he is left holding the keys to the kingdom. He is shown to possess a kingpin's unbeatable survival skills: sociopathy, cunning, emotional manipulation, meticulousness, and violence – or at least the threat thereof. Bryan Cranston said by the fourth season: "I think Walt's figured out it's better to be a pursuer than the pursued. He's well on his way to badass. Over the course of the series, he’s evolved as a businessman, but he’s turned into a sociopath in both his personal and professional lives. He’s shed basic empathy and has no idea how much his colleagues and wife loathe him."

5x08 Walt

Walt orchestrating the mass jail killings ("Gliding Over All").

As Walt delves deeper into the criminal underworld he increasingly sees people as expendable pawns, who he either manipulates to further his interests or eliminates. Early on such as in Season 1, Walt has great difficulty bringing himself to murder, but by the end of Season 3, he barely gives killing a second thought as shown by ordering Jesse to murder Gale to ensure their own survival and later was also capable of poisoning a young child without any remorse at all. Nothing can stand in the way of his growing empire, and being in the position of power numbs his empathy for other human beings. He also comes to find his new status as a drug lord as psychologically rewarding, leading him to become less and less reluctant to resort to criminal acts such as theft, extortion, money laundering, and murder and shows signs of pleasure, enthusiasm and even a sort of depraved indifference in these acts to a degree. Walt's Machiavellian descent into the criminal underworld reveals a surprising level of repressed ambition, rage, resentment, vanity, and an increasing ruthlessness which has alienated him from his family and colleagues.

Walt proves himself to be a natural liar. According to Vince Gilligan, "[Walt] is a man who lies to his family, lies to his friends, lies to the world about who he truly is. But what I think makes him a standout liar is that first and foremost he is lying to himself." Even Skyler, who deceived Marie by telling Walter's money came from gambling, said that her talent of lying had come from "the best", referencing Walt. It is also interesting to note that, even though he refuses to admit it, Walt appears on numerous occasions to be itching for the chance to tell his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank that he is Heisenberg, the mild mannered chemistry teacher that everyone's always overlooked and laughed at, who's been the mastermind behind the legendary blue meth all along. This shows to an extent that Walt is more than willing to be exposed and arrested for his crimes and take all the credit and recognition as the mastermind rather than have anyone else, such as Gale, receive any credit for his work.

Despite his evolution in a ruthless, amoral drug kingpin, Walt still refused to ever physically hurt his family, growing angry at Saul's suggestion to kill Hank even after he learned that Walt was Heisenberg and threatened that he would do all in his power to bring Walt to justice. Before Jack killed Hank, Walt begged and bargained for Hank's life with his entire $80,000,000 fortune and was utterly broken when Jack fired the shot. Getting revenge on Jack and his men became one of his driving motivations in the final episode of the series in order to avenge his brother-in-law's death and protect his family from being harmed by the murderous gang. His final actions were also driven by his pride, returning to Albuquerque after seeing his former colleagues discredit him on television. Walt was also greatly against the idea of killing Jesse until it seemed necessary to him, and at the end took a bullet to save Jesse's life during the massacre of Jack, Todd and their crew, leading to Walt's demise as well, going out on his own terms.

"Heisenberg" persona[]

"There was a moment nobody ever really wrote about in the first or second season...when he was in remission from his cancer and he decided even though his hair was growing back, he decided to shave his head some more. And that was big thing for me because it made a statement that he was truly accepting this new life of his."
Bryan Cranston about Walter White[src]
Season 4 - Heisenberg

Walt in his "Heisenberg" attire

Walt borrowed his "Heisenberg" pseudonym from the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Werner Heisenberg, a physicist and chemist who was also diagnosed with lung cancer. The German physicist is most famous for the Uncertainty Principle, which in its most basic form speaks to the general probabilistic, uncertain nature of quantum mechanics - Heisenberg's uncertainty principle holds that even if some properties are known, other equally important properties will be uncertain.

Walt's Heisenberg persona is first "born" when Walt goes to confront Tuco after Tuco beat up Jesse and took his meth without paying. As a result of hair loss caused by chemotherapy, Walt shaved his head earlier that episode. When Tuco asks him who he is, Walt introduces himself as "Heisenberg" for the first time ("Crazy Handful of Nothin'"). Bryan Cranston said, "I think he takes on that name - and that look - in order to not recognize himself. That as long as he doesn't recognize the man in the mirror, he can sort of keep going." As his first action as Heisenberg, Walt throws a piece of fulminated mercury onto the floor, triggering a large explosion. Vince Gilligan said, "For my money, this is the moment in the series where he really breaks bad."

In his entire adult life, Walt had been capping his emotions, and he begins to feel more as he embraces the darker side of his personality. The sides of Walt's personality have been described as "sociopath and family man, scientist and killer, rational being and creature of impulse, entrepreneur and a loser." Walt eventually transforms fully into his Heisenberg drug kingpin persona, which makes him confident, strong, authoritative, patient, manipulative, and cruel. As Heisenberg, Walt prefers to die in a fight and leave a legacy (good or bad) instead of giving in. The argument can be made that the cancer was merely a catalyst for Walt (generally family-oriented, employable, and mild-mannered) embracing another side to his personality—the Heisenberg side, the side that is gratified, feared, ruthless, and powerful—that was there all along.

Character arc[]

"Technically, chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change. Just think about this. Electrons. They change their energy levels. Molecules. Molecules change their bonds. Elements. They combine and change into compounds. Well, that's all of life, right? It's the constant, it's the cycle. It's solution, dissolution. Just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation. It is fascinating, really."
―Walter White's chemistry lesson.[src]
1x01 - Walt teaching chemistry

Walt delivering his chemistry lesson about growth, decay, and transformation ("Pilot")

Walt's chemistry lesson in the Pilot has often been used to sum up the themes of the series and Walt's own character arc: he says, "Technically, chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change” – this change can be thought of as Walt's change from decent chemistry teacher to mighty drug kingpin. Walt also mentions that chemistry is "growth, decay, and transformation.” Throughout his journey, Walt reaches heights then descends into chaos – notably it occurs between Season 3 and 4; from working safely in the super-lab making millions of dollars with a respectable, steady relationship with Gus (growth), Walt then ends up in seemingly hopeless situations following his killing of Gus' two dealers and Gale's murder; being constantly watched by Gus' men, eventually being left with little money, facing betrayal by Jesse, Gus threatening to murder his entire family and Walt choosing to flee for his life through Saul's extractor (decay), to the triggering of a new type of Heisenberg, a ruthless leader and manipulator that has realized that "it's better to be the pursuer than the pursued", beginning with his secret poisoning of Brock to turn Jesse against Gus and culminating in his brutal assassination of Gus himself by bombing a nursing home after outsmarting him and luring him into a trap with the help of Hector Salamanca (transformation).

Walt (Heisenberg)

Walt embracing his "Heisenberg" persona.

Walt's transformation — his embracing of the dark and ruthless "Heisenberg" kingpin side of his personality — is a slow process that is advanced every time Walt crosses a line deeper into depravity (e.g. poisoning Brock). At the beginning of the series, it was clear to the viewer when Walt was making a conscious decision to become Heisenberg (wishing to keep his identity secret around other criminals, wearing the trademark black hat and sunglasses, etc.). Towards his family, he remained, for the most part, the same Walt (although his mercurial, erratic behavior in the early seasons does raise some suspicions on the part of Skyler and Walt Jr.) However, as the series progresses, the line between Walt and his Heisenberg persona is increasingly blurred: even in his civilian life, he begins embracing his crueler, more vindictive side. The difference between Walt in the early episodes and Walt in the later episodes is stark, not only in his appearance (such as his shaved head and attire) but in his psychological traits as more, notably his view about causing harm to other human beings.