Walter White, you monster.

Everyone loves a good anti-hero, right? Maybe they have limited…moral inhibitions, but we root for them because ultimately we believe that even if their methods aren’t right, they are. The thing we wish we could do if only we weren’t constrained by things like “propriety” and “conscience”. The anti-hero becomes a sort of escapist fantasy where the reader or viewer can be a badass who gets what they want (or what ‘needs to be done’, you know, whatever they tell themselves to sleep at night) vicariously through the protagonist.

And they’re memorable characters for that, sure. Yeah. Of course.

…but let me tell you about a villain protagonist. A sociopath who is good at manipulation. You root for him to overcome obstacles because he was a normal person like you. A seemingly loving and attentive father who wanted a place in his family’s hearts. A teacher and brilliant chemist who wanted his contribution to his field to go noticed and appreciated. A victim fighting against life’s unfair cruelty that left him with terminal cancer and against a system that would let him die because he wasn’t rich enough to afford to live.

But with each new murder, each new atrocious act he rationalizes to assuade his own self-guilt, he asks more, and more, and more of your sympathy and support, until you have nothing more to offe-

Wait, you’re saying that Walter White was a compelling and memorable character until the very end?

Once he’s in the criminal underworld, even though he had many chances to quit and turn back, he doesn’t take them. He wasn’t in too deep. There was a way out. But like the Greek tragedies, he had a fatal flaw that lead to his downfall. His perception that he’s sunk so much of his life and savings and good-will into this that he can’t stop now, no matter how much he promises and thinks he can, is overshadowed by the insight that he…he likes it.

What’s more, he can justify his own behavior to himself. He believes himself, in the beginning at least, that he’s the victim, that he is doing what needs to be done to provide for his family before he’s gone. That the alternative is for him to die thinking he’s lived a meaningless life and his family in debt and grief.

But he likes what he does. He likes the taste of power when he previously felt powerless. He likes the recognition for his talents and skills when he felt he had fallen from grace after his contributions weren’t acknowledged and the people he worked with made a lot of money off HIS ideas. Money he really needs now. He had done everything “right”, and he still didn’t have what he wanted.

Now? Now he has nothing left to lose, he feels, because he’s already a dead man, and he can have one last shot at everything he wanted.

The ‘sunk-cost’ fallacy that explains why humans tend to “throw good money after bad”, also applies to the viewers as well. We’ve invested so much emotionally in this character ourselves, we’ve identified so much with them, that we want him to be redeemed…or at least see his goal through.

Because ultimately, as much as we want to be the powerful professional who is finally recognized for their talents, whose name puts fear in the hearts of our enemies under the illusion that that will protect our prestige and authority, as much as we want to be the one who knocks

We want to know that it was all worth it. We want to know there’s an escape from our own mistakes. Because the character has become a viewer-insert, we begin to rationalize their actions on their behalf. Even an atrocious murder is a victory for us, because it was a victory for that character.

We want redemption to be possible for us, because the character was written in a way that we think, “But for the Grace of God goes I.”

And even if it is a tragedy and the main character goes out in a blaze of glory, we find comfort in the thought that we won’t forget their name, or the legacy they left behind.

About E. Godhand

Emily Godhand is a dark thriller author who lives in Denver as Rat Queen. She is an Ambassador for Wattpad.com, where she manages the Paranormal profile: https://www.wattpad.com/user/ParanormalCommunity She utilizes her experiences working at an inpatient psychiatric hospital and as an advocate and educator for Depression and PTSD in her writing to combat stigma and support individuals with mental illnesses via representation. Ignore the Lovecraftian influence and the subsequent nightmares, put your faith in Godhand to write diverse, complex characters who manage to cheat death and come out blood-soaked and laughing.

2 responses on “Walter White, you monster.

  1. David Wolf

    Wow, that’s a really helpful insight! It helps explain why Walter White is such a compelling character. I came to BB after the series ended. My wife & I watched the very first episode from Netflix, and immediately bought the entire series on DVD, and binged our way through the whole thing (not in one night though–we both preferred to dole it out 3 episodes or so at a time.) We loved it! As a writer, I am also dealing with an anti-hero in my (unpublished so far) novel A Murder Foretold. My main character is a reluctant serial killer, trapped by his partner into killing a series of women the partner has married and insured. The MC has a dark complicated past that the other man takes advantage of. Getting these two characters right is a constant challenge!

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