The TV series Breaking Bad is renowned for its unpredictable plot twists. Still, it’s perhaps most famous for turning Bryan Cranston’s character, Walter White, into an endearing and sympathetic protagonist despite his criminal actions.
Breaking Bad’s ability to make audiences sympathize with a character like Walter White is a testament to the genius of its characterization. Creator Vince Gilligan has cautioned viewers not to root for Walter White since his transformation warns about how even a well-intentioned and intelligent person can become a monster.
Nonetheless, some viewers still find Walter White aspirational, and Bryan Cranston has explained why he thinks Walter White is the most compelling antihero in recent history. According to Cranston, Walter White’s character arc was designed to test how much he could get away with before losing the audience’s sympathy.
“That was all by design, create the empathy, Everybody was signed on and rooting for him. But then he does something illegal? Well, I’ll give him a pass. And something a little brutal, a little more, a little more. And Vince Gilligan wanted to see how long he can go and how far he can go away from that initial man, and still keep the allegiance from the audience. So it was a real test. And it’s never been done in the history of television.”
Walter White’s transformation into Heisenberg illustrates how easily a perceived higher authority can influence people. From Walt’s ordinary suburban life to his cancer diagnosis, everything was crafted to humanize Heisenberg despite his terrible crimes.
Unlike other antihero protagonists, Walter White was created due to systemic failures in the U.S. education and healthcare systems, making his story more relatable and sympathetic to audiences. Breaking Bad established one of the century’s most memorable and sympathetic villains by firmly rooting the character’s origins in social reality.
Breaking Bad was not the first crime series to feature a lovable villain, but Vince Gilligan and Bryan Cranston pushed the formula to new extremes and revealed its limits. Although Cranston’s performance and Walt’s relatable underdog story may make the meth industry and a life of crime seem justifiable, the creators behind Breaking Bad have expressed concerns about the audience’s idolization of Walter White.