on Walter White and ‘Offline’ Identity

I’m apologetically writing this well after it originally aired, but I’ve been watching Breaking Bad for the first time. (Spoilers will be small and few, out of respect for the uninitiated.)

Instead of offering my own full-bootlicking about how amazing the show actually is, I’ll simply quote from, and agree with, these words from the AV Club’s review of the episodes ‘ABQ’ and ‘Full Measures’ –

“…this show has been one of serialized drama’s greatest accomplishments.  Television itself suddenly seems to have an expanded horizon of possibilities — for characterization, for juxtaposition, for thematic depth.  Whatever happens from this hellish moment, the long descent to this point, with all its false dawns and sudden crashes, was singularly awe-inspiring, uniquely cathartic. People living through a golden age often don’t know it.”

“Extraordinary flowerings of art, technology, culture, or knowledge are obscured by intractable problems, crises, declines in other parts of the society… It’s easy to look at television, with its 500 channels worth of endless crappy versions of the same empty ideas, and conclude that everything’s gone to shit… Ironically, this pronouncement coincides with the greatest flowering of televised drama and comedy in the medium’s history.”

There are many qualities that make Breaking Bad an incredible viewing experience, the first of which is Bryan Cranston’s boundless performance in the lead role. His acting is the only reason I’m able to think of this show in such a realistic context, and analyze his character as if it were an actual person in the same world that I live in. I could offer unending praise on the acting, the brilliant camera work, dialogue, etc. But I just want to focus this post on one specific thing that’s caught my attention, as I set out to finish the series over the next few weeks.. (let’s be real.. Days.)

Walter White’s defining characteristic is arguably his squabble with identity – is he the murderous meth-cooking gangster boss Heisenberg? Or is he the doting father, soft husband, and nerdy brother-in-law?  Is there room in a single fictitious character for both? (Yes.) Is there room in a real human being for both? (I believe so.) Maybe the show’s finale will answer some of these questions definitively, but I haven’t reached that point, so I’m still undecided on the matter. I’m willing to guess that there will still be plenty of room for interpretation on Walter’s moral character, even after the last episode’s credits roll.

The question of his identity seems so important because of other things happening in our culture right now. This is the age of facebook, where the privatest lives of the most everyday people are just as public as any royal. The first season of Breaking Bad aired in 2008, the heady days in which ‘social media’ became a phenomenon too large for anyone to ignore. The show continued playing out on the screen while in the audience’s living rooms, internet technologies connected the personal lives of everyone around the world at a breakneck pace – most intensely, the lives of comfortably wealthy Americans, especially those with an interest in the sciences or technology.

If the impetus for Walter’s entire journey is his need for money – in Season 1, funding cancer treatment was his reason for embarking on a criminal campaign – how could someone of his cultural demographics overlook the most money-making industry of this decade, the internet? When Breaking Bad premiered, and for years before, the American economy has been driven by the high value of software and computer technology. But Walter isn’t part of that America, somehow.

By all accounts, Walter White, caucasian middle-class scientist, teacher, and 2004 Pontiac Aztec driver, is the incarnate persona of a modern American internet user. If you knew a man with Walter’s pedigree, you would expect he spent his time off in some dorky enterprise like geo-caching, or beta testing Google Glass. His chemically-laced resume screams “Googler.”

But in which episode did we ever see Walter crack open a laptop? Somehow, all this fancy new ‘social’ technology has overlooked him. Instead of the positive social incubator it is intended to be, it only becomes an opportunity for further advancement into Walter’s fragile anonymity as a criminal.

The show doesn’t completely leave the internet out of its narrative – Walter Jr. raises money for his Dad’s cancer by setting up a donation website, Skylar does her research for money laundering on Wikipedia – but it rejects the idea, so often presented in today’s culture, that all of this online transparency is influential in a way that would prevent someone from taking fuller measures to hide their deviant intentions.

In the world of Breaking Bad, Walter is not persuaded by these popular new gadgets to connect in a positive way to his community, as much as Facebook would like to “make the world a more open place,” and Google would like everyone to follow its corporate motto, “Don’t be evil.” Silicon Valley’s utopian rhetoric falls limply on Walter/Heisenberg’s deaf hears.

I might be overly sensitive to this idea, working as I currently am for a company, ID.me, whose purpose is to enable an individual’s authority over their identity on the internet. In this field, as it exists now, all roads are converging on transparency. There is no accommodation for subversive duality, in the minds of those leading the development of digital identity. On Google,Facebook, ID.me, and anywhere else you want to be yourself online, you only get one persona, and it’s intended to comprise your whole self.

Popular opinion has recently treated privacy as debatable, far from an ‘inalienable right,’ and the public parade of social media is driving the idea further.  The notion that governments and neighbors can snoop and sneak through a citizen’s life, online, is commonplace.

The narrative of Breaking Bad indirectly comments on the situation: it says Yes, a person may keep part of their life private… but they might be a drug kingpin. And with its morally circuitous characters, it also diffusely challenges the evolving concept of identity, by illustrating – No, the depths of a person probably cannot be summarized by a few photographs they post to their ‘wall.’

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