2) Walter White/Heisenberg’s Infallible Screen Presence
Much can be said about Bryan Cranston’s turn as Walter White – seriously, I’d run out of superlatives sooner rather than later. In essence, though, he is a complex, challenging protagonist tethered with that one, fundamental moral compromise: the decision to cook crystal meth to provide for his family. As such, his progression as a character becomes all the more palpable as the series unfolds. Once a founding father of Gray Matter Technologies – which evolved into a wealthy, multi-national company – the Mr. White we are introduced to is an underachieving chemistry teacher at J.P. Wynne high school. Although, in the immediate aftermath of his 50th birthday, an unexpected diagnosis of stage-three lung cancer changes Walt’s outlook on life like a drastic tectonic shift within a subterranean plate.
Effectively straddling the morally intricate line between good and evil, Cranston’s on screen persona stamps his authority on the local drugs market with an unusually potent brand of crystal meth; an authority that would grow exponentially with each passing season. As his personality veers from acquiescent to aggressive, we as the audience become attached to this formidable alter-ego precisely because he’s formed before our very eyes. The scene from Breaking Bad‘s pilot where Walter exits a clothes store, only to reappear through the front door to put a group of petty bullies in their place, for example, typifies those early signs of a fractured self. In the case of Mr. White, these proverbial cracks spread rapidly and it isn’t long before he becomes drawn to the power and invigorating nature of his street-wise doppelganger.
We, however, refer to said doppelganger by another name: Heisenberg, the apex predator of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Inspired by physicist Werner Heisenberg – the Nobel Prize winning mind responsible for the Uncertainty Principle – the legacy of Walter’s alternative identity goes far beyond the iconic pork pie hat. Without delving too deeply into the scientific minutia, the parallels between the cook and the scientist are rather apparent. The concept that chaos exists under the veil of monotony is at the crux of Breaking Bad’s narrative arc. It’s clear, then, that Vince Gilligan took time to craft a memorable persona; a layered protagonist that is undoubtedly one of the most appreciated characters of modern television. Once Walter dons the Heisenberg guise – a figurative mask that retains a scene-stealing gravitas much like Batman’s cape and cowl – he is menace personified – and of course, the one who knocks.
Many have placed Breaking Bad’s lead character on the medium’s pantheon beside the late, great James Gandolfini. In fact, Cranston himself has stated that without Gandolfini’s decisive role as Tony Soprano, Walter White would have ceased to exist. Indeed, comparing Cranston with Gandolfini is praise in and of itself. His turn as Walter White is impressive not only because he balances vulnerability with malice so expertly, but because he does so in a way the challenges the audience’s perception of right and wrong.
Quite frankly, if Breaking Bad was the bottle, then Bryan Cranston was the lightning – tighty-whities and all.
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