It's the age of the villain.
The much-discussed "golden age of television," has really been the golden age of the bad guy. Tony Soprano, Walter White, Dexter Morgan, Nancy Botwin; none of these are characters fighting for truth and justice. Black hats, every one of them.
The villain is busily tying innocents to the railroad tracks in other areas of our culture as well. This year, DC Comics created a multi-book franchise event that focused on the villains of their universe (and helped produce a docu-commerical called Necessary Evil about those villains that was not too bad for that sort of thing). Chuck Klostermann released a book this summer, I Wear the Black Hat, that examines our fascination with villainy, coming up with what may become a classic definition of the villain as: "The one in the story who knows the most and cares the least."
This week, some of us will not just break, but will actually utterly destroy our budget by purchasing a collectible Breaking Bad mega-set that contains every episode on Blu-ray, hours and hours of documentaries, extra footage and even a Los Pollos Hermanos cooking apron -- all packaged in a container made to look like one of the barrels where Walter kept his ill-gotten gains.
All this money, just to have the complete story of a terrible human being. This is not simply a character that went from being a much put-upon Walt, the chemistry teacher who has lung cancer, to Heisenberg the criminal overlord. We're buying, and buying into, the story of someone who became a super villain.
Admittedly, it might seem inexact to employ a term that originated in midcentury pulps and the comics to describe one of the most complex bad guys since Shakespeare's Iago and Graham Greene's Pinkie Brown. But it works on several levels.
First, Walter White left behind the pose that he's "doing it all for his family," making meth to pay for his cancer treatment and insuring that Skyler and the kids are well-cared for, after his inevitable demise. It became, as he finally makes clear to his cohort in crime Jesse Pinkman, about building an empire rather than about money. Not unlike Spider-Man and Daredevil's nemesis, the Kingpin, Walter is all about becoming a -- well -- a kingpin.
Second, there's Walt's use of his scientific brilliance, both to produce his product and to defeat his many enemies. Other than some fairly traditional shooting-his-enemies-in-the-face action, Walt as Heisenberg does in his foes by doing some scary science, ranging from making mercury fulminate explosives, to melting locks with thermite, to killing his fellow bad guys with one of the world's deadliest poisons. Even Jesse gets the criminal duo out of danger with magnets (yeah, bitch, magnets!).
This is basic super villain shtick, using brilliance to beat, and even humiliate, brawn. There's a revenge of the nerds narrative at work in so many super villain stories that's impossible to ignore. Lex Luthor hates Superman because he's just so damn super. Lex may be the most brilliant human being on earth, but he bumps up against the sheer raw power of Supe's yellow, sun-fueled magnificence. It's the science nerd against the frat boy.
Finally, there's no denying that the link of Walter White and super villainy are a kind of subtext that has rapidly become basic to the text. When Jesse Pinkman first sees Walt's shaved head in season two, the first words out of his mouth are: "You look like Lex Luthor." Walt's propensity for super-villainy seem to have triggered the rumors that he would actually play Luthor in the upcoming Superman/Batman film from Warner Bros. Although sadly twitter-fodder rather than truth (Cranston is going to be playing another villainous figure, Lyndon B. Johnson) the rumors resulted in a wonderfully made fan trailer.
But he doesn't just have plenty of Lex Luthor going for him. As counterintuitive as it might seem, Walter White is the Joker.
Ok, he's not Heath Ledger's joker. The pure nihilism that Ledger embodied in his final role doesn't quite fit the Meth King of the ABQ. But, he corresponds uncomfortably closely to what some see as the greatest Joker tale ever told, Alan Moore's The Killing Joke.
Moore's tale came out in 1988, around the time the Joker took a particularly psychotic turn, that has continued to influence the lore of the character. Moore gives Batman's arch-nemesis one of the best descriptions of the origins of the bad guy out there: "All it takes," he tells the Batman, "is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy." As explanations for villainy go, I'd put that up with: "Its better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven."
If the comparison between Walt and the most evil clown that ever lived doesn't resonate with you, consider that scene in the penultimate episode of season four. It looks as if Walter and family are going to have to flee town using the hundreds of thousands he's made selling meth that is hidden away in their modest home's crawl space. A bizarre turn of events makes this an impossibility in the most absurd way imaginable. In response, Walt has something of a psychotic break, laying on his back in the crawl space and laughing maniacally in a way that sounds like nothing so much as the clown prince of crime.
He's a guy that had a bad day once. All super villains have. They don't just have empire-building on their minds. They are more than crooks with a few tricks up their sleeves. They've got some pathos and they've got some trauma. And they don't want to just tell you about it, and they don't want to transform it into a source of do-goodery. They want to inflict it on you and make you see the emptiness they think hides at the heart of existence.
If Walt did become a kind of super villain, this helps explain why so much public angst has been centered on him. He really did become a kind of folk hero that people seemed to want to believe in and even identify with. But he also ignited an ongoing discussion about whether or not we should root for him.
This is maybe pretty easy to understand. While super-heroes, seemingly, according to union rules, have to have some kind of trauma (often parental in nature), they also have something utterly amazing happen to them that allows them to be the good girls and guys they are. Their origin stories, though often coming with plenty of shadows, are also filled with marvels.
No such luck for the villains. They are born in their trauma and cannot escape it. They haven't gotten the compensation of an incredible superpower. Notably, the world's most famous non-super superhero -- Batman -- carries enough darkness around in him that he teeters on the edge of being a villain (and he certainly is an outlaw).
In a sense, all that discussion about Walter White asked a question that has a simple answer. Of course, he's a villain. But we love him because he transcends that. He's a super villain. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan gave us a trope we're used to seeing in tights and a hood, and dressed him like our high school chemistry teacher.
This isn't the banality of evil driving around in an Pontiac Aztec. It's the most theatrical, comic book style villainy imaginable. And we can't get enough.