The Walter White Five Stages of Breaking Bad

Filed under: Top Fives

"I'm in the empire business."

If there is one thing that makes Breaking Bad so endearing, it is watching the downfall of Walter White. It is an incredible transition, defined by a man who is fighting back in the worst possible ways imaginable. The result is a man who over time goes from being sympathetic, to totally villainous and despicable. This article takes a look at the changes in Walter White, as his descent into the criminal life becomes more severe and entrenched. Keep in mind that when reading this article, that it was written during the mid-season break, so content from the final eight episodes will not be included here.

The story started about sixteen years ago, as Walter and his wife, Skylar, were house hunting. Walter, much like most people in their thirties, had much to look forward to. It was a time when there was no place for Walter to go, but upwards. But somehow that did not happen. Instead of getting that magical career, he got stuck with the starter house, and a lousy job teaching high school chemistry. Now fast forward to the beginning of the series.


Before being diagnosed with lung cancer, Walter was living a mediocre life. He had fumbled into an unrewarding teaching career, and an even worse part-time job at the car wash. Communication and emotional intimacy between him and Skylar were missing, despite her pointing out that she did not want to be locked out. In addition, their son, Junior, had a disability, and there was a second child on the way. Walter was discontent with his life, but without sufficient motivation to do anything about it.

The one thing that could have been different with Walter's life, was if he had stayed with Gray Matter, the company he co-founded. Instead, he had sold it off for five thousand dollars. Since then, the company had grown to be worth 2.16 billion dollars -- a stark contrast to Walter's high school chemistry teacher and car wash cashier combined salaries. The one thing he still had left, was his unrivaled chemistry skills.

Stage 1 - Crisis Management.

Take all the things that were not going right with Walter's life, and add terminal cancer and a tour of a poorly run meth lab to that list. Combine all these elements, and you get Walter's dying wish of profiting from making high quality meth in the time he has left. Walter really thought he had nothing to lose, and everything to gain. Somehow in Walter's head, turning to crime was an acceptable mean to leaving his family financially secure after his death.

In order to get his plan started, Walter tracked down his former student, Jesse Pinkman, and blackmailed him into being his drug dealing partner. It was idiotic, dangerous, and criminal, to say the least. Walter emptied his bank account in order for Jesse to buy the recreational vehicle, only for Jesse and his dealer friends to blow the money at a strip bar. As for the recreational vehicle, it turned out to be stolen. Not a good first step.

The true origin of Walter's decision centered around the control of his life. At the intervention, Walter gave a tremendously emotional soliloquy about how he never had much say in his life, and how he felt like he always had to do things for other people. His (at the time) decision to accelerate his death, as opposed to going for cancer treatment, was his way of finally being able to express himself.

At this stage breaking bad, killing was extremely difficult. It took a lot of time and effort for Walter to finally bring himself to kill Krazy 8. He sat down to get to know Krazy 8, and even went so far as to feed him. On top of that, Walter even made a pro/con list. It was only after Walter literally put together the pieces of the plate and found that a fragment was missing, that he finally killed Krazy 8.

After Tuco gave Jesse a beating, Walter decided to take matters into his own hands by paying Tuco a visit. This here is yet another example of Walter's increase in aggression, protectiveness of Jesse, and getting deeper into the criminal world. Walter succeeded in blowing up Tuco's office, and in getting the money he wanted, but it also left him very distraught at what he had accomplished and gotten himself into.

At a restaurant, Gretchen confronted Walter over the treatment payment lies. Despite Gretchen being genuinely caring about Walter's health, Walter very quickly turned Gretchen into the villain. He took no responsibility for the past, and refused to take Gretchen's charity, which made Gretchen feel pity for him. As a coup de grace, Walter gave Gretchen the most laughably bad eff you ever. (And yes, the image was captured at the exact moment he swore).

Stage 2 - You don't die.

After the run-in with Tuco, Walter had not learned his lesson yet. He continued to partner up with Jesse, in order to manufacture more meth. As the cost of doing business went up, Walter also grew more aggressive and dishonest towards the people around him. But since he was going to die anyways, he rationalized that the only thing that mattered was leaving behind a lot of money for his family.

The second stage of breaking bad officially began in "4 Days Out," wherein Walter's thirst for money meant having to deceive both Skylar and Jesse, in order for him to be able to go out and cook. This was one of those episodes that really showed the ugly consequences of bad decisions, and even led to Walter having a brief moment where he realized and regretted the harm he did to his family.

The precise moment the second stage kicked in, was at the doctor's office, when Walter and his family received the good news of the remission. After celebrating, Walter went to the restroom. When he finished washing his hands, he took a look at his reflection in the towel dispenser, only to angrily punch it several times. When he was done, he saw a mangled up reflection of himself.

Since Walter's life was not getting cut short, it meant that he would have to deal with all his mistakes catching up to him. At this particular time, the biggest thorn in his side was Jane, who had just blackmailed Walter out of holding onto Jesse's share of the money. In one of the harshest cases of irony ever, Walter took Donald's advice on never giving up on family. After leaving the bar, an all too caring Walter drove to Jesse's home to find that Jesse and Jane were unconscious from having mainlined heroin.

In an attempt to awaken Jesse, Walter had unintentionally gotten Jane to flip on her back, which led to Jane choking her way to death. In this second stage of breaking bad, killing was achieved through deliberate inaction. Walter could have easily saved Jane, but he let her die, knowing that her death would protect his secret. The look on Walter's face had to be the most disturbing thing in this series thus far.

The mid-air collision, and Skylar demanding a divorce, inflicted a sting of guilt and loss on Walter in "No Mas." Walter even started to torch the money, but he could not just stand there and let it burn. It is this addiction to money, that would ultimately dictate his future actions. But still, the decency in Walter gave him the strength to turn down the three million dollar offer from Gus.

Stage 3 - As a ship on the waters advancing.

Walter's life would go downhill significantly in the first four episodes of season three. His relationship with Skylar had worsened to the point where she had an affair. Walter tried to retaliate by tracking Ted down, and by bumblingly coming on to Carmen. Respectively, this led to Walter getting physical with Saul over the bugging, and in getting suspended from his teaching job. As Walter was moving his box of work belongings to his vehicle, Jesse showed up with some meth that he made on his own. Since Walter was not having a good day, he was insulting towards Jesse and the product, pushing Jesse into going straight to Saul to make a deal with Gus.

As Gus was reluctant to work with an addict, he green lit a transparent plot that would result in the payment of the meth getting divided in two, despite Walter having no part in the production of it. This would appeal to Walter's greed, sense of entitlement, ownership of the formula, and the delusion of doing it for the family. This gave Walter enough reason to get back into the business that he wanted no part to be in.

The road to hell is truly paved by good intentions. Jesse getting badly beaten up by Hank was the cost of crushing the rolling meth lab. An apologetic Walter made it up to Jesse, by offering up a 50/50 partnership to run the superlab. This was a disaster waiting to happen, not only in Jesse's lack of discipline, but also in Jesse himself having the best of intentions, in vindicating the deaths of Combo and Tomas.

Jesse ended up snapping when he found out that Tomas had been killed. In a drug fueled rage, Jesse set out to kill the two men responsible for the deaths of Tomas and Combo. In order to protect Jesse, Walter had to intervene. In this third stage, killing had to be done, out of necessity to save Jesse from getting himself killed. This move would prove to be very costly to Walter, a price that he would pay dearly until the end of the fourth season.

Stage 4 - Insanity.

The nightmarish fourth stage of breaking bad began in "Full Measures," with the meeting out in the desert. Realizing that he and Jesse were severely screwed, Walter knew he had to do something drastic in order to save him and Jesse from certain death. Jesse had suggested Walter turning himself into the DEA, but Walter would not even consider that option. This meant that Walter would have to take matters into his own hands, by ordering the death of Gale. It was desperate and short-sighted. But when a man like Walter is cornered, he is not expected to make rational decisions.

Even when Walter was hopelessly pinned, his repressed ego still somehow found its way out. In "Box Cutter," after Gus entered the superlab, Walter decided to go on a big and irrelevant, yet recriminating and self-aggrandizing rant, in an attempt to convince Gus to spare him and Jesse. Gus had already made up his mind, so Walter's words would not have made a difference, except to prove that he was the more expendable one, between him and Jesse. Walter would further prove this treachery, by bringing a gun to work, going to Gus' home in the middle of the night, and by attempting to get Mike on his side. Jesse may have been a degenerate addict, but he never mounted any kind of an uprising against Gus, except when ordered by Walter. So as far as Gus was concerned, an unthinkable role reversal was the best possible solution to his problems. While Jesse was quickly growing into a more valuable role under the tutelage of Mike and Gus, Walter was falling apart, and only being held together by his massive ego.

That arrogance of his came out at one of the worst possible times, as a result of drinking too much alcohol, while having dinner with Hank and Marie. Hank was ready to accept that Gale was the mastermind, and to move on, but Walter could not keep his mouth shut. He just had to blurt out that the genius that is Heisenberg must still be out there, which made Hank get back onto the case.

The combination of Jesse becoming increasingly important to Gus, and Walter's continued alienation of both Jesse and Gus got him fired from his job. Even when he was on his knees in the desert, Walter found it in him to give Gus some attitude. Walter taunted Gus, by pointing out that Jesse would not allow Gus to green light killing him. It was a brazen choice of words, considering that the only leverage Walter had, was Jesse's declining loyalty towards him.

When Gus threatened to kill Walter's family, only then did Walter finally realize that his arrogance could only get him so far. In the process of attempting to disappear, Walter paid the price of having driven his wife into the arms of another man. Skylar had given nearly all the drug money to Ted, leaving Walter with insufficient funds to pay for the disappearing act. Knowing that he was doomed, Walter turned his agony into laughter, as he laid there in the crawl space.

In the fourth stage of breaking bad, killing was an absolute necessity, but was almost impossible to accomplish. The target was Gus, but Gus was way too intelligent for Walter. After Walter got over his crazy laughter, he sat in his backyard all too calmly, spinning his gun around, until it gave him quite possibly the most evil idea ever -- as it would include having to poison an innocent child.

But that was not enough. Walter also had to play mind games with Jesse, in order to lure Gus out. It was all pre-meditated, with the sole intent on winning Jesse's loyalty back, as Walter convinced Jesse that it was Gus who had manipulated him into pulling the trigger. Everything about this was insidious, and arguably what made Walter cross the line between a sympathetic villain, and into a ruthless criminal.

When the attempt at the car bomb failed, it also meant that Gus was no longer going to ask for Jesse's permission to kill Walter. At this point, without enough money to disappear, and Gus being onto Jesse, Gus had to be killed no matter what. So Walter came up with an absolutely diabolical double murder suicide plan for Hector to carry out. Nobody saw it coming, which was why it worked.

Stage 5 - Heisenberg.

Beating the impossible odds of killing Gus unleashed the fifth and final stage of breaking bad in Walter. In this stage, Walter has adopted nothing short of a god complex. No means is beyond his imagination, ability, or any external restrictions. What he wants, he will get. Little things like morality, hurting other people, and a fear of getting caught for his recklessness mean nothing. Walter had become dismissive of the opinions and even facts stated by other people, as only his point of view matters. Those that know Walter, find that he has changed for the worst, and that his greed and need for control, has made him too dangerous to oppose or to even ally with.

The change in Walter was evident, in his daring plot to erase the data off Gus' laptop. Despite making the mistake of being adamant on ridiculously overpowering the electro magnet, and thus having to abandon the tilted truck, Walter showed absolutely no signs of concern when questioned by Mike over the plan working. The look on Walter's face just said it all. "Because I say so?"

Even Saul Goodman, the most crooked lawyer alive, had to draw the line. After finding out that Brock had gotten hospitalized from Walter's plot to win Jesse's loyalty back, Saul wanted nothing to do with Walter, despite how much money they could earn together. This time, Walter did not have to blow up and throw Saul to the ground. Instead, he just walked up to Saul, and said in a gentle but frightening voice, "We're done, when I say we're done."

At the beginning of "Hazard Pay," Walter made the unilateral decision to move back into the house, against Skylar's fearfulness of the relocation. Chances are, most viewers never thought too much of this brief scene where Walter unloaded the book that Gale gave him. A few months later, Hank would end up stumbling across this book, and read the dedication hand written by Gale. This is a prime example of Walter's disregard for precautions, that would lead to him shooting himself in the foot.

After the nursing home explosion, Skylar had realized what kind of a monster Walter had turned into. Despite this, in "Fifty-One," Skylar made her final stand. She caved in on everything (new cars, money laundering, moving back in, keeping Walter's secret), but refused to compromise the children. When every one of her ideas to stand up to Walter were met with derision and the constant reassurance of safety, Skylar's only hope was to wait for the cancer to come back.

Hank is really the best brother in-law a man can have. He is genuinely reliable, unconditionally supportive, and an overall great guy to have around. So how does Walter repay him, after Hank and Marie take in the kids? By bugging Hank's office, but not before breaking down into fake tears, and blaming his relationship and family woes on Skylar. Walter's mistreatment of the people that care about him show how selfish he has become.

Walter's greed grew worse while he was pulling a train robbery. An unexpected do-gooder had gotten on the scene, to help get the train moving ahead of (Walter's) schedule. Going against Mike's warnings, Walter insisted on getting as much chemical as he original intended, even at the risk of him and his crew getting in danger. Walter brought it down to the final second, causing Todd and Jesse to just barely have enough time to finish up their ends.

With much regret over the boy's murder, Jesse approached an unaffected Walter about getting out, so that they can leave with money and nobody getting hurt any further. As usual, Jesse's point of view mattered little to Walter, as Walter felt it was his own regret of selling his share of Gray Matter to be paramount. Walter chose to remedy this fixation of his by chasing his losses through meth, hence why a meager five million was not enough for him.

After Jesse had stated many times that he wanted to get out of the business, Walter sank to an all time low, as he tried to manipulate Jesse into staying. Walter went after everything, including how Jesse dealt with the boy's death, that Jesse had nothing in his life, appealing to Jesse's greed, and pointing out Jesse's past drug abuse and likelihood for relapse. When none of it worked, Walter once again went back to refusing to give Jesse his share of the money, thus causing another split between them.

By now, Walter had brought himself to stand up to Mike effectively. When Mike refused to give Walter the hazard list, it led to Mike telling Walter off. In this final stage of breaking bad, killing had become all too easy for Walter. The only thing on the line, was something as inconsequential as the hazard list (which Mike was going to take care of), and that was all it took for Walter to walk up to Mike and to shoot him.

When the first half of season five concluded, it seemed like Walter got his happy ending. He had his huge pile of money, exited the meth business, and things were seemingly back to normal. Everybody in the family was happy to be with each other. But the past always comes back to haunt people (especially criminals), sometimes in the most unexpected and unimaginable ways possible. That book that Walter had so thoughtlessly brought home with him, ended up as convenient washroom reading material, and literally into Hank's hands. So what does that mean?

It means that everything that Walter had worked so hard for, will be for nothing.

The opening scene of the fifth season had a flash forward to Walter's fifty second birthday. He had fake identification, a vehicle with a New Hampshire plate, new glasses, and pills for his cough. On top of that, he even bought himself a machine gun.

Take a moment and think of that one.

Needing something as excessive as a full fledged machine gun, is indicative of how much trouble Walter will get himself into, in the final eight episodes of the series. How he will get to that point, will be revealed in the second half of the season, which premiers on August 11, 2013. Stay tuned.

Tags: Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston, The Five Stages of Breaking Bad, Aaron Paul, Dean Norris, Bob Odenkirk, Top Fives, Vince Gilligan, Kubler Ross, AMC

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