Breaking Bad- The Nobody
As I said in my last Breaking Bad post the character Walter White has been hailed as one of the greatest characters to come to the small screen. Some of you who haven’t seen the series might want to know who Walter White is? Well you are looking at him. Right there in the corner of the frame. He is minding his own business grading some papers from his chemistry class. At this time in the story he is a man who obeys the law. He doesn’t step on anyone’s toes, never complains, and isn’t valued. Walter White is the definition of a nobody.
There are many examples of nobodies in film. Whether it be Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Todd Anderson in Dead Poets Society, or Walter White in Breaking Bad, these character’s role in society as being ignored and their own low opinion of themselves serves the same narrative purpose though their arcs can be vastly different. Most of the time characters don’t stay as one type through out a story. In Dead Poets Society the whole story revolves around Todd finding his voice and standing up for himself. Because Breaking Bad is a television series the creators have a lot of time to work on Walter’s arc and he goes through several character types during the five-season duration of the show.
So why does Walter White start out as a nobody? One of the greatest things gained in using a nobody character type is sympathy. The majority of nobodies in storytelling are denied by society but understood by the viewer. The audience sympathizes with their situation because they are shown how the nobody became who he or she was and they have the tendency to root for the outsider. While safe in our home reading a book or going with a friend to watch a movie at the theater, we are at our most relaxed and accepting. This allows us to be open to fiction and accepting of it’s characters in a way we aren’t in real life. Walter White is doing nothing wrong at the beginning of Breaking Bad. He is a good man who cares deeply for his family. He works hard and hardly has anything to show for it. He finds out he has cancer and yet cannot bring himself to tell his family. The audience can’t help but see themselves in Walt’s role. We all know how it feels to be denied, how it feels to be invisible in the middle of a crowd. In many ways we all are nobodies; only noticed by a select few in a world populated by billions.
The nobody starts at the very bottom. This is an immediate set up for great drama. Starting at the very bottom makes any obstacles tougher. The nobody isn’t the the leader. He isn’t even the solider. He is the peasant. Unlike with the fallen hero or diamond in the rough character type there is no great expectation from the audience for the nobody to able to get to the top. Every step the nobody makes to get up the mountain is considered substantial. Much of the drama comes from going against the audiences and other characters expectations through having the nobody do things no one saw coming. One of the greatest points of interest in Breaking Bad is the fact that Walter White chooses to make meth. This fascinates even the most conservative of audience. It’s something dangerous, against character type, and illegal, which all helps create great drama. Walter’s colors are all the more brighter because we have never seen them shine before. Heck, we never knew he could be colorful. Whether what he is doing is good or bad we are interested because he is a virgin to action.
Drama also comes from the nobody’s self conflict. Not only does the world think little of them at the beginning of the story they don’t think much of themselves. This creates an emotional barrier the character needs to overcome. A big theme through out Breaking Bad is Walter White’s personal view of who he is. There are many times where he is self-destructive and does truly evil things because he seems to have given up on himself. There are other times where we can see him overcome his self-doubt and do some great things. As audience members we cannot see emotional conflict at work without action. Both the physical and emotional obstacles of a character should be linked. We are just as interested in the emotional reasons for Walt cooking meth as the physical ones. Cooking meth goes beyond the physical needs of making money. It is the first thing Walt does in the series that makes him feel alive. He believes he makes the best product out there. He knows cooking meth will provide for his family. And he is working with chemistry; the medium he loves the most.
The nobody is one of the most compelling character types because there is no inherent foreshadow of who they will become. Walter White starts out as a big question mark. At the beginning of Breaking Bad we don’t see Walt in any kind of power. We don’t know if he has ever been loved or if he truly had a goal for his life. This gives the storyteller a blank canvas to work with. With this canvas the storytellers of Breaking Bad were able to paint a masterpiece that changed the face of television.