(*Note: This article contains spoilers that will make you cry*)
There is no doubt the characters of Game of Thrones are some of the cruelest and most sinister villains to ever exist in a television series. Their lust for power costs other characters their lives and loved ones endless amounts of times throughout the series' three seasons. Yet in a blog post written after the premiere of Breaking Bad’s “Ozymandias”, George R.R. Martin, author of the Game of Thrones series, wrote that “Walter White is a bigger monster than anyone in the Westeros.” This set fans into a panic. How could a fifty-two year old suburban father ever be considered more evil then Joffrey Baratheon, who used a woman as a target for dart practice? It seems impossible and yet Martin claims that it is Walter White who inspired him to create an even more villainous character then his previous clan of power-thirsty monarchs.
When peasants throw rocks at Joffrey hitting him in the face and humiliate him on Thrones, the television audience cheers. When Cersei’s father tells her she has to marry Loras, viewers bark with laughter. When Theon is abducted and tortured, audiences nod in curt approval, in agreement that “Theon betrayed his friends, so he got what he deserved”. We justify these characters' harsh punishments because of their cruel behavior and the evil acts they have committed. So why is it that when Breaking Bad's Walter White pathetically sobs into a phone, begging his family to take the money he’s murdered people for, the audience stares in concerned silence? Martin’s claim seems preposterous in the face of this comparison, and at first, I, too, was skeptical. Perhaps the author was just being a bit dramatic, I reasoned. Walter White isn’t as bad as House Lannister. But after some consideration, I came to understand Martin's claim to Walter White’s superior malevolence through the decisions Walt makes and the power he comes to hold over his audience.
Almost every death witnessed in Breaking Bad, in some way or another, relates back to Walt. Whether he physically or indirectly pulls the trigger, he has an excuse for each and every single death. When Jane’s father accidentally causes an airplane crash that kills 167 people, Walt justifies this by saying it was only the fiftieth most devastating crash in aviation history. When Jesse confronts Walt about poisoning Brock, an eight-year-old boy, Walt claims he “had it all measured out” and that he only did it because he “needed to have Jesse on his side.” When Walt orders assassins to take out nine men in less then two minutes, it is with a regretful yet firm sigh that he says it “had to be done." The list goes on, including explanations on why he blows up a nursing home, why he hires assassins to kill his partner, and countless other crimes. Each crime is never really his fault, because he never really had a choice. His manipulating words earn him the trust of others' over and over again, and so they keep buying into to his earnest promises. What’s worse, though, and more incredible, is that the audience starts to believe him, too.
When I was asking my friend, given any topic on Breaking Bad, what he would choose to write about, he said he’d discuss Walter White’s growth into the most villainous character in TV history. I was hesitant; ‘villainous’ seemed like a strong word, as ‘villain’ implies a lot of sinister and evil motives. When I think of evil, I think of Joffrey ordering Sansa’s father to death before her eyes, not Walter White cooking meth in a yellow jumpsuit. Walt’s not that bad; after all, he's the protagonist. I soon realized, though, what it was that made Walt so villainous: he got the viewers' sympathy. Walt poisoned a child, let a young woman die, ordered the axe down on nine prisoners, abused his wife, manipulated his partner, murdered his colleague, and stole a baby from her mother. Yet at the end, when his son was screaming at him and asking why he wasn’t dead yet, I still frowned, put my hand on my heart and said “aw.” I still didn't hate Walt, and I still felt his pain and loss. The characters on Thrones may commit more crimes firsthand, but Walt's ability to get our sympathy, no matter how bad his actions are, makes him more the most evil of all.
Throughout the series, Walt demonstrated his power over the audience. There were points in the show when I ashamedly found myself growing angry at the sensible characters around him. “Walt, you can’t kill people and build a drug empire” started to sound like nagging. Why couldn’t Skyler and Hank just shut up and let Walt cook? Why did they have to get in his way all the time? The fact that an audience member could even fathom to ask these questions is both extraordinary and horrifying. “Walt had to do all those things, he had no choice!” we whisper to our TVs, staring at our television screens as we cry deeper into our cups of chemically exact coffee.
The fact of the matter is that there is a certain point that we do stop liking Walt (you can only hurt Jesse’s loved ones so many times…). Yet somehow, we never stop understanding him, and we really never stop caring. In episode twelve of season two, when Walt watches Jane suffocate on her own vomit without interfering, I asked my friend what he thought Walt should have done.
“Nothing,” my friend said. “It was for Jesse’s own good. She was getting in the way of Jesses and Walt’s relationship.” Walt quickly justifies his actions for himself and for us, and it's easy for him to do this when he's not the one who has to wake up next to the corpse of his girlfriend.
Martin rightfully claimed in his blog post that Walter White had become more destructive then any one of the numerous villains in his own series. Walt does not torture prostitutes or sell his sister for an army, but the horrible things he does manage to hold the audience's sympathy. Until another fictional villain can evoke sadness and loss in its audience while simultaneously poisoning an eight year old, I doubt any character will match up to Vince Gilligan’s evil mastermind Heisenberg.
Chloe B. McAlpin is a Writing, Literature, and Publishing major at Emerson College. Originally from Florida, Chloe enjoys crunchy orange leaves, used bookstores, and Simon & Garfunkel. If she had to pick a favorite animal it would be a Persian cat, and if she had to pick a favorite person it would be Virginia Woolf. Contact Chloe on her Twitter.