Breaking Bad sits in a fascinating place: of all the television shows which can plausibly challenge for a spot in the medium’s all-time top ten (The Wire, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Mad Men et al), it has the worst fans. By a long way. Anna Gunn, who plays Walter White’s long-suffering wife Skyler, wrote an op-ed (the less charitable might consider it a cynical play for an Emmy) in the New York Times a while ago discussing the fan reaction to her character. In it she framed the hate for her character (and, sadly, the actor herself) in terms of fan misogyny. This is a major part of it, no doubt, but the problem goes deeper than that. It goes right to the show’s heart of darkness, Walt himself.
From the beginning, Breaking Bad walked a fine line. Walt is both primary protagonist and villain, sliding further from the former (though never relinquishing it) as the show progresses. In order for it to work at all, he must be sympathetic; the audience must support him, even after his most unforgivable actions – and work it does. Even his proxy murders of the reasonably innocent Jane and Gale can’t quite destroy our sympathy for Walt, whose obvious and genuine devotion to his family just about keeps us on board. But here’s the thing: a significant proportion of the fanbase doesn’t see Walt as the villain. For them, he’s the hero.
I’ve seen serious arguments that Walt never did anything wrong. Poisoning a child as part of a plan to save his own life? “Well, the kid survived, didn’t he? He just needs to deal with it.” Letting Jane die? “What, that grasping junkie bitch? She had it coming.” His series-long moral and emotional destruction of Jesse? “Jesse snitched, he deserved to die.”
It’s televisual Stockholm Syndrome. These fans are the ones who think Walt is a ‘badass’, who insist that he genuinely did everything for his family even after the character himself refutes it, who will tear down and regard as morally irrelevant anyone who dares stand in Walt’s way. They will point-blank refuse to accept Skyler or Jesse’s emotional responses to the events of the show as valid. “God, why are they whining so much about the fact that Walt destroyed their lives? I hate these characters!” It’s worse than disheartening, it’s downright unsettling.
Compare the worst excesses of the fanbases of shows like Supernatural and Sherlock, which centre entirely on shallow sex appeal. They’re obnoxious, but broadly harmless. Breaking Bad‘s worst fans, meanwhile, have completely internalised what the show tries to present as morally abhorrent. In the last few episodes of the series, several fascinating scenes stand out as the writers desperately trying to make these fans understand just what it is they’re supporting. At one point, Walt makes a phone call to Skyler, a layered scene in which he attempts to make her look innocent to listening police by viciously excoriating her with every complaint about his wife that these fans have made over five years; how much of it reflects his true feelings is ambiguous. The intention is to make the call represent the culmination of Walt’s psychological abuse of Skyler, a moment creator Vince Gilligan described as ‘unforgivable’ – but for these fans, this is long-overdue catharsis.
It’s an uncomfortable feeling, knowing that these people like Breaking Bad too, and it’s a terrible shame that the show is saddled with such awful fans. But it flew too close to the sun: it self-consciously glorified the meth trade, and played hard and fast with stylised deontology and a villainous protagonist. Ironically, the writers failed to anticipate just how low humanity can sink. “Guess I got what I deserved” indeed.