Breaking Bad Tattoos: Do you remember Walter White (aka Heisenberg)?
Let’s talk about the infamous Bryan Cranston’s character, a subject that has become a sort of Doctor Jekyll & Mister Hyde for the third millennium…
It all started with an old episode of ‘X-Files’. «I was writing screenplays for that series – explains Vince Gilligan, the creator of ‘Breaking Bad’ – and when we got to the sixth season, there was this episode where I had to come up with an anti-semiotic character suffering from a terminal disease. A real baddie who would take the detective Fox Moulder hostage, but also had to reveal great depths of humanity. I chose Bryan Cranston, it seemed to work out and then I got this idea…».
The inspiration was to plan a serial with the main character a shy chemistry professor from Albuquerque, Walter White, who turned into a ruthless drug lord known in the Mexican criminal underworld as Heisenberg. And all behind the back of his respectable family – his wife Skyler, son Walter Jr. and in laws Hank (an abrasive DEA agent) plus Marie Schrader, Skyler’s clepto-maniac sister.
«Television – says Gilligan – is notorious for presenting us with two-dimensional characters who never change in any way at all. But I was interested in a guy who could go from good to bad and I wanted to tell the story of the consequences of this monstrous mutation of his. So I wrote the character part Mister Chips (the 1969 musical where Peter O’Toole played a naive Latin teacher, ed.) and part Scarface.».
The project appealed to the guys at AMC but they got in straight away with a veto on Cranston, a little known actor they thought would never work out because he had only appeared in the sit-com ‘Malcolm’. The producers recommended John Cusack or Matthew Broderick but luckily, neither one was able to take the part due to previous commitments. So that is how Bryan Cranston finally became the infamous Walter White.
«Besides – continues Gilligan – I needed an actor who would be able to bring out his kindly nature at the same time that he was doing the most shockingly violent things. You know, if you don’t have that sort of talent – and Bryan has it in spades! – it’s hard to get people into a product of that kind, such a complex plot».
And the gamble paid off right from the start, ‘Breaking Bad’ was a worldwide hit and broadcast from 2008 to 2013 in a total of 62 episodes where pretty much anything and everything goes. Cranston became a living legend in Hollywood (between 2008 and 2014 winning four Emmy Awards, the Oscars of TV, as well as the Golden Globe for “best dramatic actor”) with hordes of fans hanging on his every word, taking advantage of what Gilligan liked to call “the trick”, that personality quirk which allowed the actor (who comes from Canoga Park) to change from Walter to Heisenberg at the flick of a switch.
The New York Times praised him as «one of the eight great actors (the others including Alec Baldwin, Peter Dinklage and Jane Lynch, ed.) who have changed the television of our times into an art form». Andy Greenwald the critic for the web magazine Grantland put it somewhat better: «I realised after that episode ‘Confessions’ in the Fifth Season. That’s when I realised that the simplification Mister Chips/Scarface wasn’t enough any more. It could work for five season, alright, but after that episode, I had this sort of conviction that, in reality, Walter wasn’t undergoing any kind of transformation at all. It wasn’t discovering he had cancer or his family responsibilities that made him act like Heisenberg: I think it had much more to do with resentment and discontent». Greenwald was absolutely right.
Someone even paid for a death notice for Walter White to be published in the daily newspaper Albuquerque Journal at the end of the fateful Sixth Season. A bizarre initiative which bordered on the macabre when on October 19 2013 it was decided to arrange a pretend funeral (complete with hearse and a perfect replica of a laboratory specialised in the production of Baby Blue) at Sunset Memorial Park, the cemetery in Albuquerque.
Naturally the residents were scandalised until they realised that ticket sales had raised 17 thousand dollars for a charity for the homeless in New Mexico. Damn that Heisenberg. Even from beyond the grave he strikes again!