So a married, middle-aged, high school chemistry teacher with a disabled teen son and infant daughter on the way is already floundering financially when he finds out he’s got cancer…what does he do? Start a meth business with a drug-addicted former student of his to ultimately become an international drug kingpin, of course. Fascinating character arch, but who on Earth would do such a thing? What kind of man would go from mild-mannered to cold-blooded in the course of about a year? A man like Walter White, apparently, which brings us to the question…what kind of man IS Walter White?
First and foremost, he’s incredibly intelligent…in fact he’s a genius with a Nobel Prize and yet somehow only a high school teacher. (No, I’m not knocking teachers, I’m just saying Walter White strikes me as the type who’d typically be in a lab curing the cancer he has and, more importantly, I believe Walt would agree.) He’s a family man who feels the need to ensure his wife, Skylar, and children, Walt Jr (aka Flynn) and Holly, are financially secure when he’s dead; a point he makes frequently and I don’t doubt. He wants/needs to be remembered as a good man and being a good provider for his family follows right along with that. Walt is also kind of full of himself, empathy-impaired, and has a fluid concept of morality. These last personality traits are hard to see under the meek nerves and Ned Flanders appearance he has in the first episodes, but they’re there.
Upon first being told he has cancer Walt tries to keep it secret – he says to not worry loved ones, but it’s possible he merely didn’t want to seem weak and/or be pitied. Skylar eventually finds out though and tells the rest of the family at which point they throw an emotional intervention to demand Walt go for treatment. Walt says no, that it is illogical to spend money on treatment that merely prolongs an inevitable death. His wife must explain to him that the request isn’t about the logistics of lengthening life, but the emotional value of being with loved ones a little longer. Walt also argues that he wants to make the decision for himself (because, according to him, he so rarely gets to make his own choices), to which Skylar again must point out that this decision doesn’t just involve him…he has to think about her and their children, for one. He’s the one with the cancer, yes, but its presence and what he chooses to do about it affects everyone around him. …Whether to be seen as the good husband and father or just to cut the discussion short Walt ultimately agrees to go for treatment.
Early on it’s shown that Walt’s views of right and wrong are pretty flexible. When he joins his brother-in-law, Hank, on a DEA ride-along and sees former student, Jesse Pinkman, escaping a raid he says nothing. Could be shock, sure, but Walt never says anything. Instead he approaches the young man with a business proposition – join forces to make and sell crystal meth. When it seems Jesse might decline Walt blackmails him: work with me or I’ll turn you in. After a deadly altercation with a bunch of drug dealers Jesse is horrified, disgusted, and filled with guilt at having to dissolve an already dead man while Walt, who is actually responsible for all the deaths involved, is less phased by it all. Okay, yes, in the moment Walt’s pretty freaked out about strangling a guy to death, but it quickly fades. That very night he has passionate (possibly slightly more aggressive than usual) sex with his wife. Jesse’s reactions are pretty typical, Walt’s not so much.
So, seriously, what is Walter White’s deal? Many have suggested sociopathy. I get that. Overall lack of empathy and flexible morality that grows in the criminal world until Walt is a man capable of poisoning children and ordering multiple, simultaneous, hits to get what he wants. Sounds pretty sociopathic. There’s also the high IQ and the “aren’t I the best?” attitude, both of which Walt has and are common in sociopaths. Add a tendency to lie, lack of insight, unreliability, lack of remorse, criminality (meth business!), and absence of any of his behaviors being due to delusions (outside that of grandeur) or any other psychological issues you’d think that would be that. Walt’s a sociopath. But…no. Sorry, there’s some problems with Mr White getting that label.
First off, when compared to other sociopathic types in the show Walt doesn’t even come close. Take Gus Fring. At first sight Gus is calm, meticulous, and all about his business. He pretty much remains that way no matter what the situation…he might do some wild things (walking into a hail of bullets with the classic “come at me, bro” posture), but it’s always a calculated move. All his moves are carefully thought out and calmly executed in order for him to get ahead. He politely refuses to work with Walt at first because he considers Jesse’s drug use (and probably emotionality) too great a liability, but when it suits him better to align with Walt and Jesse he does. When he no longer considers Walt an asset he is perfectly fine not only in severing their business relationship, but killing Walt and his entire family if need be. It’s all strictly business for Gus.
The difference is most clear in the way these two kill – not the murders-by-order, but the do-it-yourself ones. Gus does two total and both show him as the ruthless, calculating, dead-eyed sociopath he really is. One involves poisoning just about everyone at a drug lord pool party, including himself. It’s part business, part personal, planned to the smallest detail, and so batshit insane it actually works. The other (and chronologically first) is when Gus calmly puts on a hazmat-style suit, picks up a boxcutter, and slits his own henchman’s throat in front of Walt, Jesse, and Mike without provocation or seeming cause – outside a threat of “do not disrespect me”, perhaps. While the rest are equal parts horrified and terrified Gus doesn’t even blink; he could’ve just as easily been cutting a sandwich in two. I can’t recall Walt ever doing anything close to that. He directly kills far more people, but most seem to fall into two categories: threats like the dealer he choked out in the basement (the man was ready to stab Walt) or victims of Walt’s explosive rage concerning blows to his ego like Mike (poor Mike).
I’ll grant that Walt learns a fair amount of sociopathic behaviors and traits from Gus – calmly setting up simultaneous murders, having a flat(ter)-affect when speaking under certain circumstances, brushing off the murders of children, and possibly vomiting like a gentleman (according to certain fan theories) – but he still strikes me as ultimately too emotional. Not about others necessarily, but about himself. As mentioned Walt’s violence – when not a case of defense – usually stems from rage due to a blow to his ego. There’s no blank-faced slicing of throats from Walt, it’s all whatever works in the moment often mixed in with screaming, wrestling, and/or throwing things. Whatever other motives people think Walt might’ve had in killing Mike the main one appeared to be two parts, both to do with ego: 1) Mike insulted/belittled him – which is the main one in my opinion – and 2) Mike didn’t give Walt what he wanted.
And by now I’m sure you’re screaming at the screen: “Then what the f**k is he?! Tell me!!”
My best guess is Walter White is actually a narcissist. Closely related to sociopath and with similar characteristics at times, but not the same thing. Sociopaths are known to be narcissistic, yes, but not at the same level or even in the same ways. Sociopaths like to think they’re gods, but acknowledge at least to themselves they have some shortcomings while narcissists can’t. A narcissist needs to be seen as the best, sociopaths don’t give two shits about what others think of them. They don’t need applause; they like it, sure, but do not need it. A sociopath may carefully construct another’s downfall (like Gus with Don Eladio), but a narcissist will explode in the moment (like Walt with Jesse, Mike, and numerous others).
Just from those distinctions alone one can see Walter White’s more narcissist than sociopath. Walt seems to truly believe he’s a perfect person and wants, needs, everyone to believe and acknowledge that. Any threat to his image as a good man or criminal is met with great, sometimes near uncontrollable, upset on his part. Any mistakes or failures on Walt’s part are brushed off onto others (frequently Jesse) or as a matter of circumstances beyond anyone’s control. He continued in the meth business not for the money, not even for the power, but to stroke his own ego. Being the best became a point of pride to Walt that he couldn’t let go.
If you look at the symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder you can see aspects of Walter White’s personality throughout. According to the description in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) NPD symptoms are as follows:
A. Significant impairments in personality functioning manifested by:
1. Impairments in self functioning (a or b):
a. Identity: Excessive reference to others for self-definition and self-esteem regulation; exaggerated self-appraisal may be inflated or deflated, or vacillate between extremes; emotional regulation mirrors fluctuations in self-esteem.
b. Self-direction: Goal-setting is based on gaining approval from others; personal standards are unreasonably high in order to see oneself as exceptional, or too low based on a sense of entitlement; often unaware of own motivations.
2. Impairments in interpersonal functioning (a or b):
a. Empathy: Impaired ability to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others; excessively attuned to reactions of others, but only if perceived as relevant to self; over- or underestimate of own effect on others.
b. Intimacy: Relationships largely superficial and exist to serve self-esteem regulation; mutuality constrained by little genuine interest in others’ experiences and predominance of a need for personal gain
B. Pathological personality traits in the following domain:
- Antagonism, characterized by:
a. Grandiosity: Feelings of entitlement, either overt or covert; self-centeredness; firmly holding to the belief that one is better than others; condescending toward others.
b. Attention seeking: Excessive attempts to attract and be the focus of the attention of others; admiration seeking.
C. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are relatively stable across time and consistent across situations.
D. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are not better understood as normative for the individual’s developmental stage or socio-cultural environment.
E. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are not solely due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., severe head trauma).
So the last three (C, D, E) we can check off straight away…Walt’s personality cannot be dismissed as the result of normal development, socio-cultural environment, substances, or a medical condition. Yes, Walt’s got cancer and gets chemo, but those do not account for his personality during the show and it’s shown in flash backs that he was probably always this way. Now let’s break the rest of the symptoms down and see how Mr White’s personality fits.
Impairments in self functioning – Identity or Self-direction: Does your self-esteem depend on how others see you? Do you think you’re the greatest thing since Coca-Cola or the scum of the Earth…or rapidly switch between both? Does control over your own emotions depend upon your self-esteem? (or) Are your goals based on getting others to like you? Are your personal standards super high because you think you’re awesome enough to achieve them or super low because you feel entitled to just be given things without the work? Do you do things without honestly knowing why you do them?
I bet his answers would all align along yes if Walt was being honest. One can easily see that control of his emotions weighs heavily on his self-esteem, which in turn depends greatly on others’ opinions of him. The better he feels about himself the better control Walt has over his emotions, but when his ego is attacked he tends to explode. Mike’s murder was one example: it wasn’t a pre-planned kill, but a reaction, and given there were no signs of desperate panic when he pulled the trigger it’s safe to assume Walt was just reacting to the attacks on his ego. It’s neither the first nor last time Walt does this either: when Skylar shows fear for his safety Walt snaps, rants, and angrily declares “I AM THE DANGER” and when former partners dismiss his involvement in their once-shared technology company, Gray Matter, Walt leaves hiding to go on a few final ego-boosting adventures that include threatening said former partners.
As far as his personal standards one need to look no farther than the conversation he has with Jesse where he says: “…You asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business…neither. I’m in the empire business.”
Oh and, of course, it takes Walt the whole series to finally acknowledge his true motives: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it…” Years and years of claiming he was only in the drug business to ensure his family would be financially secure after his death and, finally, he acknowledges the truth. A relief to his wife, but also a sign that Walter wasn’t self-aware enough to even recognize his own motives until the end.
Impairments in interpersonal functioning – Empathy or Intimacy: Do you have trouble understanding the feelings or needs of others? Are you super into reading others reactions, but only as it relates to you? Do you think you’re always the catalyst for others or that what you do has no real influence on others? (or) Are most your relationships with others mainly shallow and only there to keep your self-esteem up? Are your relationships at a superficial level because you have little actual interest in the other person and are focused on what you can gain from them instead?
Again, I’m imagining a lot of yeses for Walt. Given we already covered Walt’s empathy issues let’s skip to relationships…specifically the one with meth-partner, Jesse Pinkman, since that’s the main relationship he has throughout the show. Their relationship starts when Walt blackmails Jesse into starting a meth business together so, right off the bat, it’s about what Jesse can do for Walt. It never really improves. Walt is constantly berating and belittling Jesse for something, whether a minor glitch in thinking (keys in the ignition) or not seeing things as Walt does (Gus is just using Jesse to keep Walt working for him). Even after stating that they’re partners Walt treats Jesse as an inferior…not only because he still views Jesse as such, but because abusing Jesse makes him feel better about himself – essentially Jesse becomes a “stupid junky loser” puppy Walt can kick around whenever frustrated.
Their dysfunctional relationship feeds Walt’s ego so that he ultimately does some pretty immoral things to ensure Jesse stays with him. How can one be sure it’s not some kind of twisted, obsessed, “if I can’t have Jesse then no one else can”, father-son/familial love? I confess, one can’t…but given Walt never really asks Jesse anything about his own life that seems hugely unlikely (“what’s your problem, why won’t you cook?” doesn’t count, that’s all about what Walt wants). You can’t have a deep bond with another person if you don’t actually care to know anything about them beyond your one mutual interest. Walt may think he loves Jesse like a son, but how can he if his relationship with the young man is pretty much just based around their meth business? (Also, honestly, look at the relationship he has with his actual son. It’s about as shallow: they have breakfast, hang out every once in a while, and that’s about it…the deepest conversations they have are tainted by the fact that Walt’s hiding a double life.)
Pathological personality traits in…Grandiosity and Attention Seeking: Do you feel entitled to the best? Is it all about you? (Again) Do you think you’re the greatest thing since Coca-Cola? Are you super snarky towards others? Do you work super hard to be the center of attention all the time? Do you seek admiration?
Walt literally said “It’s all about me!” once so he’s obviously going to be racking up the affirmatives here. (True, at that point he happened to be right, but he didn’t know that and it seems a steady mindset of his anyhow.) We already discussed how frequently he condescends to Jesse, but he doesn’t just act that way towards his business partner. From his wife to his adversaries Walt has a tendency to give speeches that contain phrases like “let’s think this through” or “do you honestly think” with the intent of demeaning and mocking the other person’s feelings and intelligence. There is no doubt he has a brilliant mind and can cook high-grade meth – which honestly only feeds his narcissism – but to start he really isn’t anything special crime-wise. He barely survives his first weeks in the criminal world and survives the following months due in no small part to the help of others around him and sheer luck. Yet Walt has a consistent attitude of superiority.
Now a quick word about Heisenberg. Not as a separate entity from Walt – they’re obviously the same person – but as the mask behind which Walt can satisfy all his desires for attention and admiration. While Heisenberg might’ve first come as a way to hide Walter’s true identity (and thus protect his family) from unsavory associates like Tuco, it fast becomes a point of pride. Heisenberg is a mysterious, dangerous, drug-lord with the purist meth ever seen; Heisenberg is a man to be feared and respected. Heisenberg can and will do whatever he must to be the best and everyone better know that unless they want to go the way of previous local and international drug kingpins like Krazy-8 Molina, Tuco (and Hector) Salamanca, and Gustavo Fring. The pinnacle of ego-boosts via this name comes with the now infamous “Say my name” scene. Walt NEEDS to hear his drug “colleague” Declan say that now world-famous moniker. Heisenberg. Is that narcissism? …You’re goddamn right.