On Sunday night, the final season of Breaking Bad begins, answering the question everyone is wondering: Just how badly will it end for Walter White? As played by Bryan Cranston, White seems destined for a fall of epic proportions. You can blame his downfall on plenty of factors—greed, vanity, the criminal lifestyle—but in retrospect, his presumably inevitable collapse is also the by-product of his hopelessly old-fashioned view of masculinity. White shouldn’t be too hard on himself, though: Just about every male on Breaking Bad is infected with the same failing, getting wrapped up in poisonous notions of what constitutes a “real man.” Consequently, the show’s power struggles have proved to be a compelling, despairing escalation of one gigantic dick-measuring competition. That it might get them all killed seems beside the point to the participants.
When the show began in 2008, creator Vince Gilligan introduced us to the sympathetic White, a modest high school chemistry teacher working part-time at a car wash to make ends meet. Diagnosed with terminal lung cancer—even though he never smoked—and having little money in the bank, he desperately wants to figure out a way to financially support his pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and cerebral palsy–afflicted teen son Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) before he dies. As luck would have it, White soon runs into a former student, a drug-dealing loser named Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), and hits upon the idea of using his chemistry background to produce a purer strain of crystal meth than what is currently available in his Albuquerque community.
Naturally, White’s plan to make a few illegal bucks doesn’t go smoothly, resulting in the destruction of his marriage, the deaths of several associates and the slow erosion of his soul. But, aside from a few murders, it’s possible he wouldn’t change a thing. From the show’s beginning, White’s struggle has been about reasserting himself after being ensnared in a humiliating set of circumstances: He is forced to hand-wash cars and is endlessly picked on by his macho brother-in-law, DEA agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris)—whom Walter Jr. seems to admire more than his own dad.
It is the cancer diagnosis that reignites White’s spark, inspiring him to loudly and publicly quit the car wash job (complete with crotch-grabbing gesture to his overbearing boss). His transformation into a feared, envied meth cook has been, in part, about aspiring to become a different person from the pushover Walter White that everyone in town knows. His pseudonym, “Heisenberg,” isn’t just a convenient persona to illicit awe and fear in his competitors: It’s a badass, larger-than-life doppelgänger that permits White to reinvent himself as a dangerous lone wolf.
And from the start, we’ve seen how White imagines what a “better,” manlier version of himself would be. At the end of the first episode, he confidently takes his wife from behind in bed; her shock suggests this is either a new move or one that hasn’t shown itself in quite some time. He also strikes back at local kids making fun of his son’s cerebral palsy by stomping on one of their legs—a meant-to-be-rousing moment where the pushed-around little guy finally stands up to the bully. For White, being assertive means being overly aggressive—an alpha male—and as Breaking Bad has rolled along, that aggression has escalated frighteningly as he’s not only killed people but also fed off the power such acts produce.
Possibly the most emblematic moment of the series comes when White barks at his wife, who’s concerned for his safety, “Who are you talking to right now? Who is it you think you see?… I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger.” White might have misgivings about some of the things he’s done, but he’s happy the meek old White is gone—the rush of adrenaline and testosterone makes him feel indestructible. After all, it’s not a midlife crisis that inspires him to dump his boring Pontiac Aztek and get a sports car—it’s the need to find a vehicle that matches the power and speed of his new life as a “man.”
As far as White’s concerned, cooking meth is completely justified because of his belief about what a man’s role in a family is. He didn’t get into making meth to hurt people and profit off of junkies; he just wants to make tons of money for Skyler and his kids before he dies. Breaking Bad fiendishly set its drama in motion by playing on universal laments: White resides in a world where the economic downturn rages on and teachers barely make a living wage. In such a world, he views himself as a failure as a breadwinner—compounded by the fact that he’s still bitter about walking away from a technology company he helped found that’s now worth billions.
But as White’s lies and double life drive a deeper wedge between himself and his family, it’s the calmly ferocious and brilliant local meth kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) who appeals to White’s masculinity to continue cooking. “What does a man do, Walter? A man provides for his family,” Fring reminds him. “When you have children, you always have family—they will always be your priority, your responsibility. And a man—a man provides. And he does it, even when he’s not appreciated or respected or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it. Because he’s a man.” The speech works because Fring knows White is the sort of man susceptible to appeals to his paternal pride. Being a criminal doesn’t scare White—being thought of as a worthless father and husband does.
In fact, no one on Breaking Bad is immune to machismo. If Fring represents to White a levelheaded, reasonable approach to living outside the law, even he is felled by manly impulses. In public, Fring hides behind the gentle, friendly persona of the owner of a chain of fast-food stores—a timid Clark Kent to his real, superpowered self. But in private, he clings to a long-held grudge against the Mexican cartel with which he’s been linked for years. In a flashback, we witness a younger, less confident Fring watch helplessly as his former partner is killed by the cartel right in front of him. Fring’s humiliation is a sting he’s never forgotten.
And that’s why, despite all his success and power, he is still waiting for the day he can complete his revenge on the cartel—particularly upon Hector (Mark Margolis), now an elderly man living in an Albuquerque nursing home who can’t speak and is confined to a wheelchair. As smart and unemotional as he is, Fring savors tormenting Hector, informing the man each time he’s eliminated one of his family members. Fring should let this battle for supremacy go—Hector long ago lost his power—but still he wants to continue disgracing him. Of course, that’s exactly what gets Gus killed, as White correctly guesses that Fring will confront Hector personally when he thinks the man has gone to the DEA, leaving him vulnerable to the makeshift bomb strapped to Hector’s wheelchair.
Being a man—or, more specifically, becoming a man—is an issue for White’s young meth partner as well. Pinkman possesses a vision of manhood that’s inspired largely by the overinflated virility of the gangster rap he bumps in his car: taunting, juvenile, abrasive. Even his catchphrase “Bitches!”—which he uses to punctuate put-downs and exclamations alike—is telling because it degrades other people’s masculinity to pump up his own. What’s been fascinating, however, is watching Pinkman gradually confront his sensitive side. Whether it’s an innocent boy he finds in a frightening crack den or a recovering addict he falls in love with, Pinkman has consistently realized that his über-macho persona can’t conceal his concern for other lost souls like himself. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Pinkman is the one who wants out of the meth game: Unlike Walter White, he’s become less enamored with the idea of being the big man, which White views as weakness.
Equating emotions with weakness is an even bigger problem with Schrader, whose oversize, guy’s-guy personality paints him into a corner after he has trouble coping with his killing of a violent meth dealer. Rather than listen to his wife and seek counseling for his PTSD, Schrader holds on to an archaic John Wayne–style of taciturn manliness that forces him to swallow his anxiety, which only intensifies his frayed nerves. When he’s nearly killed by Mexican hit men and has to go through painful physical therapy to walk again, Schrader feels emasculated. Robbed of his swagger, he pouts and watches porn; no matter how much his wife cajoles and supports him, his job—a manly purpose—is the thing that finally helps him get back on his feet.
Assuming that Breaking Bad ends darkly, which Gilligan has been hinting at since last year, no doubt the show will go out as the cautionary tale it’s always been. But don’t think for a second that its warning extends only to those who believe crime pays. In fact, Mike Ehrmantraut (played by Jonathan Banks), Fring’s head of security, tried to warn White of this very problem right before White killed him. Calling out White for needing to be top dog and offing Fring, Ehrmantraut barks, “You could have shut your mouth and cooked and made as much money as you would have ever needed. But no, you just had to blow it up. You and your pride and your ego—you just had to be the man.” In the world of Breaking Bad, being the man is a drug more addictive than meth—but it’s also a disease that’s deadlier than cancer.
Tim Grierson is Playboy for iPhone’s critic-at-large. You can follow him on Twitter.