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.”