Walter White, Hitchcock, and the Fallacy of “Bad Fans”


Last week’s rattling episode of Breaking Bad has already inspired a small anthology’s worth of online criticism. This post attempts to dismantle one or the most prevalent arguments made in relation to that episode, and the show as a whole. It contains no actual spoilers.

The episode, “Ozymandias,” once again forces us to reassess how we feel about Walter White, the show’s slippery anti-hero. Much of the discussion has focused on an explosive phone call between Walt and Skyler. In reference to this specific scene, many of our finest TV critics have written recaps and tweets mocking those who continue to hold warm feelings for Mr. White. These viewers are “bad fans” who are “watching wrong,” says Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker. They are the same simpletons who misinterpreted the ending of The Sopranos or thought that show had “not enough whackings,” says Matt Zoller Seitz and Mo Ryan. They are “freaking me out” says Linda Holmes of NPR. They are, quite simply, the “the worst of #BreakingBad fans,” says Alyssa Rosenberg.

There’s something amiss here, and it’s not just the obvious contempt these writers have for viewers with whom they disagree. In the eyes of these critics, Walter White supporters are either mindless thrill-seekers whose ideal version of Breaking Bad is a parade of Heisenberg outbursts, or they’re just morally dubious people who’ll rationalize any evil. The mere fact that they continue to identify with Walt suggests that there’s something wrong with them, either as viewers or as people.

Alfred Hitchcock, I think, would disagree. Here, I quote from Francois Truffaut’s book-length interview of the director. In the below excerpt, Hitchcock outlines a cinematic scenario in which viewers see a bomb concealed beneath Adolf Hitler’s table:

Even in that case I don’t think the public would say, “Oh, good, they’re all going to be blown to bits,” but rather, they’ll be thinking, “Watch out. There’s a bomb!” What it means is that the apprehension of the bomb is more powerful than the feelings of sympathy or dislike for the characters involved […] Let’s take another example. A curios person goes into somebody else’s room and begins to search through the drawers. Now, you show the person who lives in that room coming up the stairs. Then you go back to the person who is searching, and the public feels like warning him, “Be careful, watch out, someone’s coming up the stairs.” Therefore, even if the snooper is not a likable character, the audience will still feel anxiety for him.”

Hitchcock argues, and I’d agree, that viewers will identify with just about any protagonist in peril, no matter how repugnant he or she may be. That’s suspense. Gifted filmmakers can make us fear for Hitler. They can certainly make us fear for Walter White, a character whose evolution we’ve followed for years. Walt’s likeability as a person is irrelevant here. He remains our protagonist, and so long as he does, many among us will continue to shout, “Watch out. There’s a bomb!” when he’s in danger. Our identification has little to do with the specifics of Walt’s actions. He could have murdered Holly last week, and still we’d find his supporters populating comments sections across the Internet.

That may sound disturbing, but it’s really not. It is, if anything, a sign of the show’s greatness. Vince Gilligan has lured many of us into identifying with a monster. Some have taken this identification to extremes, bending over backwards to justify Walt’s behavior. This is, I’d argue, a very logical continuation of the Hitchcock doctrine: In scenes of great suspense, many viewers will feel for the subject, even if he’s not so likeable, and even if he sowed the seeds of his own destruction.

Critics may hiss and claim these viewers are “watching it wrong.” But what they’re protesting, ultimately, is a visceral response to cinematic suspense.

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I’m a communications officer at a nonprofit advocacy organization in New York City. At work, I pay OCD-like attention to words, images, and the impressions they leave. After hours, I watch directors do the same on celluloid and digital video. Cinema is the most effective natural stimulant I know.

Latest posts by Soheil Rezayazdi (see all)

  • Jason Mittell

    You should read many comment threads where fans are expressing their sympathy for Walt - what’s disturbing is not that they still care for the monster, but that they blame Skyler, Hank, Flynn, Marie, etc. for causing various ills to fall upon the White family. And that’s completely irrelevant to your evocation of suspense.

  • ahorwitt

    Missing the point. The “bad fans” aren’t merely reacting, in the moment, because of a suspenseful and natural identification with the protagonist. They’re, *after the fact*, participating in a *moral discussion* about the protagonist’s actions and explicitly defending all of his immoral deeds.

  • Kyle Burton

    On the whole, I’m not sure the defense of Walter White is necessarily the defense of his morals, but his stature as a character. Reducing Walter White to out-and-out evil and villainy insults the show. As great of critics as MZS and Ms. Nussbaum are, there is a collection of writers who at times have trod close to disambiguating Walter White’s motives and actions. We should not mistake corruption for evil.

  • SlackerInc

    I don’t agree with everything here but I tip my hat to how well argued and researched it is. Kudos!

  • Derek Deskins

    For as awful as that phone call was it was far from Walter White’s most villainous moment. As he oozed the vitriol over the phone, he was doing it, as everything in the past few seasons, with a clear purpose. It is ridiculous to think that Walter didn’t recognize that the police were on the line, so as he unleashed the floodgates of hatred on Skylar, he was essentially setting her free. He took full blame in a roundabout way and made it so she need not worry about punishment from the law. This moment in the episode is the most clear meeting of Walter White and Heisenberg; an attempt to do good in the most evil of ways.

    Now Walter telling Jesse about Jane, well that’s a completely different story.

  • Diana Lee

    Walter has done and said some truly horrible things, but the phone call to Skyler was totally different. He was protecting her and the children by saying what he did.