Breaking Bad 5.5 starts Sunday night, so those of us who are hooked have just eight episodes to watch before learning whether Walter White lives or dies. Bryan Cranston has won three consecutive Emmy Awards for outstanding lead actor in this AMC drama series, in which he plays White, a high school chemistry teacher turned "cooker" of methamphetamine.
Breaking Bad is the latest in a series of extraordinary television programs where we root for the bad guy. Tony Soprano. Dexter. Don Draper in Mad Men. Nicholas Brody in Homeland. Frank Underwood in House of Cards. And now, Ray Donovan in the eponymous series.
There is a debate raging in the blogosphere as to the most suitable ending for Breaking Bad. So it was no surprise when, two weeks ago, at a panel discussion I attended sponsored by the New York Times, Cranston was asked for his opinion on whether his character should live or die. Before answering, he first wanted to know: "Are you asking Bryan, or are you asking Walt?"
"Bryan," was the answer, prompting Cranston to say:
"I think there's a good case for that [death]. ... Maybe that's the fitful end, and yet, what if the thing he wanted the most, which was the togetherness of his family, what if he lived, and they didn't? Wouldn't that be a worse hell to be in?"
Sensing the wonderment from the crowd that perhaps he'd just tipped his hand, Cranston quickly added: "Or maybe he should die."
That there is even a debate over the drug-kingpin star of the series just recognized by the Television Critics Association as the program of the year is itself a testament to the show's creator, Vince Gilligan.
Of course Walt should die!
This is a man who has killed about two dozen people directly, and hundreds, if not thousands, indirectly. Have we forgotten when he chained Krazy 8 to a basement pole? Or that he let Jesse Pinkman's girlfriend (Jane) die after choking on her own vomit when he could have saved her? Or that Jane's father was then so despondent that he lost his focus as an air-traffic controller, causing an airline disaster in which nearly 200 people died? Walt poisoned a child, and relied on neo-Nazis to kill incarcerated drug traffickers rather than continue their "hazard pay." Death is too kind for a man like him.
And yet, with 54 episodes down and just eight to go, I'm one of the many who are still rooting for him, something that surprises Gilligan.
"What I was worried about in the early days was that people would not engage with him, that we wouldn't be able to set the hook, as it were, because he wouldn't be likable enough," Gilligan said. "Because I knew going into it that this guy is going to be cooking crystal meth. What the hell is worse than that? I mean, it destroys whole communities. There's really not anything good to be said about crystal meth.
"So that first season, I really front-loaded it - gave Bryan an array of economic hardships against him, did everything I could from a writer's perspective . . . to make us want to root for this guy. Then, as he got worse and worse, and the character got darker and darker and then made more questionable choices, I thought, 'Well, hopefully, the hook is set now. People will keep watching even if they don't like him as much, sympathize as much.'
"Lo and behold . . . 54 episodes in, people are still rooting for this guy! And I'm like, 'Really? Seriously?' Hey, God bless you. Not me so much. . . . I mean, I want you to be interested in him, but I would have guessed the character - nothing to do with Bryan, but everything to do with the choices the character has made - that at this point that he would lack sympathizability. But not so, for a great number of viewers."
The only character who has maintained his scruples is Hank Schrader, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent, who is also Walter's brother-in-law. When we last saw Hank, he was sitting on the commode, perusing a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, in which he reads an inscription that seems to unlock the true identity of Heisenberg (Walter's nom de guerre in the drug trade). On paper, Hank is the sort of guy I'd root for, and yet, watching Breaking Bad, I don't have concern for him the way I do Walt, or Jesse.
I consulted Paul R. Puri to try to understand my allegiances. You'd think Central Casting sent Dr. Puri to answer my questions: He is a psychiatrist in private practice in Los Angeles who writes teleplays in his nonclinical time.
Puri told me that part of Walt's appeal lies in the fact that the rest of us are not about to "break bad," but we enjoy the escape of living through the exploits of someone who does. He also thinks we are waiting to see if he will turn his life around.
"We rooted for him originally because he was a well-meaning man who was tragic and sympathetic," Puri said. "His greater purpose was identifiable to each of us: to support our family. And ultimately, his transformation into a villain is our own fantasy fulfillment as viewers. We each have dark impulses that we'd never admit in public, that we believe makes us evil, our sociopathic traits that we keep in check.
"Walter is the embodiment of that, now unleashed. We want to see how far he'll go, because he started out as us [the spectator, the honest, hardworking schoolteacher]. We haven't turned away, because secretly there's a hope of redemption, or of the tragic ending, maybe to justify for ourselves why we choose to not go down that path. Or maybe it's just fun to watch the creation of a crime boss from a shell of man."
Puri makes sense. Although Warren Buffett is apparently attracted for a different reason. The Berkshire Hathaway maven is a devotee who is attracted, in part, because he thinks Walter White is a "great businessman."
Michael Smerconish can be heard from 9 a.m. to noon on Sirius XM's POTUS Channel 124.