The Barrel as Abyss: How Guns Changed Walter White

Breaking Bad as a metaphor for the effect of firearms on personality.

Chances are, you’ve known someone affected by cancer. Me personally, I lost both my maternal grandparents to lung cancer, and my mother-in-law to breast cancer. It’s the saddest fact of life, that it ends, but the way people respond to such internal adversity has the ability to redefine how they live and how they reorient their priorities.

Case in point, Breaking Bad, in which a cancer diagnosis drops like a nuclear bomb into the life of Walter White, a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher. Like most everyone who receives such news, this changes Walt in a heartbeat, and suddenly all his abstract troubles and fears are very real, right in his face, and now come with a ticking clock attached to their solutions. In order to ensure his family will be provided for after he’s gone, Walt undertakes a very, very drastic career change: he becomes a meth cook. Over the course of six seasons, this decision alters Walt in ways he – and we – never would have considered nor could have imagined. The Walter White in the series’ final episode is a far cry from the man we met in episode one, and that’s because his diagnosis changed his life, which in turn changed his persona, it hardened it, made it more cruel but also more resilient.

However, let’s hang on a second, because cancer doesn’t turn everyone into a criminal mastermind, rather, it hardly turns anyone into such a thing. Therefore it seems reasonable to assume it wasn’t just cancer and cooking meth that made Walt into the badass he is at his story’s conclusion. The criminal life has many alluring attributes and comes with many persona-masking accessories, first and foremost among them firearms. If you’ve ever held a gun you know it changes you. It comes with a potential for power we hardly ever connect with: the ability to eradicate at a thought’s notice. Life is all we have, so to have any sort of control over it, especially such a bombastic sort of control as comes with firearms, can be intoxicating at worst, perspective-shifting at best.

In the latest video essay from Larry Erens for Filmscalpel, the hypothesis isn’t that it was cancer that so drastically altered Walter White, it was his increasing familiarity and comfort with firearms. We are talking, after all, about a guy who could hardly stand to hold a pistol in the pilot but then rigged a self-directed, automatic machine gun in his trunk in the series’ finale.

This essay is nothing short of genius, it’s a great angle to come at the character of Walter White and a timely examination of the ability firearms have to alter those who wield them.

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Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist