Walter Hartwell White Sr., also known by his clandestine alias Heisenberg, is a fictional character and the main protagonist of Breaking Bad. He is portrayed by Bryan Cranston. A graduate of the California Institute of Technology, Walt was once a promising chemist who cofounded the company Gray Matter Technologies with his close friend Elliot Schwartz and his then-girlfriend Gretchen. He left Gray Matter abruptly, selling his shares for $5,000; soon afterward, the company made a fortune, much of it from his research. Walt subsequently moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he became a high school chemistry teacher. Breaking Bad begins on Walter's 50th birthday, when he is diagnosed with Stage IIIA lung cancer. After this discovery, he resorts to manufacturing methamphetamine and drug dealing to ensure his family's financial security after his death and to pay for his cancer treatment. He is pulled deeper into the illicit drug trade, becoming more and more ruthless as the series progresses, and later adopts the alias "Heisenberg", which becomes recognizable as the kingpin figure in the local drug trade. Series creator Vince Gilligan has described his goal with Walter White as "turning Mr. Chips into Scarface", and deliberately made the character less sympathetic over the course of the series. Walt's evolution from mild-mannered school teacher and family man to ruthless criminal mastermind and murderer is the show's central focus.
Although AMC officials hesitated to cast Cranston due to his previous comedic role on Malcolm in the Middle, Gilligan cast him based on the actor's past performance in the X-Files episode "Drive", which Gilligan wrote. Cranston contributed greatly to the creation of his character, including Walt's backstory, physical appearance, and personality traits. Both the Walter White character and Bryan Cranston's performance have received critical acclaim, with White frequently being mentioned as one of the greatest and most iconic television characters of all time. Cranston won four Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, three of them being consecutive, becoming the second actor to do so since Bill Cosby for I Spy in the 1960s. Following his fourth win, Cranston tied Dennis Franz for the most wins in the category's history. He is the first man to win a Critics' Choice, Golden Globe, Primetime Emmy, SAG, and TCA Award for his performance.
Walter White was an only child. Walt's father died of Huntington's disease when he was six years old. He studied chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, where he conducted research on proton radiography that helped a team win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1985. After graduate school, Walt founded the firm Gray Matter Technologies with Elliott Schwartz (Adam Godley), his former classmate and close friend. Around this time, Walt dated his lab assistant, Gretchen (Jessica Hecht). He left both Gretchen and Gray Matter Technologies, selling his financial interest in the company for $5,000. Gretchen and Elliott later married and made a fortune, much of it from Walt's research. Though they remain friendly, Walt secretly resents both Gretchen and Elliott for profiting from his work.
At the age of 50, Walt works as a high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico, providing instruction to uninterested and disrespectful students. The job pays so poorly that Walt is forced to take another job at a local car wash to supplement his income, which proves to be particularly humiliating when he has to clean the cars of his own students. Walt and his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) have a teenage son named Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte), who has cerebral palsy. Skyler is also pregnant with their second child, Holly, who is born at the end of season two. Walt's other family includes Skyler's sister, Marie Schrader (Betsy Brandt); her husband, Hank (Dean Norris), who is a DEA agent; and his mother, who is never seen.
On Walt's 50th birthday, during his surprise party, he watches a news report about Hank's arrest of some methamphetamine drug dealers. Walt is impressed by the monetary returns from the meth operation, and Hank offers to take him as a ride-along to a DEA bust. The next day, Walt faints at the car wash and is taken to a hospital; there, he is told he has inoperable lung cancer and will likely die in two years. During the ride-along, Hank busts a crystal meth ring; Walt sees one of his former students, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), fleeing the scene, and deduces that Jesse is part of the operation. Looking to secure his family's well-being by producing and selling meth, Walt tracks Jesse down and blackmails him into setting up an operation. Walt gives Jesse his life savings to buy an RV that they can use as a rolling meth lab.
Jesse brings in two associates, Domingo "Krazy-8" Molina (Max Arciniega) and Emilio Koyama (John Koyama), to distribute the meth, but they recognize Walt from Hank's bust and try to kill him. Walt improvises a batch of red phosphorus that kills Emilio and incapacitates Krazy-8. Walt and Jesse chain Krazy-8 up in Jesse's house, planning to kill him. Walt decides to let Krazy-8 go after getting to know him, but is ultimately forced to strangle him to death with a bike lock after discovering that Krazy-8 was planning to stab him with a broken piece of plate.
As they make larger batches of meth, Walt and Jesse start using unregulated chemicals including methylamine, which tints their meth blue, a signature of Walt's product. Walt eventually tells his family about his cancer diagnosis, and they urge him to undergo expensive chemotherapy using money offered by Gretchen and Elliot. Walt secretly refuses the money, using his drug earnings to pay for treatment. The chemotherapy causes him to lose his hair, and he shaves his head and adopts the street name "Heisenberg", based on the theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg, which he uses when he interacts with drug dealers. By the end of the season, Walt and Jesse go into business with local drug lord Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz). The partnership is unstable, but after Walt and Jesse deliver their first batch of meth, Tuco intimidates the pair by senselessly beating one of his own men, No-Doze (played by Cesar Garcia), to death in front of them.
Walt's "blue meth" becomes incredibly popular, to the point that Hank takes notice. Meanwhile, a paranoid Tuco kidnaps Walt and Jesse. They manage to escape, however, and Tuco is killed in a gunfight with Hank. Walt explains his disappearance by claiming that he had gone into a fugue state as a result of his cancer medication and simply wandered off.
Walt hires unscrupulous criminal attorney Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) to cover his involvement in the drug trade and launder his drug money. At Saul's suggestion, Walt approaches meth kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and offers to work for him. Gus is reluctant after meeting Jesse, who is now using heroin with his girlfriend Jane Margolis (Krysten Ritter). Walt refuses to give Jesse his share of their drug money, but Jane blackmails him. After talking to a stranger at a bar about family – not knowing that the man is Jane's father Donald (John de Lancie) – Walt goes to Jesse's apartment and finds Jane and Jesse passed out in a heroin stupor. Walt accidentally turns Jane over and causes her to choke on her own vomit, but he does nothing to save her and watches her die. Walt has Saul clear any connection Jesse has to Jane's death, and convinces Jesse to enter rehab.
Meanwhile, with his cancer in remission, Walt undergoes an operation to remove the remaining cancerous growth. Walt's anesthesia-induced references to a "second cell phone" – the one he uses to deal drugs – makes Skyler suspicious, leading her to uncover many of his lies and leave with their children. Just after her departure, two passenger planes collide directly above Walt's house; the accident was caused by Donald, who works as an air traffic controller and was so overcome with grief that he was not paying attention to his work. Walt watches the accident in horror, unaware that he is indirectly responsible for it.
When Skyler demands to know what Walt has been hiding, he admits that he has been cooking meth. Horrified, Skyler asks for a divorce in return for her silence, and demands that Walt move out. She ultimately comes to uneasily accept the situation and helps Walt launder his drug money, but refuses to have anything to do with him outside of business. The rift in their marriage worsens when Skyler sleeps with her boss, Ted Beneke (Christopher Cousins). Walt tries to get back at her by making a pass at the principal at his school, who puts him on indefinite suspension.
Needing money, Walt takes Gus up on an offer to produce meth in a state-of-the-art laboratory hidden under an industrial laundry. Walt initially works with Gale Boetticher (David Costabile), but worries that Gale will replace him. He convinces Gus to replace him with Jesse. Two hitmen from the Mexican cartel that employs Gus are ordered by drug kingpin Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) – Tuco's uncle – to kill Walt. Gus protects Walt, however, and directs the assassins to Hank. Hank survives the ensuing assassination attempt, but is temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. Skyler strong-arms Walt into paying for Hank's care, and creates a cover story about Walt counting cards at casinos to explain his money.
In the final episodes of season three, Jesse discovers that drug dealers in Gus's organization were responsible for the death of a friend, and that they had used Tomas (Angelo Martinez), the 11-year-old brother of his new girlfriend Andrea (Emily Rios), to commit the act. When the dealers murder Tomas, Jesse plots revenge, but Walt intervenes by killing the dealers himself. Gus's cleaner Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) drags Walt to the laboratory and threatens to kill him unless he tells them where Jesse is hiding. Walt frantically calls Jesse and tells him to kill Gale to ensure that they don't outlive their usefulness to Gus. Jesse goes to Gale's house and shoots him dead.
In the aftermath of Gale's murder, Gus brings both Walt and Jesse to the lab, and kills his associate Victor right in front of them in a gruesome show of force. The tension of working under tighter security creates a rift between Walt and Jesse, and Gus uses the opportunity to bring Jesse to his side by having Mike train him in hopes of eventually replacing Walt. Walt figures out what Gus is up to and gives Jesse homemade ricin with which to poison Gus, but Jesse never goes through with it. Meanwhile, Walt buys the car wash where he used to work and uses it to launder his drug money.
After ridding himself of the Cartel's influence in the area, Gus fires Walt and warns him that if Hank gets any closer, he will have Walt's family killed. Walt tries to use one of Saul's connections to get him and his family relocated, but finds most of his drug money has been used by Skyler to pay off Ted's IRS fines to avoid having their own lives investigated. After arranging for his family's safety under the DEA, Walt resolves to kill Gus, but finds that the kingpin is far too protected. Walt begs for Jesse's help, but Jesse refuses.
Andrea's son Brock falls desperately ill, and Walt convinces Jesse that Gus poisoned the boy with ricin, gaining his help to get rid of Gus. Jesse tells Walt that Gus is vulnerable when he visits Hector in his nursing home. Walt makes a deal with Hector to draw Gus in by setting up a meeting with the DEA. When Gus comes to the nursing home to kill him, Hector detonates a pipe bomb Walt made, killing both himself and Gus. Walt and Jesse torch the hidden lab, and Walt calls Skyler to tell her they are safe and that he has "won".
After Brock recovers, Jesse says that the boy had likely been poisoned by accidentally eating Lily of the Valley berries, and Gus was not responsible; Walt responds that killing Gus was still the right thing to do. The final scene of the season is of a potted Lily of the Valley plant in Walt's backyard, indicating that Walt poisoned Brock to goad Jesse into action and further his plan to kill Gus.
In the first half of season five, Walt, Jesse and Mike eliminate their connection to the destroyed lab, and start a new meth production system with a corrupt pest control company, using residents' homes to cook meth while they are fumigated. They are aided by Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser), a representative for the conglomerate that owned Gus's franchise. Lydia leaks them information on where to obtain the required chemicals and in return wants some of the meth to sell to the Czech Republic. A young boy sees them during one robbery, and Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons), one of the pest control workers, kills him. Horrified, Jesse and Mike leave the business once they obtain their money from the last meth batch. When Walt learns Hank has connected the blue meth to Mike, he contacts Todd's uncle Jack (Michael Bowen), a criminal with ties to the Aryan Brotherhood, to kill nine of Mike's associates simultaneously to defer suspicion; Walt kills Mike personally. After a few months, Walt has earned more than $80 million from meth, and Skyler convinces him to stop.
Season 5's first half ends on a cliffhanger as Hank, while at a barbecue hosted by Walt, discovers a copy of Leaves of Grass given to Walt by Gale, and from its inscription, determines Walt is Heisenberg.
In the season's second half, Hank accuses Walt of being Heisenberg, which Walt neither confirms nor denies. Walt says that his cancer has returned and he will likely be dead in six months, making an arrest pointless. Hank says they can talk if Walt gives up his children, but Walt refuses and tells Hank to "tread lightly". Walt eventually forces Hank to remain silent by crafting a fake confessional videotape in which he states that Hank is Heisenberg.
Walt buries his money in seven barrels on the Tohajiilee Indian Reservation, and convinces Jesse to go into a relocation program. While waiting to be picked up, Jesse figures out that Walt poisoned Brock. Jesse approaches Hank and offers to help bring down Walt. With Hank's help, Jesse lures Walt into a trap by claiming to have found his money. Walt makes arrangements with Jack and his men to kill Jesse, in exchange for promising to help teach Todd how to cook meth. When Walt realizes Jesse is with Hank, he tries to call off the deal to protect Hank, but is subdued by Hank and Gomez. Just then, Jack and his men arrive and fire on the group, killing Hank, despite Walt's repeated protest. Jack's men take all but one barrel of Walt's money and abduct Jesse; as Jesse is taken away, Walt spitefully tells him that he watched Jane die.
Walt tries to persuade Skyler and Walter Jr. to go on the run with him, but they refuse. He kidnaps Holly, but has a moment of conscience and leaves her to be found and returned. He calls Skyler, knowing that the police are listening in, and berates her for failing to follow his orders, as a way of clearing her of involvement in his crimes. Walt then goes into hiding and is sent to live in isolation in New Hampshire.
After several months alone, Walt goes to a local bar, where he calls Walter Jr. and tries to give him money. Walter Jr. angrily rejects the gesture, however, and hangs up. Feeling hopeless, Walt calls the DEA and gives himself up. As he waits for them, however, he sees Gretchen and Elliott on Charlie Rose dismissing his contributions to Gray Matter, and he is determined to return to Albuquerque to put things right.
When Walter arrives in Albuquerque – on his 52nd birthday – he intimidates Gretchen and Elliott into putting his remaining money into a trust fund for Walter Jr. He then visits Skyler and gives her the location of Hank's body so she can clear herself as a suspect in his death, and finally admits to her that he entered the meth business for himself, not his family. As a token of appreciation, Skyler lets him see his children one last time. He then arranges to see Lydia, secretly poisoning her with ricin after learning where Jack has taken Jesse. Walt drives to Jack's compound and demands to see Jesse. When they bring Jesse, who has been chained up in a lab and forced to cook meth since his abduction, Walt dives atop him while simultaneously starting a remote machine gun mounted in his car that kills most of Jack's men. Walt and Jesse kill Jack and Todd. Walt urges Jesse to kill him, but Jesse notices Walt had been shot by his own trap and tells him to do it himself. Walt then finds that he has been fatally wounded. He answers a call from Lydia on Todd's phone and coldly informs her that she is going to die. He exchanges a knowing nod with Jesse, who escapes the compound. Walt takes a moment to admire the lab equipment that Jesse had been using, and finally succumbs to his wounds and collapses dead on the floor as the police arrive and sweep the lab.
Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan cast Bryan Cranston for the role of Walter White based on having worked with him in a sixth season episode of the science fiction television series The X-Files, where Gilligan worked as a writer. Cranston played an anti-Semite with a terminal illness who took Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) hostage. Gilligan said the character had to be simultaneously loathsome and sympathetic, and that "Bryan alone was the only actor who could do that, who could pull off that trick. And it is a trick. I have no idea how he does it." AMC officials were initially reluctant with the casting choice, having known Cranston only as the over-the-top character Hal on the comedy series Malcolm in the Middle and approached actors John Cusack and Matthew Broderick about the role. When both actors declined, the executives were persuaded to cast Cranston after seeing the X-Files episode.
Cranston contributed a great deal to the character's persona. When Gilligan left much of Walter's past unexplained during the development of the series, the actor wrote his own back story for the character. At the start of the show, Cranston gained 10 pounds to reflect the character's personal decline. He had the natural red highlights of his hair dyed a regular brown. He collaborated with costume designer Kathleen Detoro on a wardrobe of mostly neutral green and brown colors to make the character bland and unremarkable, and worked with makeup artist Frieda Valenzuela to create a mustache he described as "impotent" and like a "dead caterpillar". Cranston has also repeatedly identified elements in scripts where he disagreed with how the character was handled, and has gone so far as to call Gilligan directly when he could not work out disagreements with the episode screenwriters. Cranston has said he was inspired partially by his father for how Walt carries himself physically, which he described as "a little hunched over, never erect, [as if] the weight of the world is on this man's shoulders". In contrast to his character, Cranston has been described as extremely playful on set, with Aaron Paul describing him as "a kid trapped in a man's body".
Gilligan has said it has been difficult to write for Walter White because the character is so dark and morally questionable: "I'm going to miss the show when it's over, but on some level, it'll be a relief to not have Walt in my head anymore." As the series progressed, Gilligan and the writing staff of Breaking Bad made Walter more and more unsympathetic. Gilligan said: "He's going from being a protagonist to an antagonist. We want to make people question who they're pulling for, and why." Cranston said by the fourth season: "I think Walt's figured out it's better to be a pursuer than the pursued. He's well on his way to badass." Regarding White's fate in the series ending, Cranston foresaw it as "ugly [with no] redemption", although earlier, Gilligan divulged his plans to "end on a high note, in a way that will satisfy everyone".
The character development of Walter White as well as Bryan Cranston's performance have received overwhelming critical acclaim. Walter White is considered to be one of the greatest and most iconic characters in television history.
Since watching [the fifth season episode, "Confessions", I've been thinking a lot about Walter White, the 'shadow' on his recent CAT scan, and the black cloud that has long since overtaken his heart. The closer we get to the end, the more Walt scrabbles around and lashes out like a rat when it's surrounded, the less I'm buying Vince Gilligan's whole 'Mr. Chips to Scarface' quote as an analogy for Walt's transformation. That's the route the character has taken these five seasons, sure, in terms of his changing context. But I think the most horrifying part of Breaking Bad may be that Walt, at his core, didn't really transform at all. It wasn't greed or generosity or cancer or fear that fueled this reign of death and destruction. It was resentment. Seething, burning resentment, the kind that forms not due to poor treatment but due to an innate knowledge that you, the aggrieved, are better than said treatment, better than everyone who has somehow gotten the better of you over the years. ... Every moment Walt spent in front of a classroom he was thinking about how beneath him it all was. He was a genius; he was meant to be a millionaire, not this castrated cross between stepping stone and doormat. When you got down to it, Walt desperately wanted to teach every one ... a lesson, and I don't mean in the style of Mr. Chips.
Similarly, Scott Meslow wrote in The Atlantic that Walt's capacity for villainy was present well before the series even began, and that cancer was merely the catalyst: "all the elements that have since turned him into a monster were already in place."
New York magazine writer Emma Rosenblum said Bryan Cranston "pulls off the unassuming White with flawless subtlety: a waxy pallor, a slump of the shoulders, and a sense of doom that is palpable". The Hollywood Reporter writer Tim Goodman praised as courageous Vince Gilligan's decision to transform Walter White into an unsympathetic character: "You don't take your main character and make him unlikable. You just don't. Nobody does that. Nobody has ever really done that to this extent." Robert Bianco of USA Today called Walt "one of the greatest dramatic creations ever to grace our TV screens". In 2011, the New York Times named Cranston as one of the "eight actors who turn television into art". Following the show's conclusion, actor Anthony Hopkins wrote a fan letter to Cranston, wherein he praised the show and called Cranston's performance as Walter White the best acting he had ever seen.
Cranston has received various awards and nominations for his performance as Walter White. For the first three seasons, he won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series thrice consecutively, becoming the first actor to accomplish this feat since Bill Cosby for I Spy. Cranston was also nominated in 2012 and 2013 for season four and the first half of season five, but lost out to Damian Lewis for Homeland and Jeff Daniels for The Newsroom, respectively. He also won his fourth Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, at the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards
At the annual Golden Globe Awards, Cranston has been nominated for the Best Actor – Television Series Drama accolade on four occasions for his role in Breaking Bad, in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014, winning in 2014 for the second half of season five. At the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Cranston has been nominated for Male Actor in a Drama Series five times, in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014, winning in 2013 and 2014, for both parts of season five. Also, Cranston has been nominated with the rest of the cast for Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series, in 2012, 2013 and 2014, winning in 2014.
In addition, Cranston has won the Satellite Award for Best Actor: Drama Series three times consecutively, in 2008, 2009 and 2010, for seasons one, two and three, and has been nominated in 2011, 2012 and 2014 for seasons four and five. He won the TCA Award for Individual Achievement in Drama in 2009, and was nominated in 2010, 2012 and 2013; was nominated twice for the Prism Award for Best Performance in a Drama Series Multi-Episode Storyline; won two Saturn Awards for Best Actor on Television in 2012 and 2013 (tying with Kevin Bacon for The Following on the latter occasion), and was nominated in 2009, 2010 and 2011; and won the Golden Nymph Award for Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series in 2013.
Over time Walter White has developed a cult following, spawning fan websites like "Heisenberg Labs", "Walt's Wardrobe", and "Save Walter White", which is an exact replica of the website Walter White's son creates in the series to raise money to pay for his father's cancer treatments. A platform-style Breaking Bad video game has been created as a tribute to Walter White. In 2015, series creator Vince Gilligan publicly requested fans of the series to stop reenacting a scene in which Walter angrily throws a pizza on his roof after his wife refuses to let him inside; this came after complaints from the home's real-life owner. Cranston reprised his role of the character in a commercial for Esurance which aired during Super Bowl XLIX, one week before the premiere of Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul.
A Breaking Bad fan group placed a paid obituary for Walter White in the Albuquerque Journal, October 4, 2013. On October 19, 2013, actor Jackamoe Buzzell organized a mock funeral procession (including a hearse and a replica of White's meth lab RV) and service for the character was held at Albuquerque's Sunset Memorial Park cemetery. A headstone was placed with a photo of Cranston as White, which is permanently located on a wall outside at 6855 4th St NW Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico 87107. While some residents were unhappy with the makeshift grave-site for closure with the show, tickets for the event raised over $30,000 for a local charity called Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless.
Many fans of Breaking Bad, including actor Norm Macdonald and New York magazine writer Emily Nussbaum, proposed a theory, in which most of the series finale happened in Walt's mind, and he really died in the stolen Volvo in the beginning of it. While Nussbaum merely stated that it would be her preferred ending, MacDonald emphasized the seemingly unreal scenarios of Walt's final day, as well as what he deemed as unreliable acting. However, series creator Vince Gilligan debunked this theory, explaining that Walt could not possibly have known several things that happened, like Jesse being held in captivity by Jack's gang instead of being murdered by them, or that Todd had begun taking meetings with Lydia regarding the meth trade.
AMC created the website in 2009 to mirror the one Walt Jr. (R.J. Mitte) made in a 2009 episode of Breaking Bad to help pay for Walter White's (Bryan Cranston) cancer treatments.