Whether the creators of Breaking Bad intended Walter White to be a portrait of the mental condition known to the therapeutic community as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), I do not know. In all the many interviews Vince Gilligan and his writers have given before and after the showing of the last episode, I haven’t heard them mention narcissism once--NPD or not. Which leaves me no choice but to tread into that danger zone I’ve dared venture in the past in ascribing to artists meanings they may not have intended. But as always in doing this, it’s important to draw consistent evidence from the work of art before assigning meaning to it. In other words, unless you’re a narcissist yourself, you just can’t impose any old meaning on the work.
Though difficult to counter or control, there are, nonetheless, a number of identifiable characteristics of the NPD personality and Walter Walt ticks off all the boxes
__The NPD person idealizes himself—Idealizing his family is probably Walt’s most insidious tactic throughout the five-year run of the series. He justifies all his heinous behavior by claiming he does it for his family: "When we do what we do for good reasons, then we've got nothing to worry about, and there's no better reason than family."
__ The NPD person invokes guilt or sympathy by playing the martyr—Walt plays the victim card at will…and skillfully. He has a full deck of victim cards, too--his cancer, his insurance company, his school, his former business partners, a plane that fell from the sky, his wife, his children. (His son prefers to be called Flynn rather than Walt Jr. and this man who calls himself Heisenberg for the most fiendish of reasons has his feelings hurt by this.)
__The NPD person is a master of distraction—Walt effortlessly distracts those around him whenever he senses they’re getting close to finding out what he really is. When Walt’s wife Skyler goes into a depression after he confesses his criminality to her, he implies to family that her behavior may be the aftereffects of an affair she had. (And it's a twofer…a distraction and another chance to play victim).
__The NPD employs intimidation—Here’s a chilling piece of dialog:
Skyler: "Walt, please, let's both of us stop trying to justify this whole thing and admit you're in danger!
Walter: "Who are you talking to right now? Who is it you think you see? Do you know how much I make a year? I mean, even if I told you, you wouldn't believe it. Do you know what would happen if I suddenly decided to stop going into work? A business big enough that it could be listed on the NASDAQ goes belly up. Disappears! It ceases to exist without me. No, you clearly don't know who you're talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that's me? No. I am the one who knocks!"
It becomes all the more chilling when we watch its impact on Skyler, who, rather than running from the man who knocks, opens the door to him and totally embraces his badness.
__The NPD person devalues those nearest and dearest—Poor Jesse—even in Walt's humble school teacher mode, before he’s revealed himself as the madman Heisenberg, Walt routinely denigrates Jesse’s intelligence and overall worth.
__The NPD person criticizes relentlessly—Walt’s browbeating of Jesse is constant and this piece of dialog from early in the series is indicative of their relationship:
Jesse: Back off man, Jesus.
Walter: We've got work to do.
Jesse: No, no. You. You've got work to do. I did my part.
Walter: You mean that obscenity that I spent the last two hours cleaning up? That is your contribution?
Jesse: Yo kiss my pink ass man. I didn't ask for any of this. Alright how am I supposed to live here now huh? My whole house smells like toe cheese and dry cleaning.
Walter: Because you didn't follow my instructions.
__The NPD person sends purposefully mixed messages designed to confuse and entrap. Fearing Andrea’s child will identify him as the man who tried to poison him, Walt diabolically manipulates Jesse to break up with his girlfriend by telling Jesse he has to fess up to Andrea about their meth cooking or the relationship can’t go on. "I know you'll make the right call," Walt says. "If she loves you, she'll understand."
__The NPD person projects his wickedness onto others. When Walt comes upon wife Skyler smoking a cigarette to calm herself after all the bad she’s learned about him, he tells her, "This is so unlike you." Whether it's Jesse or Skyler or all the very bad guys he encounters, in his mind faults lie in them, not him. As long as he can maintain cognitive dissonance between what others do and what he does, he’s good with himself.
In my admittedly superficial reading on NPD, the science suggests that the two most common paths victims of NPD behavior take are flight or submission. Skyler tries both. She takes the kids and runs at one point. And at another she gives in completely to Walt’s madness and basically becomes his accomplice. In the end, though, she takes the hardest but best approach and draws a line…in this case, it’s the line she draws in blood with a kitchen knife across Walt’s hand. Even that might not have been enough to curtail Walt’s demonic behavior had not Walt, Jr. been there to call 911 on his father, signaling once and for all that this desperate fear Walt has had of being cut off from his family had finally come to pass…and all because of him, not them. When Junior yells at Walt, "Why are you still alive? Why don't you just die already?" he echoes the voice the NPD person has been hearing in his head since infancy.
Since I’m so far out on a limb with this, why don’t I scootch myself a little closer to the end by trying to draw a political connection? Linking individual dysfunction to movement dysfunction is always dicey business. Groups are made up of multiple personalities, and to assign a neurosis observable in one person to many people is really extrapolating without a net. So I’ll pass on the opportunity to argue that the Tea Party is made up at the top of NPD personalities and at the bottom of people peculiarly susceptible to the wiles of the NPD personality.
Instead I’ll focus my amateur psychoanalytic skills here on Sen. Ted Cuz of Texas, who in recent months has made a major play at becoming the head of the Tea Party. Without benefit of having the man stretched out on my couch for a session, Cruz strikes me as a perfect embodiment of NPD. He is not unique because American society seems to be a hotbed for NPD, but his potential for causing the kind of damage the NPD character is prone to inflict is enormous and was on full display during the recent crisis over the government shutdown and possible default.
Like most politicians, Cruz is possessed of a flourishing vanity and a dazzling disregard for the truth. But these traits alone do not make for the NPD personality. Like Walter White’s idealization of his family, Cruz idealizes an America that exists only among his Twitter followers and the ideologues who attend his highly partisan events. Like Walter, too, he plays the martyr, cynically accusing Senate leaders of trying to silence him in the midst of a 21-hour speech before an open mic the leadership had granted him. Like Walter White, he purposely sends mixed messages in order to confuse and entrap, as he did in inciting Republicans in the House to defund Obamacare, knowing they could not count on the Senate to support them. Like Walter White, he continually berates the Republican leadership for not being as strong and pure as he is. And like Walter White, he projects his dark motivations on others. "This body should be not be granting special rules, special favors for the ruling class, for those with power and privilege. We should be fighting for those who are struggling…,” he pontificates with his Princeton and Harvard pedigree. And this from a man who boasts that one of his proudest moments came in arguing before the Supreme Court against health care for poor children.
At a time in our history when our nation’s attaction to NPD personalities has cursed us with a truly loathsome cast of politicians, Cruz may be the worst we’ve had since Joe McCarthy in the 1950s. McCarthy’s lies and manipulations were not the standard issue for politicians. They were of a kind to make even politicians cower and blush. They were lies directly aimed at ruining lives, enflaming hatreds, and pushing America into a deep paranoia. McCarthy was the most vile American politician of the 20th century. We are barely 1/10th into this new century, and Cruz has already made claim as the most vile of the 21st century. Cruz has said he “will continue to do anything I can to stop Obamacare.” Minimally it seems that it’s up to the American media to get some hard, cold clarity on just what he means by that--and in the process perhaps, expose the utter exhibitionism in it--by asking Cruz a series of questions, such as: “Does that mean you would again risk bringing down the world economy? Does that mean you would preach armed insurrection against the US government? Does that mean you would be willing to walk into the Democratic caucus with an explosive devise strapped to yourself and blow up all the pro-Obamacare forces? Does that mean you would be willing to kill the president? Just what do you mean by anything?”
Ideally, of course, the Skylers and Walt Juniors in the Republican Party--the ones watching up close as their party and their country are being destroyed by this Heisenberg of American politics--will draw the line at last, and shout “No!”
They are, after all, the party of Just Say No.