Across five seasons of riveting television, the antihero of AMC's “Breaking Bad,” Walter Hartwell White, has committed enough crimes to earn several life sentences from any reasonable jury. He has cooked crystal meth in bulk, hooking addicts from his native Albuquerque all the way to Prague. He has personally killed at least seven people and is implicated in the deaths of hundreds more. He has poisoned an innocent child, taken out a contract on his longtime partner, and stood by and watched a young woman choke to death.
But one thing he didn't do was entirely forfeit the sympathies of his audience. As a cultural phenomenon, this is the most striking aspect of “Breaking Bad” — the persistence, after everything he's done, of a Team Walt that still wants him to prevail.
In the online realms where hit shows are dissected, critics who pass judgment on Walt's sins find themselves tangling with a multitude of commenters who don't think he needs forgiveness. And it isn't just the anonymous hordes who take his side.
“You'd think I'd bear Walt some serious ill will considering he sat there and watched Jane die,” the actress who played his vomit-choked victim wrote for New York magazine last week, “but I'm still rooting for everything to work out for the guy.”
On the surface, this sympathy is not surprising, given the long pop culture tradition of rooting for the bad guy. But you don't usually hear audiences argue insistently that their favorite villains are actually heroic — that a J.R. Ewing or a Francis Underwood is a misunderstood paragon of virtue. And when viewers do make excuses for fictional criminals, it's usually because those characters inhabit distinctive, hermetic worlds — the Jersey mafia on “The Sopranos,” West Baltimore on “The Wire” — in which becoming a killer is less a decision than an inheritance, which we can root for them to escape from or rise above.