Breaking Bad: What Makes a Criminal?

One of the things that makes Breaking Bad such an amazing show is its ability to make its audience sympathize with the bad guy.  All of our favorite characters are criminals, and the main reason we love them so much is because we’ve seen both sides to each of them.  We’ve watched Walter transform from mild-mannered high school physics teacher to drug kingpin.  We’ve seen Jesse’s desire to do the right thing, despite his numerous flaws.  We know Mike had worked on both sides of the law, striving to be the most professional man he could be no matter who he worked for.  We also know that Gus was a shrewd businessman who suffered a humbling loss before rising to the top.

There are people who believe some criminals are born bad seeds while others are the products of their environments.  Assuming none of the Breaking Bad cast were born bad, one must ask: what made them criminals?

Walter’s progression is the easiest to map out, his desperation to provide for his family driving him to commit acts he likely never would have had he not believed his days were numbered.  As I pointed out in last week’s article, his felonious acts began as those of self-preservation and for the preservation of his family’s well being, with a quick snowball effect driving him to darker and more calculated deeds.  Still, a part of us wants to root for him, to see him succeed in his endeavors, because not only do we feel for the man he once was, but we also admire the strength and resolve he’s developed in who he’s become.

Jesse’s character is slightly more difficult to analyze, as he is introduced to us as a drug addict and small-time dealer.  Strangely, he seems to progress in the opposite direction as Walter, becoming more reluctant to continue on his destructive path as the seasons progress.  He is flawed but selfless.  He has weaknesses Walter will never understand, and yet in many ways his strength blows Walter’s out of the water.  He is a murderer, an addict (even if in recovery—see my November 12 article on whether or not that will last) and every bit as cunning as Gus, made evident by his magnet idea in Episode 501 and his train heist idea in Episode 505.  He has a criminal mind, and yet he strives against it.

We know little about what turned both Gus and Mike to lives of crime, but what we do know about them made both equally endearing.  They were both good at what they do, both were exceptionally professional, and both saw the dirtier aspects of their work as simple business.  While it was easy to see Gus as cold-hearted and nearly mechanical (who didn’t cheer on Walt’s well-planned murder of the man?) Mike was much more complicated.  He was a respectable man, even though he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty when the need arose.

These, of course, are merely my own speculations, so I must ask: what do you think makes a criminal?  What do you think was the turning point for each of our favorite characters?  Do you respect them for what they have done, or do you cheer them on with guarded respect?

Leigh M. Lane is a speculative fiction author whose works span from sci-fi to horror. Her most recent full-length works are The Hidden Valley HorrorFinding PoeWorld-Mart, and Myths of Gods. For more about her work, go to her website at


  1. Cynthia Funckes says:

    The issue I think is that we don’t get to see the people victimized in anything like the detail that we get with Walter White (or Tony Soprano, or Dexter, etc) so we identify with the more familiar characters and find them more and more sympathetic. I think what the writers need to do once in a while is let us see how the victims feel. An update on Jane’s father, the air traffic controller, or a check-in with the family of the little boy killed at the beginning of this season would not go amiss. But, failing that, we have the illusion that if we met these guys they would never do US any harm. So not true…

    • Lisa says:

      That’s an astute observation, Cynthia. What’s really scary, however, is that, given the right circumstances, just about anyone could fall into the dark chasm that has claimed Walter and countless others. No one is immune to circumstance, no matter how good a person one might think he or she is.

  2. Good article. I hate to say it but Walt was a chemistry teacher not physics

  3. shulgidude says:

    Awesome article and great comparisons. I have by no means been an average 9-5 guy for all of my life. I have been around environments where i have seen the same types of people that we witness in Breaking Bad. I also have not had an easy life, ive been out of work at times and wondered how i was going to make ends meet on way more than 1 occaision. I can honestly say that while having nice things and enough money to pay bills and eat every day and have a home to come back to, if you have ever gotten to the bottom of your thoughts and resources, you get to point in your mind where you see that sometimes in life people do what they must to survive. Survival can be mental, physical or other.
    Walter was a beaten down guy who was told what to do with every aspect of his life. He was told what to spend and what credit card to spend it on, told to go to work, told to go wash tires, etc, etc, etc. while he saw his own ideas and even the name that he came up with get used by his supposed friends to make a fortune and didnt even bother to throw him anything til it was already too late. Greymatter should have been his and someone stole it from him and i beleive that whole part of his life had alot to do with where he took his new business. I believe that his cancer diagnosis was just the final straw that gave him his strength because he felt like every day could be his last. When you dont know if tomorrow will come, your thoughts of today become a little more daring, for lack of a better word.

    With Jesse i think he just never really had someone give him a true shot and actually take an interest in him. His parents although they wouldnt have him arrested still didnt really ever look through the hurt and pain he experienced in his life to give him a chance to succeed. This point is evident when he takes the blame for his brother, he sees how his parents treat his brother and wishes he was given those same chances. Jesse i think will always struggle with his addiction as all addicts do, however i see jesse as a person who has grown alot with each phase of the series. He kept all those people around in his house so that gus wouldnt send someone to his door. When mike came and took jesse out , although the first incident was a setup, it still gave jesse the needed confidence in himself that has proven him to be the real person of strength in the whole series. He has overcome greater losses in love, humility, and death of friends than any of the other characters shown. Jesse will be the last one standing because he knows how to survive with or without walt or anyone else for that matter.

  4. Ana says:

    I think people can sympathize with fictional characters but in the real world many people that turn to crime out of necessity, circumstances or monetary gain are hated,incarcerated and ostracized from society. Meanwhile our politicians are free criminals. Heck yeah I root for Walter til the end!

  5. Charolette says:

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    thats why i have read it entirely

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