(WARNING: This post contains spoilers for most seasons of Breaking Bad. You've been warned.)
#BreakingBad is a show that revolves around Walter White, a man who thinks the world revolves around him. He is a narcissist who goes from benignly mild-mannered suburban family man and chemistry teacher to a malignant, cold-blooded, international drug kingpin in little over 12 months.
While closely related to sociopaths and with similar characteristics at times, a narcissist is different. Sociopaths are known to be narcissistic, yes, but not at the same level or even in the same ways. A narcissist needs to be seen as the best, sociopaths don’t give two shits about what others think of them. They don’t need applause; they like it, sure, but do not need it. A sociopath may carefully construct another’s downfall (like Gus with Hector Salamanca and Don Eladio), but a narcissist will explode in the moment (like Walt with Jesse, Mike, and numerous others).
Walt also fulfills a vast number of the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder according to the DSM-5:
Impairments In Self Functioning Concerning Identity Or Self-Direction:
Does your self-esteem depend on how others see you? Do you think you’re the greatest thing since Coca-Cola or the scum of the Earth — or rapidly switch between both? Does your control over your emotions depend upon your self-esteem? Or, are your goals based on getting others to like you? Are your personal standards super high because you think you’re awesome enough to achieve them or super low because you feel entitled to just be given things without the work? Do you do things without honestly knowing why you do them?
I bet Walt’s answers would all align along yes if he was being honest. One can easily see that his self-esteem weighs heavily on his ability to control his emotions, which in turn depends greatly on others’ opinions of him. The better he feels about himself the better control Walt has over his emotions, but when his ego is attacked he tends to explode. Mike’s murder was one example: It wasn’t a pre-planned kill, but a reaction, and given there were no signs of desperate panic when he pulled the trigger, it’s safe to assume Walt was just reacting to the attacks on his ego.
It’s neither the first nor last time Walt does this either: When Skylar shows fear for his safety, Walt snaps, rants and angrily declares: “I AM THE DANGER!” and when former partners dismiss his involvement in their once-shared technology company — Gray Matter — Walt leaves hiding to go on a few final ego-boosting adventures that include threatening said former partners.
As far as his personal standards, one need to look no farther than the conversation he has with Jesse where he says:
"You asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business…neither. I’m in the empire business.”
It also takes Walt the whole series to finally acknowledge his true motives:
“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it…”
Years and years of claiming he was only in the drug business to ensure his family would be financially secure after his death and, finally, he acknowledges the truth. A relief to his wife, but also a sign that Walter wasn’t self-aware enough to even recognize his own motives until the end.
Impairments In Interpersonal Functioning Concerning Empathy Or Intimacy:
Do you have trouble understanding the feelings or needs of others? Are you super into reading others reactions, but only as it relates to you? Do you think you’re always the catalyst for others or that what you do has no real influence on others? Or, are most your relationships mainly shallow and only there to keep your self-esteem up? Are your relationships at a superficial level because you have little actual interest in the other person and are focused on what you can gain from them instead?
Again, I’m imagining a lot of yeses for Walt. When debating whether or not to get treatment for his cancer his wife, Skylar must explain that the request isn’t just about the logistics of lengthening his life, but the emotional value of being with loved ones a little longer. She also has to point out that this decision doesn’t just involve him and he has to consider her and their children as well. Walt’s the one with the cancer, but what he chooses to do about it affects everyone around him. Other people don't even occur to Walt until Skylar brings them up.
He facilitates between believing himself the center of everyone’s world and having no influence whatsoever. When discussing the issue of cancer treatment Walt argues that he wants to make the decision for himself because, according to him, he so rarely gets to make his own choices. Walt also seems to believe that Gray Matter and the resulting success of his former partners would never have existed without him, yet it’s highly likely they still would’ve accomplished great success without him whether through their own company like Gray Matter or some other enterprise.
The best way to examine Walt’s relationships is to look at the main one he has throughout the show with meth-partner, Jesse Pinkman. Their relationship starts when Walt blackmails Jesse into starting a meth business together so, right off the bat, it’s about what Jesse can do for Walt. It mainly goes downhill from there.
Walt is constantly berating and belittling Jesse for something, whether a minor glitch in thinking (keys in the ignition) or not seeing things as Walt does (Gus is just using Jesse to keep Walt working for him). Even after stating that they’re partners, Walt treats Jesse as an inferior, not only because he still views Jesse as such, but because abusing Jesse makes him feel better about himself — essentially Jesse becomes a “stupid junky loser” puppy Walt can kick around whenever frustrated.
Their dysfunctional relationship feeds Walt’s ego so that he ultimately does some pretty immoral things to ensure Jesse stays with him. How can one be sure it’s not some kind of twisted, obsessed, “if I can’t have Jesse then no one else can," father-son/familial love? I confess, one can’t, but given Walt never really asks Jesse anything about his own life that seems hugely unlikely (“What’s your problem, why won’t you cook?” doesn’t count — that’s all about what Walt wants).
You can’t have a deep bond with another person if you don’t actually care to know anything about them beyond your one mutual interest. Walt may think he loves Jesse like a son, but how can he if his relationship with the young man is basically just based around their meth business? (Also, honestly, look at the relationship he has with his actual son — it’s as shallow: They have breakfast, hang out every once in a while, and that’s about it. The deepest conversations they have are tainted by the fact that Walt’s hiding a double life.).
Pathological Personality Traits In Grandiosity And Attention Seeking:
Do you feel entitled to the best? Is it all about you? (Again) Do you think you’re the greatest thing since Coca-Cola? Are you super snarky towards others? Do you work super hard to be the center of attention all the time? Do you seek admiration?
Walt literally said, “It’s all about me!” once, so he’s obviously going to be racking up the affirmatives here. (True, at that point he happened to be right, but he didn’t know that and it seems a steady mindset of his anyhow.) We already discussed how frequently he condescends to Jesse, but he doesn’t just act that way towards his business partner. From his wife to his adversaries, Walt has a tendency to give speeches that contain phrases like “let’s think this through” or “do you honestly think,” with the intent of demeaning and mocking the other person’s feelings and intelligence.
There is no doubt he has a brilliant mind and can cook high-grade meth — which honestly only feeds his narcissism — but he really isn’t anything special, crime-wise. He barely survives his first weeks in the criminal world and survives the following months due in no small part to the help of others around him and sheer luck. As beloved criminal lawyer Saul Goodman, states: “You [and Jesse] suck at peddling meth,” yet Walt has a consistent attitude of superiority.
While his alter ego, Heisenberg, might’ve first come as a way to hide his true identity (and thus protect his family) from unsavory associates like Tuco, it fast becomes a point of pride. It's a mask behind which Walt can satisfy all his desires for attention and admiration. Heisenberg is a mysterious, dangerous, drug lord with the purest meth ever seen; Heisenberg is a man to be feared and respected. Heisenberg can and will do whatever he must to be the best and everyone better know that, unless they want to go the way of previous drug kingpins like Krazy-8 Molina, Tuco (and Hector) Salamanca, and Gustavo Fring. The pinnacle of ego-boosts via this name comes with the now infamous “Say my name” scene. Walt needs to hear his drug “colleague” Declan say that now world-famous moniker: Heisenberg.
Impairments Stable, Not Normative, And Not Due To Substances Or Medical Conditions
Walt’s personality cannot be dismissed as the result of normal development, substances, or any medical condition. Yes, Walt’s got cancer and receives chemo, but those do not account for his personality during the show, and it’s shown in flashbacks that he was probably always this way. His personality also cannot be dismissed as part of his socio-cultural environment either, even after he dives into the criminal world.
Gustavo “Gus” Fring and Hector Salamanca both spent years in the drug business without behaving as Walt does. Neither are seen flying off the handle at minor insults and most of their decisions are made with business and/or self-preservation in mind. Gus politely refuses to work with Walt at first because he considers Jesse’s drug use (and probably emotionality) too great a liability, but when it suits him better to align with Walt and Jesse, he does.
Hector initially wants them dead because of their part in the death of his nephew, Tuco, but when he realizes he can kill Gus (a man responsible for the destruction of the rest of his family and his business) Hector agrees to basically be a suicide bomber for Walt. Gus and Hector don’t need applause or compliments, they need people to do their jobs. They don’t care what others think of them, but Walt’s entire emotional state can depend on it.
Is that narcissism? You’re goddamn right it is.
Check out the return of Saul Goodman (a.k.a. James "Slippin' Jimmy" McGill), Mike Ehrmantraut, Hector Salamanca, and Gus Fring on Better Call Saul, returning for its third season on April 10 at 10PM ET on AMC.
Who's the best villain in 'The Breaking Bad'/'Better Call Saul' universe?