By now everyone’s familiar with that internet daydream of a folklore regarding the end of Breaking Bad potentially being Walter White entering witness protection and becoming Hal: the juvenile, slightly deranged and ever lovable patriarch from Malcolm in the Middle.
It’s a nice idea and one that plays with the hope that Mr White may one day find redemption and settle down to live a far easier existence that doesn’t involve murder, international criminal dealings and being driven so close to the edge that he even attempts to rape his own wife and watches his partner’s lover choke to death on her own vomit, rather than saving her.
The plausibility factor here is high and it’s solely down to one fact: there are so many parallels between Hal and Walter White that they’re pretty much alternate reality versions of each other. They are each the everyman – the white, middle class worker who loves and protects their family to a self destructive fault. Whilst the tragedy of Walter White’s life is emphatic and brazen (the dangerously criminal activities he involves himself in to provide for his family in the event of his death, which in turn become the very same things that will come to destroy his family unit) Hal’s are subtle and tragi-comic. Hal’s only tragedy is that the family which he so much adores is also the thing that traps him in a mundane existence whilst he clearly dreams of being made for bigger things.
They’re both the victims of overbearing male pride: the gender normative pressure of being the main provider and protector of their families completely crippling them, and forcing them to achieve beyond their capabilities.
Both men are prisoners of a suburban everyman existence – when they fail to live up to the expectations that society, their wives and their kids place on them, they struggle and suffer. For Walt it was not making enough money to provide for and protect his family, having to maintain a teaching position whilst also moonlighting at a car wash – and having to go into the meth business to provide his family with enough money to live off after his possible death (rather than asking, say, his brother in law Hank for help). For Hal it’s merely that nothing is ever enough. Just when he thinks he has shit under control, his wife turns out to be pregnant again. The demands grow and grow and his dreams amble further and further into the distance.
There’s a fine line between tragedy and comedy. Whilst Breaking Bad is so darkly tragic it’s enough to turn your stomach each week and crunch your tense fists into pits of dust, Malcolm in the Middle is simply the tragedy of everyday life. It crosses over the border and delivers it comically (‘Life is unfair’).
Both men live bigger lives beyond their family. They harbour secrets and are both known for going ‘off the deep end’. Sure, Walter White’s secrets are worse than anything Hal could ever imagine, but Hal’s big dreams and his reticent way of playing them out are a repeated theme with Malcolm in the Middle.
There’s the way in which Hal wails, alone and dramatically, in his car after finding out that his wife, Lois, is pregnant again with their fifth child. To her face he’s kind and supportive. A superior husband keeping everything together. In private he’s a bloody mess.
There’s his penchant for dancing, which Lois acknowledges but somewhat disproves of. In the episode where he becomes addicted to the Jump Jump Dance Party game and enters a competition for it, Lois catches him practicing at 5am and lays down some ground rules that mirror Skyler White’s for her meth-matic husband: ‘You have to go to work, you have to eat and you cannot involve the children’.
He’s impulsive and obsessive to a fault, much in the same way that Walter White is. That’s the secret to Walter White’s success, in a way – he goes in guns blazing, he doesn’t worry about the consequences, and he obsesses about every finite detail of his operations to complete perfection. When Hal is impulsive and obsessive, it’s much to his detriment. He too might lead a second life, much like Walt does, but it’s at night when he should be sleeping. And it usually involves activities that are deemed more preposterous than dangerous, like roller skate dancing or driving a steam roller.
In fact, the episode where Hal wins $1’000 on a lottery scratch card and uses it not on his family, but to rent a steam roller for a week, is the closest we come to seeing that same wild eyed insanity that we’ve come to love-hate in Walter White.
First, he lies to his son Dewey about what he’s going to do with the money, simply telling him that he’s going to put it into his son’s college fund – ‘a secret college fund that your mother can’t know about’ – which seems to imply that he’d also be fantastic at stashing drug money around the house or using it to front a cover business for his empire.
Later on in the episode he tells Lois that he needs to put in some extra hours in work to make up for the time he’s spent with Dewey. Time, in fact, that he’s spent on the steam roller. Time that he won’t be spending making up hours in work, but using to steam roll wholesale amounts of bubble wrap and crockery in a car park near his work.
His son Dewey raises his concerns to him regarding the whole activity, pointing out that – once again – he hasn’t slept once this week. ‘The laws of nature don’t apply to me, son!’ he replies, which sounds eerily like a certain egotistical ‘I am the one who knocks’ speech that Walt gave to Skyler that time.
The lies in Hal’s life might be small time – like the episode where he stays up all night watching horror films with Reese, despite his wife’s warnings that he shouldn’t ever watch horror films ever again – compared to Walt’s, but they become just as deranged, veering closely to the horrific. There’s a definite propensity in Hal for going completely off the deep end much like Walt. After gorging on horror films and screaming like a little girl throughout, he awakes the next morning and nearly stabs Malcolm in raging, uncontrollable fear. The poor kid only wanted to swap a fruit roll up for another flavour. Dems da breaks, my good friends. If it came to it there’s no doubt that Hal could lose his shit completely and go all Walter White in order to protect his family.
There’s even two episodes of both shows that deal with getting tormented by an insect. In Breaking Bad, it’s a fly in the meth lab. In Malcolm in the Middle it’s a bee that survives Hal’s termination of an entire hive in order to steal their honey. In Breaking Bad the fly represents the loss of control in Walt’s life and his desire to gain some of it back – it seems completely unachievable by this point and out of bounds. And really, you could say the same thing about Hal in Malcolm in the Middle. He’s run by his family.
In this episode, Hal quickly realises the damage he’s done. He’s obliterated the bees entire world – his whole family, his friends – and now the bee wants revenge. Walter White sure as fuck knows how that feels – sabotaging the lives of many for the needs of few. Hal is plagued by the bee for the whole episode. He becomes afraid to leave the house. It ends with a victorious Hal crushing the bee against a brick wall, wrecking his car in the process. Which is a lot like Walter White’s snowballing of one problem into a myriad of other problems.
In Breaking Bad the entire episode is obsessively dedicated to the destruction of that one fly. He wrecks the lab, endangers his own life and probably loses a shit tonne of money in meth production. His fixation and obsession makes him clumsy. It’s all he can see and he’ll take any measures to destroy it – a character trait that’s exacerbated episode by episode as his empire grows, his problems multiply and his freedom deteriorates.
It only takes one fly to give birth to 500 more, after all.
Part of what makes Breaking Bad so completely a work of genius, is that it starts off with an everyman – an archetypal character that everyone has known at some point in their lives – and makes him do the sort of things that you’d never in a million years expect of him.
He’s the father, the teacher, the husband, the brother in law, the guy at the car wash, the quiet and the unassuming neighbour. The sort of bloke who always turns up on the news with co-workers fearfully exclaiming ‘I always thought he was a nice guy. I wouldn’t think him ever capable of doing these sorts of things’.
Breaking Bad is a show which fully acknowledges that criminals are made, not born. That they’re the result of desperation, bad life choices or just plain wanting something more than merely being the everyman – the husband, the father, the brother in law, the school teacher, the son.
Whilst Hal lives his life plaintively miserable, invigorated only by big dreams, small comforts or the beautifully absurd fantasies he indulgently daydreams himself into, Walt is painfully and forcefully living a warped version of a dream, himself.
Breaking Bad acknowledges how little it takes to push the everyman to such an extreme that Walter White now finds himself in, whilst Malcolm in the Middle acknowledges the other side of that coin. That some men are just happy to be the ones who open the door, rather than the ones who knock.
Just as there’s a fine line between tragedy and comedy, there’s also a fine line between what makes some men a Hal and what makes others a Walt. And depending on circumstance and options, at some point in their lives, can easily be interchangeable for the other.