Culture

Breaking Hubris: Walter White, Breaking Bad, and 6 Fatal Flaw Films

Bryan Cranston as Walter White in ‘Breaking Bad’/Photo © Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

With Sunday’s series finale, the acclaimed AMC crime drama “Breaking Bad” wraps up a modern-day Greek tragedy. Over five seasons, this Primetime Emmy winner for Outstanding Drama Series has watched Walter White (Bryan Cranston) evolve from an Albuquerque chemistry teacher dying of lung cancer to a methamphetamine kingpin. Walt claimed he entered the drug trade to provide rapid financial stability for his wife and two children, but his choices show he’s guided less by his heart than by pride.

Pride goes before a fall, the Bible says -- and writers love it as a flaw. Walt’s pride borders on hubris, that extreme ambition and arrogance that the ancient Greeks feared drew divine retribution. Poseidon kept Odysseus away from home for ten years because of it. Victor Frankenstein thought himself a god and created a monster. Lucifer, in Milton’s Paradise Lost, rebelled against God in a bid for Heaven and wound up exiled to Hell.

[SPOILERS AHEAD, FOLKS!]

Walt started his own hell when he remained bitter decades after selling his share in Gray Matter, a multi-billion-dollar tech company founded on his research -- to the point he refused a job there and opted to cook meth instead. As the series progressed, Walt connived for international distribution, saying, “I’m in the empire business.” He flaunted his earnings, refused protective custody, left clues about his secret life and committed and arranged murders. “A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me?” he said. “No! I am the one who knocks!"

In the penultimate episode, Walt went into hiding, balking at his lawyer's suggestion that he surrender -- and likely die from cancer in custody -- but take the heat off his wife for his crimes. He reemerged with a vengeance after seeing his Gray Matter colleagues on TV, distancing themselves from him by downplaying his original research. We don’t know what Walt has planned for the weapons and poison he’s packing, but series creator Vince Gilligan hints it won’t end well.

“I feel some sort of need for Biblical atonement, or justice, or something,” Gilligan told The New York Times. “I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen.”

With that in mind, here are six films we’ve found where a character’s pride led to a downfall.

“Scarface” (1983)
Gilligan pitched “Breaking Bad” as “a story about a man who transforms himself from Mr. Chips into Scarface,” so it’s fitting to start with this remake of the 1932 gangster film based on the novel by Armitage Trail. As a Cuban refugee who comes to Miami and becomes a cocaine lord, Al Pacino brilliantly captures how a lowly man can become swollen with pride and power. The New York Times wrote, “[T]he dominant mood of the film is ... bleak and futile: what goes up must always come down. When it comes down in 'Scarface,' the crash is as terrifying as it is vivid and arresting.”

“Rope” (1948)
Call it intellectual pride: Prep-school friends Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) strangle a classmate to prove their superiority, inspired by conversations with their headmaster Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart) about Nietzsche and the art of murder. “The victims: inferior beings whose lives are unimportant anyway,” Brandon says in this Alfred Hitchcock thriller. Eager to show off, they put the victim’s body in a chest used as the buffet table at a dinner party with Cadell, the deceased’s loved ones, and lots of hints.

“Amadeus” (1984)
This adaptation based on two stage plays about composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for F. Murray Abraham. In eighteenth-century Vienna, the devout Salieri (Abraham) hatches a plan to spite God and gain renown after he comes to believe that the genius of the childish Mozart (Tom Hulce) is God’s way of laughing at him. That Salieri is one of the few at the time who recognizes Mozart’s gift only adds to “the agony of the older rival who hates to lose, who would lie and betray, and yet cannot deny that the young man's music is sublime,” Roger Ebert wrote.

“A Few Good Men” (1992)
Writer Aaron Sorkin adapted his stage play for this drama about the court martial of two U.S. Marines charged with murder. It builds to a fifteen-minute cross examination between military lawyer Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) and base commander Col. Nathan R. Jessup (Jack Nicholson), who grinds Kaffee down with smugness only to have Kaffee bait him with it. “Playing a Marine lifer who’s worked his way almost to the top and has long since mastered the art of pulling everyone’s strings, Nicholson uses a few well-chosen tools -- vocal sneer, bared teeth, arched eyebrows, big stogie -- to strike fear into the other characters and to spellbind the viewer,” Variety magazine said. “He’s only got three major scenes, but they’re all dynamite.”

“The Hustler” (1961)
In this adaptation of the Walter Tevis novel, small-time pool hustler “Fast Eddie” Felson (Paul Newman) doesn’t quit while he’s thousands of dollars ahead of legendary pool player Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), then nearly loses it all. For the chance at a rematch, he gets involved with an unscrupulous manager (George C. Scott) who calls him a born loser, refusing to walk away with the woman (Piper Laurie) who thinks he’s a winner. “I came after him and I'm gonna get him. I'm going with him all the way,” Eddie says, noting later, “I coulda beat that guy, coulda beat him cold, he never woulda known. But I just had to show him. … I can play that game the way nobody’s ever played it before.”

“Citizen Kane” (1941)
Orson Welles’ landmark first feature film pieces together the life of newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane (Welles, as a character partly based on William Randolph Hearst) and how his idealism morphs into a take-no-prisoners pursuit of power. Newspaper reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) assembles the kaleidoscopic story by trying to deduce the meaning of Kane’s last word: Rosebud. “Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it,” Thompson says, reminding us a bit of Walter White.

Jason Geary contributed to this article.