October 1, 2013
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Do you know what would happen if I suddenly decided to stop going into work? A business big enough that it could be listed on the NASDAQ goes belly-up. Disappears! It ceases to exist without me. —Walter White
Before the post-finale Breaking Bad chatter dies down for good, let’s not overlook one of the show’s most instructive features: In many ways, Walter White is a quintessentially modern American CEO. While White spouted a lot of figures and formulas in five seasons of television, but there’s one number his character embodied more than any other: the 1 percent, and his insatiable drive to be part of it.
It’s all there: the ego, the entitlement, the testosterone-fueled drive to come out on top, and the sense that money, not character or relationships, defines a person’s worth. Above all else, there’s the sense that even the most venal and criminal of enterprises becomes ennobling when you earn lots of money for it.
I’m not saying that every chief executive officer is like Walter White. The ones who invent a product, create jobs, build wealth for themselves and others, are a different breed. They’re also increasingly rare, as more and more CEOs earn their livings by manipulating politicians, deceiving shareholders, and playing a better game of corporate politics than their competitors.
If you don’t think Walter White was brilliant at corporate politics, as brilliant as Jamie Dimon or any other real-life CEO, think again: His relationship to Gus Fring alternated between braggadocio and utter servility, and ultimately ended with murderous treachery. What corporate executive hasn’t seen that drama played out over and over (if not with the last part enacted so literally)?
Walt’s is a story of sublimated drives released by unforeseen events. Consider his character arc: Brilliant chemist once owned one-third of a company that’s now worth billions, but was cheated out of his share somehow (possibly by himself). He became a mild-mannered, lower-middle-income chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, where he might have been content to remain until terminal cancer forced him into an existential crisis. Then, confronted with a lifetime’s worth of resentment, Walt’s drive to become a master of that universe kicks in.
Soon after that, Walter White joins the 1 percent – then ascends to the 0.1 percent, the 0.01 percent, and beyond. What does he say to his wife in his shattering telephone tirade during the episode “Ozymandias”:
“You, you have no right to discuss anything about what I do. Oh, what the hell do you know about it anyway? Nothing. I built this. Me. Me alone. Nobody else!”
This speech mixes cunning and fury, guile and animal rage, as Walt calculatingly exonerates Skyler while at the same time breaking down with genuine emotion.
White can make more of a case for having built something than most American CEOs, many of whom depend on implicit or direct government support for their wealth. (Think Jamie Dimon at JPMorgan Chase, David Cote at defense contractor Honeywell, or Jeffrey Immelt at GE and GE Capital.)
Walt, on the other hand, actually did build his own empire. But he had a lot of help, from line employees like Badger and Skinny Pete, from organizational predecessors like Gus Fring, and most of all from loyal lieutenant Jesse Pinkman, whom Walt sometimes treated like a son but never like a business equal. Walt displayed CEO characteristics from the start, snarling at his underling and demanding near-impossible accomplishments from him. Arrogant and entitled, Walt took on Jesse’s successes as his own. He couldn’t bring himself to praise an underling, even when it would serve his business interests. Only after Jesse rejects a partnership offer and points out that Walt consistently criticized the quality of his work is White able to say “Your meth is good, Jesse. As good as mine.”