The show "Breaking Bad" is about:

A struggling chemistry teacher turns to a life of crime with the aim of providing for his family's future.

The protagonist of this show is meant to be sympathized during the beginning of the show. During that later parts of the show, the main character commits atrocious acts. Yet viewers still sympathize with him.

Why is this?
Is it because it is a TV show and not real life?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ What evidence do you have that viewers in general still sympathize with Walter White? $\endgroup$
    – John
    Aug 19, 2013 at 19:37
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Skippy, while not Universal, generally psychologists like to use evidence for things like that and not assumptions based on personal experience. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Aug 20, 2013 at 10:56
  • $\begingroup$ My comment isn't on the answer. Just your comment to me here and the justification for it being a legitimate question in the first place. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Aug 20, 2013 at 10:59
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure I can provide the edit. It should either be, "I still have sympathy", which I'm not sure you do, or "it seems my friends have sympathy", which I'm not sure you want to say. If you don't have evidence for the viewer sympathy for Walter White and it's just about your personal sympathy, or a few friends, it becomes a matter of whether the question is even a valid site question anymore. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Aug 20, 2013 at 11:17

2 Answers 2


In a world where the Wealthy [are perceived to] abuse the Poor and Middle class, it is easy to subconsciously maintain sympathy for a 'honest' (passion to teach kids) and 'intelligent' (chem. teacher) person when they perform crime that it characterized in the 'Robin Hood' style.

I've never seen the show and so I'm sure that there are metaphors that make things more hazy than this, but these are broad societal themes in U.S. culture.

  • $\begingroup$ I like your answer, but it seems to be based solely on your opinion. It sounds plausible, but can you provide some kind of reference? $\endgroup$ Aug 20, 2013 at 20:50
  • $\begingroup$ @JensKouros no sorry, it's not an abstract and tested model - rather my and colleagues anecdotal 'field data' and contemporary interpretation. Hard to prove; easy to explain. $\endgroup$ Aug 20, 2013 at 21:53
  • $\begingroup$ I think the statement "wealthy abuse the poor" should be reconsidered in favor of a better approach. I think its common for poor people to feel disdain for the rich (whether from jealousy or actual persecution), which still supports the Robinhood theory, but the rich abusing the poor can too easily be called into questioning. Many rich give to charities, etc. Its a good answer, but I think it could be refined a bit. $\endgroup$
    – Randy
    Aug 21, 2013 at 13:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Randy I'm discussing how people perceive things, and thus generate sentiment for robin-hood-criminality.... not the reality of things. $\endgroup$ Aug 21, 2013 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ I know, and I agree with you, but I'm just suggesting a stronger answer that is less prone to attack. $\endgroup$
    – Randy
    Aug 21, 2013 at 14:26


Let's assume that the writer's intend the viewer to remain sympathetic with the main character. (I have not seen this show)

When chemistry teacher, Walter White, is diagnosed with Stage III cancer and given only two years to live, he decides he has nothing to lose. He lives with his wife and teenage son, who has cerebral palsy, in New Mexico. Determined to ensure that his family will have a secure future, White embarks on a career of drugs and crime. He proves to be remarkably proficient in this new world as he begins manufacturing and selling methamphetamine with one of his former students. The series tracks the impacts of a fatal diagnosis on a regular hard working man and explores how a fatal diagnosis affects his morality and transforms him into a major player of the drug trade.

Another show which is also transgresses the social norm is Dexter. A show about a likeable serial killer. As he is killing villains who have escaped justice, he is a perverse hero; righting the wrongs within the legal system... (a problem for those countries and states which are anti-death penalty). This aside, the show presents the lowest of the low and evokes in the viewer a desire for revenge and the relief that there is a way to remove undesirables from our society; in doing so increasing our and our loved ones' safety.

Is it because it is a TV show and not real life?

Difference between TV and reality:

I can say, uncategorically, that within the context of real life these people would not be regarded as likeable.

As for the serial killer; real life doesn't give us black and white scenarios as the show does.

Why is this?

Fiction removes the factor's from the situation that cause an average person to lose sympathy for a person committing atrocities.

As for the show Breaking Bad, plays on the hard luck story of this man and his lofty plight to provide for his family. Yet, in reality he is destroying and damaging a huge number of lives. My guess (understanding human psychology and hollywood) is that the show would objectify or dehumanise the main character's victims and instead focus on the "greater good" that he is serving and his internal struggle.

Fiction carves reality out of the situation.

When confronted with the reality of a situation the feelings invoked in the viewer are very different.

See this Real life news story for an example of the real life consequences of methlabs.

Warning: graphic images Children are the silent and small victims of skyrocketing number of home meth labs

Warning: graphic images An image of a the teeth of a crystal meth addict with meth mouth.

Creating a sympathetic protagonist is an artform:

Your Hero: Top Ten Rules (Expanded)
List key features a writer needs to use to create a sympathetic protagonist needs. There is a basic agreement about the features a sympathetic protagonist needs to succeed within the writing world (any google search will show this).

Playing the Viewer like an Organ: Norman Bates as the Protagonist of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho

Psycho is a film where the director intentionally and obviously manipulates the audience. In fact, Alfred Hitchcock took pride in his manipulation of the viewing audience, remarking in an interview, “You might say I was playing them, like an organ,” (Truffaut 269). Hitchcock’s main intention in manipulating the audience throughout the film is to make us complicit in the actions of Norman Bates.

The central shift of protagonist in Psycho is mostly an unconscious one. By the time Marion Crane prepares to take a shower, the narrative has already begun to follow Norman as much as Marion; after Marion leaves the parlor, we see Norman go up to the mansion and sit at the dinner table, waiting. We are unaware of the shift until Marion’s narrative is abruptly and radically ended by her death in the shower. By that point, the film belongs to Norman and Hitchcock is careful to make us root for him.

It would seem that evoking audience sympathy with an "anti-social" protagonist, is an artform and the key to seeing why it is effective onscreen and not in real life lies, with an inspection of the key features writer's use to evoke feelings of empathy, maintain an audience bond with the character, by creating internal conflict, a heroic fighter, with care not to cross boundaries that will evoke revulsion in the viewer.

The question and answers at Sympathetic portrayal of an evil protagonist with good motivations explain this in more detail.

Breaking Bad IMDB


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.