Fictional Characters Who 'Break Bad' from 'Gone Girl' to 'Macbeth'
What makes a good guy turn to the dark side? Walter White of "Breaking Bad" is the most upstanding of fathers, so devoted to his family that after being diagnosed with cancer, he does everything in his power to provide for their future without him. But then he re-meets Jesse Pinkman, a former-chemistry-student-turned-meth dealer who lets the über-square Walt in on a secret: You can make a lot more money selling meth than teaching the periodic table. Soon, Walt is making the highest-grade methamphetamine in town--and making a killing at it, in more ways than one. With the final season of "Breaking Bad" beginning August 11, we're eager to see just how far down the road to perdition Walt will go. To get in the right "Bad" mood, we've found Walter White's literary precedents: the fictional characters who "broke bad," from Macbeth to Jack Torrance in "The Shining" and "Gone Girl" Amy Dunne.
In first name and otherwise, Walter Berglund, the protagonist of Jonathan Franzen's bestselling novel "Freedom," shares much in common with "Breaking Bad's" Walter White. Like White, Berglund has turned his geeky obsession into a full-time career (in his case, as an environmental lawyer). Like White, Berglund starts out a capital family man with a good heart and a sound head on his shoulders. And, like White, he's painfully dweeby and unsexy. Berglund doesn't resort to the drug trade to escape the humdrum, but the enemies he goes up against are no less imposing (and not unlike some of Walter White's): first, there's his ecosystem-destroying billionaire employer; then, his neighbor's pesky cat.
After defeating invading armies of Ireland and Norway, Shakespeare's Scottish general Macbeth is pretty psyched to hear it foretold that he will be made king. But perhaps he should be warier of the good news, given that it comes from three "midnight hags" busy stirring a pot full of newt eyeball, frog toe, dog tongue, tiger intestine and dead-baby finger. Soon, Macbeth breaks very bad indeed, stabbing the king (Macbeth's fretting about visions of a bloody dagger are echoed by Walter White's early hesitations), dispatching the king's chamberlains, putting a contract on his buddy Banquo and, ultimately, losing his head.
The Peter whom Harry Potter glimpses in others' memories is a shy, sweet boy so enthralled by Harry's father, James, and Sirius Black that he follows them everywhere. He even worms his way into their exclusive foursome, the Marauders, during their adolescence at Hogwarts, even though he's teased or ignored by the others. But, when Voldemort rises to power, Peter--always sniffing out an opportunity for self-preservation--frames Sirius for the death of James and Lily and transforms himself into a rat to wait out the years until Voldemort's return. J.K. Rowling never tells us why Peter defected to the Death Eaters, but it's not hard to guess: Serving as Voldemort's right hand trumped being the weakest link in the Order of the Phoenix.
When a once-good character turns to the dark side, you have to ask: Was the tendency for evil there all along? In Stephen King's classic novel, "The Shining," Jack Torrance is an ex-school teacher (another Walter White parallel) who lost his job after losing his temper--and an ex-drinker who once broke his son's arm in a rage--but everyone makes mistakes. A friend gets Jack and his family a wintertime gig looking after the Overlook Hotel, and Jack is happy to have time to write his play. But things get a little weird as apparitions of the hotel's past start roaming the halls. One of them, Lloyd the bartender, disastrously offers Jack all the martinis he can drink and another--a previous caretaker who murdered his family, Delbert Grady--provides Jack with the tools to punish his meddling family: "a martini glass, a fifth of gin, and a dish of olives… and a mallet."
Gustave Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" is, of course, one of the greatest novels ever written--and it's also a solid argument for how novel-reading can destroy your life and those of everyone around you. Emma starts out a simple, wooden-clog-wearing farmer's daughter dreaming of the sort of romance she's constantly reading about in books. She hopes she's found it when she meets a doctor, Charles Bovary, but she soon tires of his dullness. Motherhood is just as drab in comparison to her fantasies. So, she embarks on risky love affairs with men who either shrink in the face of her passionate demands or bore her, and she ruins her family's fortunes by trying to buy her way to love. It makes you wonder: What's the greater poison--arsenic, or storytelling?
The capacity to cross over to the dark side isn't limited to humans: The emotionally volatile computer system HAL is as much a character in Arthur C. Clarke's "2001: Space Odyssey" as the two human astronauts aboard the Discovery One spaceship, Drs. David Bowman and Francis Poole. Still, HAL, who dutifully maintains the craft's operating systems, tends to feel left out when David and Francis have their humans-only tête-à-têtes. Eventually, his building jealousies and frustrations send nicey-nice HAL over the edge, and he lashes out like with no less ire than Gretchen Wieners in a catfight—if Gretchen Wieners had the ability eject her enemies into deep space.
At the center of the group of Classics students who star in Donna Tartt's cult favorite, "The Secret History," is Henry Winter, a tall, pale-skinned hyper-intellectual 18-year-old who speaks several languages both ancient and modern and wears dark English suits and carries an umbrella through the "throngs of hippies and beatniks and preppies and punks" on campus. Another group member, a good-time loudmouth and cheapskate called Bunny, is Henry's opposite. Inexplicably to the narrator, Richard, Henry and Bunny spend a summer in Italy together, and after they return, Henry is tense. Whatever happened abroad, it's enough to make the otherwise fastidious and righteous Henry help Bunny meet his premature end.
All is not what is seems in Gillian Flynn's bestselling, plot-twist-packed thriller "Gone Girl," least of all its missing protagonist, Amy Dunne. While the search for Amy gets underway in Minnesota and her husband Nick comes under a growing cloud of suspicion, snippets of Amy's journals offer a window into her early life of privilege and perfection. Dunne presents a shiny surface, to be sure--her journal entries are so peppy they make Elle Woods sound like a Nietzsche-quoting goth by comparison--but, as undercurrents of malice slowly rise to the surface, one gets the sense that this prodigal daughter and picture-perfect wife's starpower burns a bit too brightly for her own good.
Hero, the star of Brian K. Vaughan's "Y: The Last Man," was always a feisty rule-breaker, but as a paramedic, she still strove for the greater good. However, when a mysterious event wipes out every Y-chromosome-bearing creature on the planet--including Hero's boyfriend, who dies in her arms--she snaps. Driven by grief and fear, she joins the man-hating cult of "Amazons": women who hack off one breast as an homage to their mythical forebears, carry crossbows and hunt down the one remaining man on the planet. No matter that the unlucky guy is her brother, Yorick. Hero's found her tribe, and she's willing to cut down her own flesh and blood to stay alive.
Hobbits are gentle folk, and River-folk hobbit Sméagol is no exception. That is, until he sees a very special ring, and instantly he has to have it--even if he had to kill for it. Banished by his people, Sméagol flees and makes his way into the roots of the Misty Mountains where where, as J.R.R. Tolkien describes him, he becomes "dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes in his thin face." The wretchedest of wretches, he comes to be known as Gollum after the "horrible swallowing noise in his throat," surviving on a diet of the flesh of lost travelers and the cold companionship of the ring, his "precious." When Bilbo Baggins takes it from him, Gollum spends the rest of his tortured life bent on vengeance, much like Walter White who perpetually pursues "what's his"--namely, money and power.