The Empire Business

How Anakin became Darth Vader, and how Walter White became Heisenberg.

(Spoilers for all seasons of Breaking Bad ahead. And for Star Wars, I guess, but if you haven’t seen Star Wars, that’s on you.)

Breaking Bad’s creator, Vince Gilligan, often described the goal of the show as “Taking Mr. Chips and turning him into Scarface.” And there’s no doubt that he succeeded – Walter White aka Heisenberg is an iconic character, and Breaking Bad will rightfully go down in pop-culture history as the ur-text of how a good man becomes a villain.


Walter White’s path from mild-mannered teacher to the depths of evil is a long and winding one, taking up five incredible seasons of television. He begins as a teacher, so low in status that he is forced to work a second job, cleaning the cars of his students. Within a short period of time, he discovers two crucial facts: that the well-being of his family is threatened by his looming death, and that he has the ability to make money by selling highly-concentrated meth. From, here, his path is strewn with moral compromises, each one a little bigger than the last. He begins with killing Tuco Krazy 8- a monster who probably deserved what he got; and ends with poisoning a child – a final signal that he is all the way evil.

Eventually, he’s gone so far that his original reason for “breaking bad” is a distant memory – he’s not in it for his family, or even for the money, he’s in the “Empire business.” As a result, he loses the family he set out originally to save. Finally, he’s confronted with the true extent of his evil in the person of Jesse, beaten and enslaved. His last act is to save his one-time “son,” and in this moment he is at least partially redeemed.

Summarized and simplified:

  1. Low-status
  2. Realization of power
  3. Threat to his family
  4. Moral compromise – murder of a monster
  5. Harm to a child
  6. Pursuit of empire
  7. His “son” is threatened
  8. Last act of redemption

But let’s look at another good-guy-turned-villain, who was also in the Empire Business:


Looking at our summarized list above, we can see that Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader is strikingly similar to Walter White’s path to Heisenberg.

Anakin begins life in the lowest possible status – as a literal slave. He discovers a great power within him – instead of highly-concentrated meth, he’s got highly-concentrated midi-chlorians. His path to evil is similarly motivated – “I did it for my family.” His first moral compromise is an understandable one – the murder of the Tusken raiders that killed his mother. His transformation to full-on villain is completed in the same way – the harming of children. From there, he’s just a bad guy, pursuing power at all costs.

Then, at the last minute, he is confronted with the true cost of his evil – his son, writhing in the floor in agony, about to be killed. In his final act, he saves his son – and at least in part, his soul.

The original Star Wars trilogy is a master piece -but Darth Vader doesn’t fall from grace in Episodes IV-VI. He’s already fully-formed evil incarnate. As I’ve argued in this space before, the story of “How Anakin became Darth” is not nearly as satisfying a story of “How Walter White became Heisenberg.”

What I want to do in the rest of this article is explore what these stories have to say about how pop culture views evil, and how the original trilogy (Episodes IV-VI) and Breaking Bad handle this in such a different way than the more recent Star Wars films.

“I did it for my family”

Anakin and Walter White share a desire to save their family – in the same way that Darth Vader and Heisenberg share a desire for power. In both cases, we’re exposed to a version of evil that is a corruption of something that we value – family.

The cycle is the same in both cases: Protecting the family becomes about gaining power; gaining power becomes about gaining power for it’s own sake; eventually, that desire for power means that even the family has to go.

A good point of comparison is this scene:


and this scene:


Both lay bare the choice that our (now) villain has made – it was never about family, it was always about power.

What’s important to note is that this tension between family and power aren’t unique to the Darth Vaders and Heisenbergs of the world – what these stories are highlighting is the self-deception that we all practice to a more or lesser extent.

Moral Compromise

Breaking Bad is essentially a series of moral compromises – Walt’s fall from grace is a set of incremental steps into oblivion. He doesn’t start out poisoning kids or planting car bombs – his first murder is contemplated for nearly two episodes, and in the end is essentially an act of self-defense, having discovered that Tuco Krazy-8 intends to kill him with the shard of broken plate.

From there, it’s a long slow fall- he doesn’t kill Jane per se – he just lets her die. He murders two drug dealers by running them over and shooting them in the head – brutal, sure, but this is essentially self-defense. Soon, he dispatches Jesse to kill Gale – the death of an innocent, though at least motivated by desperation. Each step is more evil than the last, but not so evil as to seem out of place for this increasingly poisoned soul.



As I argued in my “Banality of Evil (Origin Stories)” article, the fall of Anakin is not as compelling as the fall of Mr. White, in large part because we simply don’t believe it. Anakin goes from hero of the Republic to mass-child-murder in what seems like the blink of an eye. The earlier movies try to feint at an arc towards evil with his murder of the Tusken raiders and the execution of Count Dooku, but we’re never really sold – these seem like at most moments of weakness for an otherwise good soul, not the slow corruption of a budding monster.

A Modicum of Redemption

The last, and possibly most important, thing that our two characters have in common is that although they lived as villains, they died as heroes – or at least as not-villains. Darth Vader, confronted with his own son being electrocuted, finally sees what his evil has wrought:


Compare with Walter White’s realization of what has happened to Jesse:


What both these scenes try to get at is the limits of self-deception: Darth Vader can tell himself he’s doing this for the greater good all he wants, but when confronted with his own flesh-and-blood, suffering at the hands of an even greater evil, the facade falls away.

Even before the final season of Breaking Bad aired, Vince Gilligan commented on the influence that his Catholic upbringing had on the moral universe of the show. Though Walt has plumbed the depths of sin, he is still redeemable. Jesse and Luke play the role of the Christ – suffering so that the evil man can be redeemed.

To some extent, this is why the re-released “Special Edition” of Return of the Jedi rings so hollow. In the original release of ROTJ, the reincarnated Annakin is the same age that he was at his death – though he is redeemed, his actions have not been erased. In the re-rerelase, the reincarnated Anakin is young again – all the murder, conquest and planetary genocide has been brushed away, as if it never happened.


Breaking Bad wisely averts this White-washing. Though Heisenberg is partially redeemed in the end, he can’t undo what he has done, and the meth-cooking part of him is still alive until the very end – Skyler and Junior will continue to live with the shame of what he has done, and nothing will erase all the death that he has unleashed on the world.

The Wages of Sin

For both Darth Vader and Heisenberg, the end was inevitable:


As an audience, though we say we want our villains redeemed, ultimately our sense of justice (or revenge) demands retribution. Darth Vader can’t just blow up Alderaan and get away with it. So both stories allow us to have our cake and eat it to – the villain is slain, but his soul was saved.

8 Comments on “The Empire Business”

  1. babybiceps #

    The broken plate shard was Krazy 8’s plan, not Tuco’s.

    Going to read on now.


  2. Falconer #

    That had me somewhat confused as well. I was wondering why was the article referring to Walt killing Tuco… when Technically Hank killed Tuco. Walt certainly tried and had a part in it. But Tuco’s death was clearly at the hands of Hank.

    I suppose if you just replace all instances of Tuco with Crazy-8 in the article, it will make more sense. As that murder was much earlier in the descent of Walter Hartwell White (AKA Heisenberg).


    • Ben Adams OTI Staff #

      No, you guys are definitely right, that was just a mix up in the names on my part. Definitely meant Krazy-8. Thanks for the well-actually.


  3. Opellulo #

    I don’t think the parallel is really spot on; IMHO Walter White/Eisenberg is a character more like Bruce Wayne/Batman (or Frank Darbo/Crimsom Bolt)

    Many forgot that Walter isn’t Mr. Blank McNice, he is instead a nobel prize winner who has not many moral quailms to blackmail a former student at the first meeting. He is ALREADY a tainted person whole unique restrain is being so proud and upright to prefer a life of crime instead than asking for the help Mr Black.

    From there it is a quick descent into juvenile superhero fantasy: grey areas became thinner, villains more sketched and simplified, and everything is reduced to the Heisenberg will of power.

    Even the ending, with the last minute inclusion of nazy rednecks lacks real “Crime and Punishment”, no consequences of Walter actions on a larger scale are shown and even Jesse, who is constanlty bullied and distorted by Walter, in the end is reduced to a Damsel in Distress to grant Heisenberg a blazing glory ending.


  4. Andy #

    I thought Tarkin was the one who blew up Alderaan.

    Come to think of it, how much actual evil do we see Vader engage in? Okay, he strangles the captain of Leia’s ship, yells at the storm troopers a bit, almost strangles that lippy officer (and, let’s face it, who hasn’t wanted that power at a meeting at least once in their life?), chops Obiwan in half when his former mentor seems to forget that a fight is going on, shoots some rebels in a dogfight, and I think he strangles a few more subordinates, but I think we’re mostly told that he’s evil, rather than seeing it.


  5. DeanMoriarty #

    This a great article. I’d like to add that one of the reasons it’s more compelling to watch Walt turn evil is that his original plan seemed plausible and logical: Make drugs, sell drugs, make money, give money to family, die.
    I still don’t really understand what the hell Baby Vader was trying to do. I basically remember episode 3 going down kinda like Anakin saying to Palpatine “hey, I just realized that you know, mortality and like woah, and that my hot wife will, like, die one day?”
    Palpatine just respond with, “Bro, no worries I’ll just teach you how to be evil and you’ll totally never die. You’ll shoot lighting out of your hands, too. It’s rad.”
    Teen Vader, “Yeah, shooting lighting out of my hands sound cool and all, brah, but I’m still worried about my wife dying cause she’s not a Highlander.”
    Palpatizzle: “Oh, oh yea, yea you’ll totally be able to make that hot young piece of yours immortal, too. Totally. Hey you wanna get some beers and go murder some children?”
    Later Broody McBroodersons confronts Padme. She’s all scared and worried cause her her baby daddy seems to have a neck injury and can’t lift his head to look at her normally. He realizes that all that old guy taught him was how to strangle people with his mind. He thinks, “Well, I guess if I can’t save her I might as well just off her right here and now? Wait, does that make sense? Man these dead children fumes really mess with your brain.”
    [for the record, I haven’t seen the prequels since the came out in theaters, my memory might be a bit fuzzy]


  6. Crystal #

    Hmm. Though the overall quality of the writing is much lower, I prefer the Vader arc than the Walter White arc. Vader never really seems all that evil, just temporarily insane or something, and he is actually doing it for his family. Walt is only in it for his pride, and his redemption feels way too optimistic for a thoroughly pessimistic show.


  7. tdphillipsjr #

    I see the claim often of Walter White being “a good man who becomes a villain.” I’m not clear on when Walter was a “good man.” Because he was a teacher? It seems like every problem he has ever had in his life are self-created from his insane pride.

    It’s more likely he was a villain who played a good man for a brief 12 year interval to impress his son.


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