Walter White (Bryan Cranston) doesn’t start Breaking Bad (2008) as simply a hapless, ordinary high school chemistry teacher. He wasn’t merely a middle-aged man with a terminal illness who started manufacturing crystal meth to fund his family’s future. Before all that, in the 1980s, Walter was a promising chemist who, along with his friend Elliott Schwartz (Adam Godley) assisted in the foundation of Grey Matter Technologies, a multi-billion dollar scientific research company which earned the men's work a Nobel Prize. After a falling out between Walter and his at-the-time girlfriend and lab assistant Gretchen (Jessica Hecht), Walter sold his share of the company for $5,000 and evolved (or de-evolved) into the man we see on the show. Gretchen went on to marry Elliott, and Grey Matter morphed into one of the nation's most respected scientific firms. The reason for Walt's departure is hinted at through the show’s dialogue and subtext but never explicitly revealed. In the years since Breaking Bad has gone off the air, the true reasons for Walter abandoning Grey Matter remained one of the show’s lingering questions.
Fortunately, after the end of Breaking Bad, series creator Vince Gilligan and primary writer Peter Gould opened up on the subject, identifying Walt’s leaving Grey Matter was always a lingering motivation for his ultimate downfall. Even though direct reference to Grey Matter is forgotten about for the better part of the series (it plays a role early in the series and again very late, with little attention during the series’ core), Walt’s motivations for leaving the company underscore much of his motivations for success in the drug world.
Walt’s dominant force is feeling of inferiority. His decision to manufacture crystal meth initially sits under the pretense of providing for his family after he dies of cancer but, once he enters remission, evolves into a self-serving practice of greed, self-service and domination. The showrunners want us to understand that Walt’s feelings of inferiority at Grey Matter and in his early relationship with Gretchen are big catalysts to his drug trade. This became clear to Walt when he spent time with Gretchen’s wealthy family. They were a lofty group who made him feel he would never measure up, and he held onto that image of insignificance as the years progressed. Walt sees his meth (and his Heisenberg persona) as a realization of the significance in chemistry, and in life, he was destined for but never found.
Vince Gilligan confirmed Walt’s personal sense of inferiority as the driving force for his abandoning Grey Matter. A second-season scene between Walter and Gretchen brings his decades-old resentment to the surface, resulting in the two parting ways after Walter unleashes a particularly nasty “fuck you” in Gretchen’s face.
“It ends with him being so nasty to her saying, ‘Fuck you,’ and then she leaves tearfully,” said Gilligan. “In my mind, the interesting thing here — and I always kind of hate to nail it down so explicitly — but let’s put it this way, most viewers of Breaking Bad assume Gretchen and Elliott are the bad guys, and they assume that Walt got ripped off by them, got ill used by them, and I never actually saw it that way.”
One reason people view the Schwartz’ in that manner is due to the show’s anti-hero nature. We're trained to root for Walter and Jesse (Aaron Paul) despite their bad behavior. Elliott and Gretchen are successful via seemingly by-the-book methods, which puts them at opposition with the show’s primary characters. That, and the way Walter extorts them at the end of the series makes the audience feel as if they deserve it -- as if success itself instills villainy for which they deserve punishment.
Gilligan continues, “I think it was kind of situation where he didn’t realize the girl he was about to marry was so very wealthy and came from such a prominent family, and it kind of blew his mind and made him feel inferior and he overreacted. He just kind of checked out. I think there is that whole other side to the story, and it can be gleaned. This isn’t really the CliffsNotes version so much. These facts can be gleaned if you watch some of these scenes really closely enough, and you watch them without too much of an overriding bias toward Walt and against Gretchen and Elliott… The short answer here is that I think people tend to think of Gretchen and Elliott as the villains because they’re a couple of rich happy people, and they seemed to be arraigned against our hero, ‘Walter White,’ but the truth may be not so quite on the nose."
Along those same lines, Walter always felt used by Grey Matter. The work he started went on to produce great success for others, and he holds resentment toward that fact. As the series proves, Walt refuses to be used by anyone again. To that effect, Peter Gould added, "I think the interesting thing is not exactly what happened but the fact that Walt hasn’t let it go over all these years. He has no perspective on himself. He gets to the point where all he can really do is try to justify everything that he’s done."
CinemaBlend commented on that thought, saying, "He moved beyond cooperative occupations and mostly singularly took over a drug empire because power and control make up his life force. He let people die because they would have challenged his uprising. And going by Gilligan’s explanation, we can also make light assumptions that Walt ended up marrying Skyler specifically because she was the kind of woman who could arguably never rise above him in intelligence or authority, as well as someone who might naively avoid noticing him doing ridiculously illegal things." That is a valid thought.
The timid, insecure man we see at the beginning of Breaking Bad clearly depicts someone who has spent the better part of their adult life feeling undermined by others. It is fully believable that Walt's identity crisis with Grey Matter and with Gretchen caused him to leave the company and started him down the path that led a scientific genius to a mediocre position teaching high school chemistry in a barely-satisfying life. Now, we have a little more confirmation as to what caused Walter White to be the man we met, and better understand why he is so driven to succeed in his drug empire -- whatever the cost. He becomes a man of confidence and power, and relishes in the ability to finally laud himself over others the way he had always felt others doing over him.
"Say my name," he famously commands, because his name finally means something.