Most of us don't live our lives by the code of WWWWD (What Would Walter White Do?). And yet, miraculously, we're still enthralled by the decisions of Breaking Bad's main character even after five years of cringing at his horrific behavior and unconscionable actions.
As an absentee husband, a liar, a murderer, and the greatest drug dealer in the southwest, Walter White is not exactly a role model. So how can we have so much sympathy for a man with whom we have so little empathy?
The answer comes from conflict. The conflict White constantly faces keeps us coming back for more; we relate to White because we've seen the impossible choices he's been forced to make. The conflict he feels resonates all the more deeply with us when there is nothing before him but bad options.
Conflict is a central tenet of screenwriting, and it's what motivates us to keep watching a story. We want to see who will win.
Good conflict enters a story when two characters strive towards the same goal, but both can't have it at once. Better conflict occurs when characters' goals are mutually exclusive. Imagine a scene where a Nazi Colonel is on a mission to find and kill refugee Jews in France. The Colonel sits opposite a dairy farmer whose goal is to hide and protect the refugee Jews on his farm. Since both characters cannot possibly get what they want, we're left with have the most intense milk-drinking scene in cinematic history.
But the best form of conflict is the one they didn't teach you about in film school. And it's this form of conflict that Breaking Bad does better than any other show.
This form of conflict happens within the audience itself – when we don't know what we want a character to do.
When a ten-year-old kid on a dirt bike sees Walt and Jesse rob a train, we think to ourselves, "Do we want them to let the kid go and hope they get away with their crime, or do they have to kill him?" And we're just a little bit relieved when someone else shoots the kid, and our characters don't have to make that awful decision themselves.
This is the magic that Breaking Bad's conflict works on its audience. As viewers, we never get comfortable with the choices presented to the characters. In one instance, we're stuck between saving the life of a threatening adversary or watching her choke on her own vomit. Even we can't tell which awful choice we'd rather see Walt make.
In spite of their despicable actions, these characters become people we root for because we know they've never been presented with an easy path. In a way, we're eager to follow them because we've seen the pain of their choices.
This kind of audience-level conflict is the kind that sends us running to the water cooler on Monday morning. It provokes the kind of questions that can keep us thinking for an entire summer. Questions like, "Do you think it's a good thing that Jack and Kate left the island? Should Ned Stark forfeit his own head and risk his daughter's lives in order to expose Joffrey Baratheon's secret? Should Walt let Krazy-8 live? Can John Luther really let Alice Morgan get away with it?"
These are the moments we can't stop thinking about. We don't know what we want for these characters because the choices they make don't ever present a clear, easy win. Both have costs that are difficult to calculate, and both have sacrifices we'd rather not see the characters be forced to make.
Taking away the audience's ability to choose an easy outcome is what really makes for compelling storytelling. It's not how strong the bad guy is, and it's not how many planet Earths will blow up if the hero fails. It's about never giving the viewers a simple way to say, "I'd like the main character to do this now."
As Walter White shows us week in and week out, great conflict comes when we, the audience, feel conflicted.