What makes a good, unlikable main character? A look into AMC’s loathsome leads

Luke O'Connell, Editor-in-Chief

     One can find lots of similarities between AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad, but perhaps the strongest one is between main characters Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Walter White (Brian Cranston). Both characters are very unlikable main characters, though in different ways and for different periods of time. Where one is a cutthroat advertising executive, another is a depressed school teacher turned drug lord. Despite their different circumstances, both characters are great examples of well-developed, unlikable main characters, and it’s important to understand why.

     To start, it’s also important to note that both characters’ situations change over time, which affects how they are viewed by the audience, specifically in how evil their deeds are. In case you haven’t watched either of these shows, spoilers ahead.

     Two of the biggest factors which play into both characters’ unlikability is their manipulative tendencies. For Walt, this means treating his partner Jesse (Aaron Paul) as lesser than himself for the entire series, while only granting him satisfaction when he is on the brink of falling even further into darkness, like in One Minute (S3 E7). In reality, he does this with nearly every character on the show, but we’ll focus on Jesse. In One Minute, we see Jesse beaten to a pulp by DEA officer, and brother-in-law to Walt, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris). His face is bruised and swollen, and after his minute-long monologue in which he vows to “own” Hank, it’s clear that he is also emotionally destroyed by the beating. After this, he claims that he can go back to cooking meth, as Walt is his “Get out of jail free card,” since he could give up the fact that he is the true mastermind in order to get a shorter sentence. 

Walter White of Breaking Bad. Photo courtesy of Looper.

     A bit later on, Walt visits Jesse in the hospital, proposing that they become partners again. This frustrates Jesse even more, and after another long, well-deserved monologue, he adds, “You said my meth was inferior, right? You said my cook was garbage! Hey, screw you, man! Screw you.” At this point, Jesse is at one of his lowest points in the series. He has lost everything since joining Walt on his journey, and is ready to be done, which is what makes Walt’s response so manipulative. After seasons of treating Jesse as below him, he retorts with “Your meth is good, Jesse. As good as mine.” Without saying anything else, he leaves Jesse sobbing and upset in his hospital bed.

     For Don on the other hand, manipulation consists of concealing his identity to everyone around him for years, and cheating on the women in his life very often. In flashbacks, we’re shown that Don had a terribly traumatic upbringing as Richard “Dick” Whitman, and that after he was attacked while in the military during the Korean War, he switches his dog tags with a dead soldier, the real Don Draper. He returns to the United States and works his way up in the advertising world. He marries Betty Hofstadt (January Jones) and doesn’t tell her about his past until The Gypsy and the Hobo (S3 E11), when she finds out about it on her own. This, along with his years of cheating, leads to the downfall of his marriage. Only a few people know Don’s true identity, and this isn’t even where his manipulation ends.

Don Draper of Mad Men. Photo courtesy of Carin Baer/AMC.

     Through the entire series, Don cheats on Betty, and later on, Megan (his second wife, played by Jessica Paré), who is another example of his manipulation. Allison, his secretary and one-time lover, described his manipulative behavior very well in a discussion with Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) in The Rejected (S3 E4): “I don’t know how you stand it, the way he turns on the charm one minute and then yanks it away.”

     Now, to have an unlikable character have such a prominent role in a show, there must be hints of morality in their character. In a well written, unlikable main character like Don or Walt, these hints draw sympathy from the viewers, which allows said characters to exist in a realistic gray area. Sure, they’re in the dark, dark part of that gray area, but they’re in it nonetheless. 

     For Walt, let’s look again at One Minute, along with the episode after it, I See You (S3 E8). At the end of One Minute, Hank is attacked by two armed cartel members in a parking lot. He doesn’t have his standard issue gun, but fends them off while suffering four gunshot wounds. In the next episode, I See You, we witness Walt interacting with his family in the hospital after the attack. Walt’s devotion to his family is questionable to say the least, but in this scene, it’s clear that he cares for his children, along with Hank’s wife, Marie (Betsy Brandt). As soon as he hears about what has happened, he rushes to the hospital and embraces a broken-up Marie. He then asks his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), about his newborn daughter, Holly, and consoles his teen son, Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte). 

     While Walt cares about his children, as is clear in this scene, this doesn’t stop him from using them to inflate his ego and make excuses for his actions. Take, for example, when he buys Walter Jr. not one, but two Dodge Challengers over the course of seasons 4 and 5. It seems that he hopes to simply treat Walt Jr. with a gift, but it becomes evident over time that these cars are meant to manipulate Walt Jr. into liking Walt more than Skyler. 

      When it comes to using Walt’s children as an excuse for his actions, Breaking Bad’s first season is possibly its greatest example. In the first few episodes of the show, it’s clear that what Walt is doing is for the family, so that after he is dead, they will have something to live off of. Over the next four seasons, we learn that he’s really in it for the thrill, and in the final episode, Felina (S5 E16), he makes this clear to Skyler, along with the audience. “Skyler. All the things that I did, you need to understand I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it,” he said. He continued on, adding that he felt alive when he did it. I believe that the beauty of Walt’s character is clearest in these lines, because even then, after seasons of manipulation, meth cooking, and murder, he still draws sympathy from viewers. An overqualified, depressed high school chemistry teacher, Walt hadn’t felt alive for years, and his actions in the series become a bit more reasonable when considering this. Yes, what he did was deplorable, but his ability to live in such a gray area is what makes him so great as a character, and his reasoning, a need for excitement, is relatable for plenty of viewers.

      While Don Draper’s actions are not as despicable as Walt’s, they still require hints of morality in his character in order to balance him out. For Don, similar to Walt, this comes in the form of love for his kids, along with his troubled past discussed earlier. Don is less manipulative than Walt, and he doesn’t stoop as far as to manipulate and use his children, so it’s easier to relate to him. He clearly does love his children – as can be seen throughout the series, and specifically during The Wheel (S1 E13) – but his workaholic tendencies along with his inability to truly connect with people get in the way of this. Later on in the series, once Don and Betty get divorced, we’re shown how wholesome Don’s relationship with his children is.

     Though it may seem that this sympathy balances out both characters and puts them in a gray area, allowing viewers to sympathize with them in small amounts, there’s another component which is crucial to the development of an unlikable main character. This component is an almost overbearing amount of misconduct performed by said characters, and it has to happen very early in the character’s run. This phenomena can be seen in both Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and creates the sentiment early on that Don and Walt are not characters you are supposed to like or relate to 100% of the time, or even a majority of it. 

      For Walt, this isn’t as much about being overbearing so much as it is a stark change in occupation. Within the first few episodes of Breaking Bad, Walt goes from innocent, boring school teacher to criminal, thrill-seeking meth cook, incredibly contrasting societal roles. For Don, this can be seen in many different events, specifically his early extramarital affairs, snooping, and representation of immoral corporations, like Lucky Strike Cigarettes.

     Overall, it takes a few different things to develop a good, unlikable main character. Obviously, they have to have unlikable tendencies, which meant manipulation for Don and Walt. The viewer must also be able sympathize with said character, which allows them to exist in a gray area. Finally, there must be an overbearing amount of injustice and misconduct performed by said character, as this makes it clear to audiences early on that they are not morally good or honorable.