With one episode remaining and anyone’s guess how Walter White will go out, here are my musings about Breaking Bad as a whole…
For most of its existence, AMC (American Movie Classics) broadcast an endless loop of movies such as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Petticoat Junction, and, pick any John Wayne movie you like. Beginning in the 2000s, perhaps jumping in on the trend created by networks such as HBO and Showtime, AMC (like KFC, no longer emphasizing the original name of the company) moved into original series programming.
The very successful Mad Men was followed quickly with Breaking Bad. Though not limited to westerns, movies about the frontier were abundant in the early days of AMC. Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that Breaking Bad is set on the frontier between Mexico and the United States (in the State of New Mexico), but it’s not chance that many of the things which work in this dramatic series are the stock and trade of classic westerns.
Not only is the New Mexican desert vast and empty, but it is also lawless and lethal. The cattle rustlers and horse thieves of yesteryear have been replaced by drug cartels, whose killers are no less ruthless than Jesse James. Indeed, in Breaking Bad it always seems as if a new stranger strolls into town, typically bringing mayhem with him (or her). There is law and order, good and bad, and showdown after showdown.
Walking into the midst of all this is Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston, for whom there are not enough Emmys), whom you would normally take for the hapless, hen-pecked character so typical in westerns. Walt is a chemistry teacher. He’s pasty white and scrawny. He’s a nerd. He’s never had so much as a parking ticket.
Walter White, in addition to being a classic anti-hero, is a real and true everyman, which is another reason the show works so well. Oftentimes, an everyman is The Rock returning home from war to clean up his town. He’s got throbbing biceps and hand to hand combat training. Not so with Walt who really is you and me. In fact, he’s even smaller and humbler than you and me: there is no person, so it seems, weaker and more vulnerable than Walter White when we first meet him, and it is this wisp of a man who is thrust into the world of vice and murder. It his journey that makes the show relatable and captivating.
We often fantasize about what it would be like to be Tony Soprano, a mobster, but, Tony always knew he was no good, “the scorpion and the frog,” as he confessed once. It was the ‘business he had chosen’ from an early age. Again, not so with Walt who only means to dip his toes into the world of methamphetamine to make a little extra money for his family before he dies.
We meet Walt and his pedestrian family in the first season and nothing seems especially out of place. Walt has his problems, a teen son with cerebral palsy, and another child on the way. Nearing 50 and living on the salary of a high school teacher, he has to work part-time in a car wash to make ends meet. We understand Walt once had a very promising career as a top-notch scientist. It’s unclear what derailed his success, but the burden of failure weighs on him: Walt, in particular, lives a life of ‘quiet desperation.’
A way out of all these problems is a blessing and a curse. When Walt discovers he has lung cancer and may not be around much longer, he has an epiphany. His brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) is a wise-cracking, ass-kicking DEA agent who takes him on a drug bust ride-along. Walt sees one of the fleeing suspects and realizes it is a former student of his, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul).
Walt, using his knowledge of chemistry, cooks a batch of meth with the help of Jesse who knows the street and how to sell it. Walt believes he must provide for his family after he is gone, and the quick cash that meth-cooking can provide is the answer.
Walt, naturally, gets more than he bargained for, but he also becomes empowered. He is able to beat the cancer and earn millions. He survives numerous battles with drug kingpins and low lives, and he outwits the police time and again. In appearance, he never really changes (he’s still slight and bespectacled), but by the fifth season he is feared and respected in the underworld. He is the man he never was before, though that does not come without a price. There is of course the threat of capture and death, but the worst thing that happens to Walt is the loss of his soul. The honest, family-man we met in season one has been replaced by a devious, murderous and completely untrustworthy individual.
Despite all of this, we continue to root for Walt. I never felt about him the way I did about Tony Soprano. Walt has become evil, but he always seems to be just a tick away from a beloved relative. He’s orchestrated death and the disarray that comes with dealing drugs, but most of the time he still looks non-threatening and avuncular. He doesn’t cheat on his wife like Tony did constantly. If Walt kills it is for survival, not to expand his power. His cancer comes back in season five, and we always have in mind that he got into the business for selfless motives. Try as I might, it’s hard to hate Walter White the way I did Tony Soprano.
Being invested in Walt’s fate, above all other elements, is that which animates the series, and it kept me watching even when I had doubts.
To me Breaking Bad is akin to the Star Wars saga, you watch episodes 1-3, even though they lack, because episodes 4-6 were so damn good.
The first two seasons of Breaking Bad are exceptional, there is no question about it. This is where television writing shines and outclasses feature film writing today. But in seasons 3-5, Breaking Bad suffers from the same problem afflicting movies currently. Allow me to explain.
As I’ve touched upon, Breaking Bad works so well because it contains universal themes, which strike chords in all of us. What would you do to provide for your family? How far would you go? If you could be a more powerful person, what moral lines would you cross to earn that power? How would you react in life and death situations? Walt faces all of these what ifs and epitomizes most of the moral conundrums we have in life.
These questions are asked and answered brilliantly in season one. Walt’s mission is noble, even if he doesn’t seem to consider the cost to other families of cooking and distributing meth. We rarely have time to ponder the unintended consequences of his behavior as we are plunged into the world of narcotics and its tentacles throughout the southwest. In this season, we truly are Walt. We are as raw and inexperienced as he is. He deals with his family and job pressures –as well as his illness—while also pursuing the drug sideline and dodging deadly situations.
Walt is still unsteady in season two, though he finds it is hard to stay away from the cash meth provides. The memes of season one are repeated to a certain extent, as Walt and Jesse again find themselves deeper in the demi-monde and struggling to get out of life and death pickles. Though it is a bit repetitive, it doesn’t feel that way. When someone cries wolf once or twice, you tend to believe them. It’s the third time when you become skeptical, and for me, season three of Breaking Bad is when I began to feel less engaged.
By season three, Walt and Jesse seem to be more acrobatic than most circus-folk at escaping violent death. The themes and their dramatic expression have appeared to ebb, and we are left with pure plot. The reasons why people are doing things seem to matter less, and we are whip-sawed from one confrontation to the next. In order to keep the plot turns coming, characters increasingly make bizarre decisions. They are inconsistent with what we know of them, and it becomes transparent that the writers have moved from what made the series great to pure momentum.
The precise moment when this occurred to me was mid-way through season three. By this time, Walt and Jesse have hooked up with Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). Fring is even more nerdish than Walter White. He manages a fast food chicken restaurant and is all button-down efficiency. We soon learn that Fring is a powerful player in the world of meth and drug cartel activity. From his restaurant chain, he produces and distributes the drug. Walt’s meth concoction is so potent and desired, Fring sets Walt up with his own lab and an operation few dream of. Walt brings Jesse in to work with him. They have made it and will earn millions if only they keep on the straight and narrow (at least with Gus that is).
Inexplicably, Jesse, who’s barely had two pennies to rub together to this point, decides he is getting screwed by Gus and starts stealing meth from the state-of-the-art lab to push on the street. This launches a series of events (many of which are too convenient) that leads to confrontation with Gus. The chess match stretches into season four when Gus and Walt ‘face off’ to see whom the dominant player in meth will be.
From this point forward, though the series is still utterly watchable, it ceases to be believable. Plot triumphs over characterization and dramatic intent, and Breaking Bad begins to feel more like a big budget movie—story logic and having a point take a back seat to whatever cool, new concept the writers can dream up. We care less about what it all means and only want to see if Walt will survive.
However, like Star Wars, it would be impossible for Breaking Bad to succeed if it did not have compelling characters. Walt is the show’s protagonist and Jesse his guide and foil, but the world of Breaking Bad is also populated with secondary characters that we can’t forget.
I have to admit I find Jesse to be the show’s most annoying character, and he ceased to have relevance after season three. He is incredibly well played by Aaron Paul, but he only seems to have been kept around to make strange decisions which impact Walt. He really has no purpose other than to create yet another plot turn.
Skyler (Anna Gunn), Walt’s wife, is also well-acted, but I think her character was never fully thought through. Even before she discovers Walt’s activity she broods and pouts and seems to have deep contempt for her husband. She scowls for five seasons, and one wonders why Walt would have ever loved this woman so much. She eventually, willingly, becomes involved with Walt’s illegal activity, itself a bizarre series of decisions much akin to the baffling choices Jesse Pinkman makes. I can only surmise the writers wanted to keep her around for the domestic drama she provides and stretched credulity to make it happen.
Walt’s brother-in-law, the DEA agent named Hank is also very interesting, and he functions, as the seasons go on, as Walt’s antagonist. Hank is perpetually in pursuit of the mysterious producer of the potent meth that Walt has cooked, and only by season five does he realize it has been Walt all along. This is really what the show has been building to, despite all the other ups and downs. Will Hank get his man, his own brother-in-law Walt, or will Walt yet again slip the noose?
What supports all the main players are the excellent character actors that populate the series. From Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), the shyster-est lawyer anyone has ever seen, to Gus Fring, chicken salesman and deadly meth-lord, to Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), Gus’s enforcer (though thirty years older and shorn of all hair, I recognized him immediately when he first appeared in Breaking Bad as the guy Eddie Murphy threw over the salad bar in Beverly Hills Cop), to a host of other brilliantly played smaller characters, I have to think actors were beating down their agents’ doors to get parts in this series.
These characters are all very interesting and enjoying them distracts from the plot-heavy shortcomings of the series. Breaking Bad is one of a handful of shows that successfully has fused the cop-style procedural with a soap opera. A few months back I reviewed the first season of Miami Vice. Seldom did cops and robbers shows go deeply into the characters lives. Each episode was a fresh beginning. In the 1980s, if you wanted story threads and character development that stretched out over a whole season you were best off watching Dynasty or Dallas.
What shows like Breaking Bad –and its forerunners—smartly did was fuse cop and crime show story lines with soap opera melodrama. It is the latter aspect which can make these dramas extremely compelling, but these elements can also push a show over the edge to descend into absurdity. I detected this failing in the first season of Homeland, another juicy, watchable drama series in which each episode features a revelation more shocking than the last. It’s this constant ratcheting up of the story which contains the seeds of its downfall. When you have nowhere to go but up, up eventually becomes silly and hard to believe. Much like the final seasons of Seinfeld, Breaking Bad strays from what made it great in the first place –something penetrating and incisive—to caricature.
As much as I have enjoyed Breaking Bad, it’s these weaknesses that prevent it, in my opinion, from being ranked next to The Wire in the top flight of drama series. The creators of The Wire realized that each season should shift slightly. It didn’t always follow the same characters as closely as Breaking Bad did. With new characters to explore –and new segments of society—The Wire was able to mine fresh thematic content each season and avoided the need to whiplash its audience with plot turns. Naturally, plot turns did happen, but they didn’t seem to encroach upon suspension of disbelief.
I don’t want to give the impression that Breaking Bad is not worthy of viewing. There are only a few shows that can be considered the best, and Breaking Bad is close, but for me it falls just short of the top rank. Nevertheless, it has been a tremendous joy to follow, and if AMC continues to produce and air these kinds of shows it will be a dominant player in scripted drama for years to come.