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I’ve been watching Breaking Bad over the last few months, after hearing for years about what an amazing show it is, and particularly after the promotion campaign for Season 4 plastered Bryan Cranston’s terrifying face on the side of buses all over Melbourne (above). It’s hard not to gush, but everything people say about this show is true. It’s the best TV drama ever filmed and deserves all of its praise. It’s easily unseated Lost as my favourite non-comedy ever, and not just because of the weakness of that show’s final two seasons. Whenever I said that Lost was the best show on TV I always had to throw in a disclaimer mentioning that I just loved the concept – I knew the script was hammy, the music awful and the acting second-rate (with a few brilliant exceptions, like roses in cow shit). But Breaking Bad – every bit of it – is art. I have no doubt that if Shakespeare lived in contemporary New Mexico, he would be writing this show.
Given the number of accolades Breaking Bad has received (Bryan Cranston has won Oustanding Lead Actor at the Emmy Awards for three years running), you’ve likely heard of the concept: a high school science teacher finds out he has terminal cancer, and teams up with a dropkick former student to cook meth to provide for his family after he dies. This sounds at first like a hook for a sitcom about an off-the-wall mid-life crisis; indeed, Breaking Bad often verges on black comedy, particularly in the hilariously endearing Odd Couple relationship between Jesse and Walt (whom Jesse still, adorably, refers to as Mr. White). At the same time the show plunges into miserable, gory depths of bleak horror, the stark reality of crime – and that’s just in the first three episodes.
FROM HERE ON THERE ARE SPOILERS ALL OVER THE PLACE, SERIOUSLY, THIS TV SERIES IS THE CROWNING ACCOMPLISHMENT OF THE LAST DECADE IN AMERICAN TELEVISION, WATCH THE FIRST THREE EPISODES AND TELL ME YOU DON’T WANT TO WATCH THIS SERIES UNSPOILED
The elevator pitch implies this is a show about a good man who is forced to turn to dark things because of the US healthcare system and his own poverty – like so many crime stories, a way of exploring a fascinating criminal underworld through the eyes of a sympathetic, likeable character. Walt is so fucking far from that. Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, had the explicit intent to take a protagonist and turn him into an antagonist. It becomes clear in the first season that, in spite of all the bloodletting and murder and threat to not only himself but his family, Walt gets a kick out of doing this. He repeatedly turns down opportunities to get out of the drug trade, and somewhere along the way he comes to see cooking meth as a way of becoming successful – something that he never was in any other aspect of life. Walt is a depressed, crabby old man who believes that life has not given him what he deserves and is obsessed with what others think of him. His more positive aspects as a father, husband or friend are window-dressing. He is a scheming narcissist who will sacrifice anything to further his own advantages and desires.
What makes this character arc so beautiful and interesting is how complex it is – how many other factors are at play. Walt is a human, and contains multitudes. Most of his actions have several motives, and he still sometimes shows hesitation (Jane’s death) and regret (crying to his son about having a punch-up with Jessie). I facetiously compared Breaking Bad to Shakespeare before (although to be honest I never got the big deal about Shakespeare) but there is no Lear or Macbeth in Walt. He is not a character carefully constructed to tell a moral fable, but rather an ineffably human character, who makes mistakes and reveals his flaws and still has something inside him that makes you want him to succeed.
Gilligan mentioned in an interview that I can no longer find that every viewer would have a point where they would turn against Walt, where he would do something they thought was beyond the pale, but that the moment would be different for every viewer. There are a number of obvious candidates – some would say that selling meth is one of them – but for me it had nothing to do with the drug trade. It actually comes in “Over,” an episode late in Season 2, when Walt’s family is hosting a party to celebrate his cancer going into remission – something he is secretly bitter about, as it heralds a return to his quotidian life as a suburban dad. He keeps pouring his son shots of tequila, and at first Hank – his brother-in-law DEA agent, a loudmouth idiot who was at first seemingly inserted into the series to provide extra tension – laughingly goes along with it. As Walt continues pouring his 15-year-old cerebral-palsy-inflicted son shots of tequila, Hank tries to make him stop, only to be met with Walt’s steely-faced resolve. Hank eventually takes the bottle and walks away, only to have Walt scream after him across the yard. He responds in his typical joking manner, and the situation is defused when Walt Jr suddenly throws up. Hank’s reaction is critical – not only does he prove himself to be a more responsible and mature parental figure than Walt, but he tries to preserve Walt’s honour in front of his family by making it out to be a joke. Walt, on the other hand, is so furiously petty about his miraculous recovery preventing him from a life of crime that he’s reduced to getting his kicks out of boozing up his own son. He later apologises to Walt Jr, saying “That wasn’t me,” but the plain truth to any viewer is that this is precisely what Walt is: not a good man forced to do bad things, but a man who is – in any walk of life – a fundamentally bad person.
I find it particularly interesting to compare him to Hank. In the pilot episode, at Walt’s surprise birthday party, Hank is introduced as a brash and arrogant asshole with a badge, the kind of man who thinks he’s much cooler than he really is. Walt, on the other hand, is a meek and henpecked science teacher – more likeable, but not as much of a man. As the series goes on, Hank is involved in some intense work on the Mexican border, which nearly gets him killed and leaves him with PTSD – to the point where he finds himself unable to return and admits, “I’m not the man I thought I was.” Walt, on the other hand, proves himself to be capable of staring down a drug kingpin and demanding $50,000 from him, yet is also shown to be increasingly selfish and unstable. Their positions are entirely reversed. Walt is a strong man, but a bad person; Hank is a weak man, but a good person.
There’s a moment in the final episode of Season 4, where Gus – one of the finest villains to ever grace a television screen – is sitting in his car and looking at a building, and we as viewers know that some sort of climax is coming. It would be an unremarkable scene, if not for the music used. If somebody who had never seen the show before saw nothing but that scene, with that music, they’d assume Gus was the hero.
I could go on about this series. Like only a few other artworks (The Assassination of Jesse James comes to mind) it’s a production in which everything – the acting, the script, the music, the cinematography – is individually excellent and comes together seamlessly to create something brilliant. Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Giancarlo Esposito and Dean Norris are all amazing. The show utilises its natural setting to great effect, particularly with the use of light and sound, especially silence – not since “No Country For Old Men” have I seen a movie or TV show accomplish so much with silence. Most importantly of all, the writers are willing to take this story in directions that have never really been seen before on television.
All this gushing isn’t to say that it’s flawless. I don’t think a TV serial can be flawless, because the nature of the medium means that it’s impossible to present a finished product. Season 4 dragged in the middle, and the ending, while morally plausible for Walt’s character at this stage, was logistically sketchy. I found the finale of Season 2 to be a total cop-out, and I absolutely hated the twins in Season 3 – ludicrous action-movie villains who made a mockery of the realism Breaking Bad was founded upon (though they did, at least, climax with one of the most tense and heart-pounding scenes in the entire show.) It’s not perfect. It is, however, one of the greatest TV shows ever filmed, and if you haven’t seen it you need to rectify that straight away. (And you shouldn’t have read past the spoiler warning either, you cheat.)