Thoughts On “Breaking Bad”

Ken AshfordPopular CultureLeave a Comment

Now that the last episodes are airing, I confess that I'm a latecomer to "Breaking Bad". Like, within the past month.  The series has always enjoyed a huge fanbase, and I suspect that millions like me joined the bandwagon only this month.  The series also enjoys almost universal critical acclaim, and been the subject of countless articles and reviews.

It's pretty undeniable.  "Breaking Bad" is a well-written television drama that, unlike many great shows that last 5-6 seasons, has not made a misstep.  Each season has a nice arc, and the 5 seasons so far have a nice overall arc.  The chemistry (no pun intended) between all the charactors is always dynamic and interesting.  

This is remarkable when you consider that when a show gets picked up, the producer has no idea if it will last one season, two seasons, or seven.  Yet, something about "Breaking Bad" makes it seem like it was all mapped out from Day One.  We know this isn't true.  We know, for example, that the charactor of Jesse was supposed to die at the end of Season One, thereby creating a lot of angst for Walt in Season Two.  But producer Vince Gilligan recognized that the Walt-Jesse dynamic was too good (in a volatile way) to write away.  So for a show that is being crafted "on the fly", Breaking Bad is remarkable.

The overarching theme of the show is rather a simple one – it is a morality play.  What is "good" and what is "evil".  Is it good when a dying man does anything to provide for his family?  What if that "anything" includes cooking meth?  What if, in the process, he has to kill?  What if those he kills are themselves killers?  And so on.

Each character, particularly Walt, is always in search of their moral center.  In the earlier seasons, Walt seems to have one; Jesse does not.  In latter seasons, that dynamic starts to reverse, as Jesse seems to "break good".

Another theme of the show is the slippery slope of evil.  This is most obvious in the main character, Walt, who goes from chemistry teacher to drug kingling.  But we also see it in his wife, who refuses to help her employer "fix the books", to become a full-blown money-launderer herself.  And his sister-in-law, whose kleptomania gets bigger.  

Here's where much credit is due to the show's writers.  The Walt of Season 4 is a contradiction of the Walt of Season 1, but we don't see it as a contradiction — more like an evolution – a slow and believeable slide down the slope of "wrong".  We travel with him, so much so that we understand, even as we are appalled by, the reasoning behind Walt's lust for a drug empire.

The show's weakest plotline rests in Marie Schrader – Walt's sister-in-law.  There's good fodder there, but it's almost as if the show doesn't know how to use her.  It's as if she is a character description ("a kleptomaniac who likes the color purple") but there is no plot integration.  The same can also be said for the White's son, Walt Jr. ("a teenager with cerebral palsy") — he provides some of the emotional tension (as when he built a website to seek donations to help cure his father's cancer), but other than that, there isn't much for him to do.  It's probably not a BAD thing that these two charactors have little to do — the show is tightly packed as it is.  But I feel bad for the actors.

"Breaking Bad" is renowned for its scientific accuracy, which is pretty cool since (I'm sure) 99% of its audience has not the slightest clue how to cook meth.  For example, actor Brian Cranston (Walt White) was trained by the DEA on meth-making, and the writing staff has PhD chemists at its disposal.  This all adds to the sense of realism, which is needed since a lot of the bad-ass bad guys are straight out of stock.

Season Four was by far the best of the seasons.  It started in slow-motion, and built to a mind-numbing pace filled with tension and anxiety.  Season Five is much the same way, so far.  It kicked into high gear as Hank, Walter's brother-in-law DEA agent, learned that the phantom meth dealer Heisenberg is, after all, mild-mannered Walter White.  And now he's learned that Walter White isn't so mild anymore.

It's tough to predict how a show which focuses on "right" and "wrong" and morality will turn out.  Will the anti-heroes remain that way?  Will there be a reckoning?  Very few are making predictions — that's because it's the ride outside the moral center that we find so enjoyable.