On New Year’s Eve Day, my dad texted me and said:
“Have been watching Breaking Bad this afternoon. What a mess.”
I didn’t ask him if he meant that in a good or bad way. I merely responded, “That is my fave show of all time.”
It turned out that Dad was watching one of several Breaking Bad marathons that AMC was airing in celebration of the 10-year anniversary of the premier of the series. Today marks the exact anniversary.
A little over four years ago, Breaking Bad ended its five-year run. As tribute, I authored three blog entries explaining why, in my opinion, Breaking Bad was (and still is) the best television series ever to be produced.
You guys remember my rather protracted ‘Deep Shadow’ rant? Just imagine three back-to-back entries just as long; maybe longer.
Since then, my old blog disappeared, which caused me to create this one. My attention span, along with that of the entire nation, seems to have diminished in the intervening years. I don’t have the wherewithal to try to replicate those entries. Still, I do think a commemorative tribute to Breaking Bad is in order.
A quick breakdown of BB for those who were under a rock from about 2010 through 2013. Breaking Bad tells the story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), an over-qualified high school chemistry teacher who discovers that he has lung cancer. In order to provide for his family when/if he succumbs, he decides to partner up with a former student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), and cook crystal meth. This leads to all manner of chicanery as Walt and Jesse rise from two bumbling fools cooking in an RV in the desert to Walt assuming the position as the most powerful drug kingpin in the greater Southwest. Meanwhile, Walt has to duck his brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), who just happens to be a DEA agent, as well as his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), who is not the typical clueless or willfully ignorant TV wife of other crime shows.
Why is Breaking Bad the best show of all time, in my view? There are many reasons. The biggest also serves as the chief metaphor of the show; chemistry.
Why was the original Star Wars movie such a sensation? Talent had a lot to do with it, but it was as much about timing. America was in a bit of a blue funk in the latter half of the ‘70’s and a movie about a hopeful battle against an evil galactic empire was just the thing the country needed to spark its collective imagination.
Flash forward to 2008. TV critics call the period between 1999 and the present, “The second golden age of television.” This was evidenced by monster hits such as Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Mad Men. These were all shows that were broadcast on cable TV, where the standards of censorship were far more lax than those of the over-the-air networks who were under the thumb of the FCC. Cable was the perfect place for Breaking Bad to find a home.
Series creator Vince Gilligan’s vision of the story of a mild-mannered school teacher who conquered the drug world with aplomb under the alias of Heisenberg may not have been groundbreaking in its presentation of the archetypal anti-hero whom the audience simultaneously cheers for and despises, but Gilligan took it one step further. In an interview with TV Guide, he said that television was designed to keep its characters in a kind of stasis. He is absolutely right.
If you watch any show, from Star Trek to Law & Order, the basic formula from one episode to the next is the same. This makes the shows infinitely rewatchable on cable reruns. But really, the same form of stasis occurred even among the shows considered to be the critical cream of the crop.
Take The Sopranos, for instance. The basic premise is fascinating and deservedly captured America’s attention during the show’s eight-year run. A mafia boss who consults a psychiatrist about his problems? Who wouldn’t love that?
But if you dig beneath the surface, every season has a similar formula to it. Tony encounters a single or group of adversaries. In the first season, it’s his Uncle Junior and his mother. In the second, it’s Richie Aprile. In the third and fourth, it’s Ralph Cifaretto and Jackie Aprile Jr. And so on and so on up until the black screen of doom.
Meanwhile, Tony conducts a series of affairs while his wife feigns outrage, but secretly prefers the arrangement. Tony’s kids are spoiled and unmanageable. Tony takes his problems to his therapist, who gives him advice on how to handle his personal life. Being a sociopath, Tony twists her advice, using it to gain leverage over his enemies.
Another cable critical darling, The Wire, is similar in structure. In every season, the Baltimore police define a target. Throughout the season, they engage in a game of human chess against their opponents. By the finale, the cops nail their quarry, but something happens that renders all of their efforts null and void. They win the battle, but lose the war on drugs.
You can watch the first season of either The Sopranos or The Wire and stop if you wish, having gotten the basic message each series is trying to convey. Sure, you’d miss a lot of great future stories in each show. Adriana’s whacking, or the ultimate fate of Stringer Bell, but you’d still receive the message David Chase and David Simon are trying to send.
Not so with Breaking Bad. At the end of the first season, Walt and Jesse watch helplessly as their first business associate, psychotic, drug-crazed Tuco Salamanca, beats a guy to death in an isolated junkyard, then casually drives away. There is no possible way to know what comes next; no foreshadowing of the plane crash, Gus Fring, Saul Goodman or the machinegun in the trunk outside of an Albuquerque Denny’s. To employ a literary comparison, other programs are like a series of novels, while each season of Breaking Bad is like one section of the same long book.
Gilligan’s dark creation came along at just the right moment in TV history. The Sopranos had recently ended, The Wire was winding down and Mad Men was just hitting its stride, but was coming at the end of the TV revolution, rather than the beginning.
Though timing certainly played a role, you cannot minimize the top-notch talent that went into the creation and execution of this series. Vince Gilligan’s aleatory vision for the show was ignored by every major cable network, but AMC took a gamble because they had far less to lose than HBO or FX. He surrounded himself with a staff of superb writers, editors, camera operators and other set workers. He then assembled a crew of actors second to none in the business. AMC balked at Bryan Cranston being cast in the lead in the wake of his role as goofy husband Hal in Malcolm in the Middle, but Gilligan persisted and ultimately, history proved him correct.
The show is clearly Cranston’s domain, but every actor who supports him is at the top of their game. Aaron Paul is the most noteworthy. Jesse Pinkman begins his journey as a somewhat hapless associate to Walt. By the end, he is a scarred man who will never be able to escape the consequences of his actions. Anna Gunn as Skyler White walks a fine line between the nagging wife and the put-upon victim of Walt’s hyperbolic midlife crisis. Later, she becomes a somewhat unwilling accomplice. She manages all of it with convincing fortitude. Dean Norris as Hank seems like an alfa male jock type when we first meet him, but later when Hank suffers from PTSD, we feel for a man who is struggling with his own demons. Hank’s wife Marie (Betsy Brandt) seems flaky and self-centered at first, but her loyalty to her husband proves steadfast as things get darker and darker for him.
Walt’s antagonists are also well-represented. Chief among them is Giancarlo Esposito as Gustavo ‘Gus’ Fring, a Chilean businessman who uses a string of fried chicken restaurants as a front for his meth business. Fring was so compelling that fans were split on who they wanted to win when Walt and Gus inevitably fell out and entered into a deadly contest of wills. Then, there’s Jonathan Banks as the world-weary Mike, the clean-up guy who splits his loyalties, Mark Margolis as a crippled ex drug lord who can only communicate by ringing a bell, Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman, Walt and Jesse’s flashy criminal lawyer who got his own spin-off, and Laura Fraser as the mercurial Lydia, who is too bloodthirsty for her own good. All of these characters come together to form a rich, vibrant tapestry that drives the show toward its ultimate and inevitable climax.
Another facet of Breaking Bad that I find attractive is the show’s overarching philosophy. Some writers are more subtle than others, but each series has at its center a theme or message that it tries to convey to the viewer. The Sopranos is a very complex show, but the basic message is that most people cannot or will not change. The message of The Wire is that institutions ultimately fail despite the best intentions of those who run them.
Breaking Bad strikes a chord with me because of my father. More than once he would say to my brothers and I, “Life’s about choices.” No series better illustrates this truism than Breaking Bad.
As we observe Walt on his journey to becoming Heisenberg, master criminal, we see that Walt is confronted with many choices, both past and present, that propelled him down the path to depravity. The first and most obvious was in the first episode, when he chose to cook crystal meth in the wake of his cancer diagnosis. But many other choices present themselves along Walt’s downward spiral of self-degradation. His two old friends from college offer to pay for his cancer treatments in full, but Walt refuses due to his prideful arrogance. Walt allows Jesse’s girlfriend to choke on her own vomit right in front of him, without taking the necessary steps that would save her. Still later, Walt is forced to choose between his loyalty to Jesse and that of his employer, Gus Fring.
And it’s not just Walt. Nearly every character faces a stark choice at one point or another during the unfolding of the series. Jesse, Skyler, Hank and Marie all make fateful decisions that have an impact, not only upon them, but on the lives of others around them. In my view, this is the very nature of existence. No man is an island unto himself. The decisions we as humans make cannot exist in a vacuum.
It is a lesson that Walt finally learns in the show’s best episode, “Ozymandias,” 47 punishing minutes of television that twist your guts into mush.
Every couple of years or so, I break out my DVD rips of Breaking Bad and rewatch the series. Even after three or four viewings, the show never ceases to astound me with the depth of its writing, acting and production values. I hear the cinematography is pretty good, too.
Other shows have not aged well; 24, for example. Yet, Breaking Bad is a timeless classic that will always hold a place in my heart as the best television series ever to be made.
A pox on Hollywood for not providing it with audio description. My fanboy love for the show is so boundless that I downloaded and saved every single minute-by-minute recap of each episode that was provided by the AMC website. That’s right. I have to listen to each episode, then read the recap to fill in the gaps. It’s cumbersome, but Heisenberg and company are well worth the trouble. Yet, I will not rest until Netflix, the Brits or some lowly narrator chained to a pole with a bike lock in a basement somewhere describes all of the episodes for myself and my blind brothers and sisters.
Bekah, if you’re reading this, I’ve got a bike lock and a bologna sandwich with your name on them. Better beware when I call you to come to the control room.
As for Breaking Bad’s successor, Better Call Saul, you can read about my thoughts on the show elsewhere in the annals of this blog. My views on it haven’t changed much after three seasons. It is a very good show, but not great as was Breaking Bad. Small wonder. You can only catch lightning in a bottle once. Just ask George Lucas and Disney. No matter how many times they try, they will never recreate the crackling magic of the original Star Wars trilogy.
So here’s to you Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brant, RJ Mitte, Giancarlo Espozito, Jonathan Banks, Bob Odenkirk, Laura Fraser, Steven Quezada, Jesse Plemons, David Costabile, Krysten Ritter, Mark Margolis and all of the other actors, as well as the writers and crew who made this show a once-in-a-lifetime experience. David Chase might have broken the TV mold, but you all stomped on the pieces. Happy 10th!!! Let’s all raise a glass of Schraderbrau before we dive into a bucket of Los Pollos Hermanos.