“You lost your partner today. What’s his name – Emilio? Emilio is going to prison. The DEA took all your money, your lab. You got nothing. Square one. But you know the business and I know the chemistry. I’m thinking… maybe you and I could partner up.”
Breaking Bad 101
When Breaking Bad first aired in the UK it was run on 5USA and then dropped after its second season failed to prove a hit for the network (possibly because of invisible marketing and obscure scheduling). Think about that for a moment. A show now widely heralded as perhaps the greatest television show ever – even over The Wire some say – was dropped by…… a sister of Channel 5. Luckily for those who did love the series, Netflix UK swooped in to give it a reprieve in early 2012 and it quickly became a poster child of the on-demand streaming service industry.
To be fair it’s not hard to see why in its earlier years broadcasters shied away from Breaking Bad. A show about a middle-aged man with cancer who decides to cook methamphetamine? That’s three counts on the studio exec’s “every successful show needs to be populated by young hotties, not be about a depressing illness and certainly not follow the corruption of man via a life of crime and moral ambiguity” chart. Who could ever see that being successful?
Truth is people want the grim. People want the corrupt. People want the tragic. The story of an above average-minded man living a pitifully average life before circumstances and a series of ill-thought out choices take him to extremely dark places is exactly what we, the ever-unhappy-with-our-own-lives, average viewers of television want.
Legacy, self-worth, family and a generous seasoning of tragedy: Breaking Bad is tight.
“So it’s grade school t-ball versus the New York Yankees. Yours is just some tepid off-brand generic cola. What I’m making is classic Coke. … Do you really want to live in a world without Coca Cola?”
A World Full Of Classic Coke
Perhaps ashamedly I still haven’t seen all of The Wire or The Sopranos and I stopped watching Mad Men pretty early on (do people still consider that as one of the greats?) so to some I might not have much authority when I say this but Breaking Bad is easily one of the best television shows to ever grace (or disgrace) our screens.
While a few may scoff, I never thought I could love again after Lost. Even as I was watching Breaking Bad in between seasons of Lost nothing on television held up next to it. But I realize now that I was wrong. Lost is still my favourite show – it was my own lifelong fandom show: my Star Trek; my X-Files – but Breaking Bad is something else. Some shows have stellar acting and a cinematic style. Some shows have intricate storytelling and a damn fine soundtrack. Some shows have complex characters and heartbreak. Breaking Bad has all of the above but also what I think defines the series: novelisation.
A television show can have all of the mentioned qualities and still not be the greatest series of all time; it’s how those qualities are presented which decide how far a show can and will go. Most television shows read like a graphic novel: each episode we jump from panel to panel, moving from piece of exposition to piece of exposition, to character development, to page of action to panel of plot closure and then on to next week’s issue. Breaking Bad, however, comes in the form of a book, carefully laying down every word-laden page we want and need to fully appreciate the series’ narrative and character choices and emotions. We’re there with Walt or Jesse or Skyler or Hank at all times, in between those gaps that separate the panels in other shows.
The series’ far-reaching rise and fall of a great man turned wrong reads like an adaptation of a magnum opus novel due to its ability to hang in mercilessly through the seemingly mundane (yay, breakfast!) as well as the slow or exciting growth of plot and character so that the full scope of what makes these people we’re watching tick can be observed, contemplated and debated on because every moment matters. The series, spoken so intricately, never leaves a single grain of Ricin in the vial either. Remember in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when Harry and Co are cleaning and come across a grubby throwaway locket that then turns out to be a horcrux of Voldemort two books later in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows?! That’s Breaking Bad at every turn.
There are other shows that are stylistically cinematic, tortuously plotted and beautifully acted but they are simply tepid off-brand generic cola compared to series creator, Vince Gilligan’s classic Coke.
“I have lived under the threat of death for a year now. And because of that, I’ve made choices. I alone should suffer the consequences of those choices. No one else. And those consequences… they’re coming.”
50 Shades of Gray Matter
To complement and enhance the series’ production values and story-telling structure are the people we watch the show for: Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, as well as the series’ wealth of other morally ambiguous characters.
Moral ambiguity is something each and every one of us have dealt with at one time or another. Most of our ‘tough’ choices come in the form of moments like whether it would really be so bad if you pulled a sickie, knowing you could well selfishly ruin another person’s day or if you are a fundamentally bad person for stealing some of your housemate’s bread and then lying to them, perhaps even blaming another housemate (sorry, Dave). I don’t think I’m a monster or opie-eyed piece of sh*t if I nab a bit of milk from my colleague. I was doing what was necessary to protect my cup of tea from tasting terrible. Breaking Bad‘s moral compass is just relatability taken to the extreme. We can’t help but feel for and be right behind Mr Walter Hartwell White through thick and thin because he is (or was) a normal guy simply trying to do right for his family and to leave behind a legacy when he’s gone from this world instead of just a withered corpse that couldn’t even provide for its family, and whose to say that put in the same position we wouldn’t make the same choices as Mr White?
Up until Walt shoots Mike in season 5 you could argue that every misdeed Walt committed was for the protection of his family or in complete self-defence and therefore not an act of breaking bad. If you wanted to be that guy you could even argue that Walt cooking methamphetamine is not in itself inherently bad. Of course though, what Walt does with the product thereafter no matter his circumstances is, which brings us back into the gray.
One of the most interesting conversations to have about Breaking Bad is the speculation of just when Walt crossed the Rubicon and broke bad for good. Some name the first time he cooked meth; some when he watched Jane die; some call the aforementioned shooting of that stand-up guy, Mike Ehrmantrut. I personally believe that Walt broke bad long before he even purchased that trademark pork pie hat of his. His narcissistic behaviour was always present and all signs pointed to the fact that he was never able to settle (his pre-series kerfuffle with Gray Matter, his deriding of 308 Negra Arroyo lane on his first viewing of the property and his and Gretchen’s debate over the chemistry percentages of what physically makes a man), all of which sets him on his inexorable path to embodying his inner Heisenberg.
Karma and vengeance are a huge force to be reckoned with in Breaking Bad and moral ambiguity is apparent in every instance of those notions. Almost no character acts out of pure evil.* From Gus avenging the death of his partner and letting his pride cloud his judgement, to Skyler dipping her toes into Walt’s blood money or Hank’s inability to give up on his hunt for Heisenberg to the point of illegality; in the world of Breaking Bad where there is a gray area of morality there is an equal reaction of destructive karma waiting right around the side of an RV.
*- ‘The Nazis’ are pure evil, but rather than characters you could argue that they are simply a manifestation of all the worst parts of what Walt has become. They are a chaotic reaction of narrative karma rather than a group of ‘people’.
What makes the moral ambiguity of Breaking Bad so engrossing is not just that it pushes the boundaries of what viewers deem still-forgivable behaviour but the fact that every major character, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, has gone through deep internal struggle which makes the series not just about goodies and baddies but people and the complex difficulties each and every one of them have come into. Hence, I like to think that the point of no return does not exist in Breaking Bad, as who we ultimately see on the screen is who the series’ characters have always been and will be. It’s not nature vs. nurture; it’s how nature is nurtured. Walter White was always Heisenberg he just needed the right catalyst to awaken the demon within.
“You see, technically, chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change: Electrons change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements combine and change into compounds. But that’s all of life, right? It’s the constant, it’s the cycle. It’s solution, dissolution. Just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation. It is fascinating, really.”
The Study Of Change
One of the most worrying features of a television show is that, intermittently, it needs to change. This is – fittingly, given our anti-hero’s lifelong vocation – what Breaking Bad excelled at most (see above nature/nurture). Vince Gilligan and his creative team, and indeed the show’s enormously talented cast, revelled in the process of moulding the new together with the old, taking what was and defiantly shaping what was meant to be.
Incidentally, on a production level as much as a character level I feel that the crux of Breaking Bad’s developmental success was that the writers had no idea what they were doing, with much of the show’s most engrossing drama focusing on how its characters adapt to the almost-random chaos thrown at them.
Case in point: Jesse was supposed to die in episode nine of season one. Tuco was supposed to live until the end of season two, Hector “Tio” Salamanca was supposed to be season three’s big bad, Gus Fring was originally going to only be in a few episodes, meaning season four would have been considerably different, and (here’s a big one – the one you couldn’t love them more for admitting) when the creative team had Walt purchase that hefty M60 at the start of season five, they had no idea how the series would end.
Every time the writers added to their somehow-commissioned experiment the eventual outcome, good or bad, would be a product of its own volatile evolution. Vince Gilligan has stated numerously throughout the series that in the writer’s room they investigated the what-ifs of what they wanted to happen but always ultimately went with their gut feeling as to what they saw unfolding naturally in front of them, as if the show’s characters were real and uncontainable. This can be confirmed further by referring to both the Heisenberg Principle (Werner Heisenberg’s hypothesis that it is impossible to determine the velocity of an electron (character) or any other particle (plot device) with a degree of accuracy or certainty) and Walt’s reflective speech during one of the series’ highlight episodes, ‘Fly’: “The universe is random. It’s not inevitable, it’s simple chaos. It’s subatomic particles in endless, aimless collision.” This is, in a sentence, Breaking Bad.
No matter how much Vince Gilligan or any of the creative team wanted, Breaking Bad was not an entity that could be controlled, but merely coped with. Because of this the show feels (pardon the pun) pure. The series never dropped a plot, it never retconned or apologised for any missteps. It carried on forward, through the anarchy and bad decisions; slowly, tensely and surely, becoming what it was always going to be, much like Walter’s transformation into the notorious Heisenberg.
[Walter White and Gretchen Thomas in flashback are calculating all of the known elements that make up the structure of the human body]
Walt: “We are 0.111958% shy.”
Gretchen: “Supposedly that’s everything.”
Walt: “It just seems like something’s missing doesn’t it? There’s got to be more to a human being than that.”
Gretchen: “What about the soul?”
Walt: “The soul? There’s nothing but chemistry here.”
A Trip To Belize
Death has been omnipresent since the start of Breaking Bad. Death, in the form of cancer, was the catalyst for Walt’s first step into his perpetual downfall. In the form of violent threat it was what drove him deeper and deeper into a semi-glamorised methamphetamine trade until it was such that death was being issued by his own hand and the show no longer held even a glimmer of hope for a single character. Consequently, by the series’ end death was knocking on everyone’s door and it was time for the show and its audience to assess their beliefs.
Faith is a tough subject to consider when discussing the Breaking Bad universe. On one hand all signs point towards that there is nothing in the universe but chemistry. On the other we have the latter half of Walt’s ‘Fly’ speech in response to coincidentally having a drink with Jane’s father the night she dies: “It’s subatomic particles in endless, aimless collision. That’s what science teaches us, but what does this say? What is it telling us that the very night that this man’s daughter dies, it’s me who is having a drink with him? I mean, how could that be random?”
Does this mean that the show’s karmic cataclysms are acts of god, not science? If Walter was in fact who he always became does this mean that destiny is present in Breaking Bad or is it simply just a case of you can’t perform the same experiment twice and expect a different outcome? It’s the variables that change in the Breaking Bad universe, not the constants. These questions are left, and will be eternally, for self-interpretation. Walter White claims that there is no soul but if there isn’t what was Breaking Bad all about? Just science? To take an agnostic’s point of view I like to think that both forces of science and belief are in play with Breaking Bad and complement each other as much as they do contradict.
In a way – and continuing the pattern of notions in the series reflecting real-life and vice versa – Breaking Bad singing its Baby Blues also signals a pseudo demise of Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston’s present careers. Don’t get ahead of me; I’m not saying these extraordinary actors have nowhere to go. Aaron Paul himself has admitted that he knows that he’s probably reached the peak of his foreseeable future. It’s a tortuous reality that the legacy of something so large should potentially overshadow what else we may think of what they have to offer – much like those legacies formulated in the show.
With that said death is not always a bad thing. With a perfect final series of episodes that complement the issues and themes that the show first laid out, Breaking Bad also achieved that rare thing of coming full circle without missing anything important or feeling forced or even overdue. In fact, the show went out literally at the top of its game: every episode in season 5.2 steadily increased in viewership and critical lauding.
Whilst not always a show we can all contextually relate to, Breaking Bad has proven itself to be timeless by delivering outstanding drama without the ‘melo’, deeply affecting emotion without the sentimentality and – to largest effect – devastating, sickening chaos and destruction without ever losing sight of its humanity. It’s over. Gilligan won, and I can’t imagine a world without Coca-Cola.