BREAKING BAD is the most important show on television today, as well as the best show in its current generation.
These are bold words, but the show is good enough to merit them. Furthermore, as it approaches its fifth season premiere this Sunday on AMC, it deserves attention that only the finest, most interesting storytelling and art acquires.
On its surface, it’s a simple premise. Walter White is a fifty year-old chemistry teacher who finds out he has terminal lung cancer and uses his scientific potential to make the purest crystal meth in order to provide for his struggling family. However, it’s so much more than that simple statement.
And this is a show about two men who make crystal meth for a living.
If anything, BREAKING BAD is constantly compared to AMC’s other flagship show (I love you WALKING DEAD, but you’ll never be this good unless you drop or change Laurie) MAD MEN. But this isn’t warranted at all. Both are extremely well-written shows that utilize metaphor and character-driven plots to move their stories forward. Both can be glacially paced shows that can change directions rapidly in the blink of an eye (See “One Minute” and “Sit Down, Have a Seat”).
However, unlike MAD MEN’s sometimes overwrought and overwritten (not the same as poorly done) episodes, BREAKING BAD moves forward with a clip unseen in many shows. Whether this is due to the show’s reliance on a crack thriller narrative or having a focused endpoint is not important. What is important is that the program is a drug that leaves its viewers aching for more. And after these next two years, the fix is gone. Breathtakingly, horrifically gone.
Onscreen, we can think of the actions of the characters as rooted in the period and themes of the 1960s, and the history of the program drives us forward. Both also give us an adaptation of the first real depiction of the American Dream, which is the “rags-to-riches” tale. Don Draper’s carefully crafted idealism within the ad world versus Walter White’s lowest point in terms of financial, physical and emotional levels. Both characters emerge flush with success from their enterprises, but at the cost of certain aspects of their lives and with potential for a hubris-led (or genital-driven, in the case of Don Draper) fall from grace. That represents the second point of the American Dream narrative, but we’ll get to that.
Walter and his partner and former student Jesse Pinkman are fascinating characters, made ever more interesting by the fact that you can never truly pin their motives. Their various complexities are very interesting and heartening, especially as the show goes forward. While Walter explores the much darker side of his personality (especially in season four with the lily of the valley. Holy crapbuckets, Heisenberg), Jesse sees himself changing throughout the show and becoming a much more sympathetic (emphasis on pathetic sometimes) figure. Though each of their characters do dark and bad things, the reasons WHY they do this are much more interesting. Walter starts doing this because he feels that he has to do something for his family, but soon it becomes a more important, integral part of his character. Whereas Jesse’s character is essentially looking for something to do that rewards him for it, yet eventually he outgrows this need and searches for a more stable form of family and home life that was unavailable to him before.
The show presents morality as a choice, one that is reinforced via rewards and punishment. But even then it’s not so simple, and this is where comparisons to THE WIRE come into play. While that show played with subtlety towards the futility of the War on Drugs, this show posits the war as one that could potentially be won through character choices and work. In a sense, it actually gives one hope that victory would be within reach, and that moral redemption is possible. But we also see how choices affect these characters (and I’m sorry for the vagueness here, I really just want to sell non-viewers and potential audiences on how GOOD this show can be without ruining it like so many do). These choices are often wrong choices, wrong turns taken, and yet they all make sense for characters, not as story points but real decisions made.
To me, this morality is necessary as we plunge further into the information sphere that surrounds us. Rigid ideas of morality are muddled and muddied every day, and people that we respect and appreciate soon become figureheads of disappointment and betrayal. BREAKING BAD examines how these people can actually become driven by their circumstances to explore these lives full of darkness, and yet it never fully condemns their choices as “wrongheaded.” They may be wrong, but the audience sees where Walter, Jesse, and even Skylar made these choices and why. That’s important to us, and makes the show an important conversation piece in times when overly simplistic plotting and characterization define mass mediated entertainment.
When critics discuss television as art, they contend to think of it as high art. Shows like THE SOPRANOS and THE WIRE are often held up because of their work in subtlety and allegory, trafficking in metaphors as they accumulate their accolades. But BREAKING BAD is just as metaphorically sound and excellent as its fellow AMC breadwinner MAD MEN, with one key exception: It’s also a fantastic thriller full of blood, gore, and pulpy thrills.
Make no mistake, when it comes to operatics and sheer suspense, BREAKING BAD is untouchable. Rewatching the show, I’m absolutely amazed at where the show will take its main characters, and just how far down the skuzzy rabbit hole of the life of a meth dealer, supplier and user the show takes its audience. We’re talking about a show that started off with its main character as a jumpy, meek man wearing sand-stained (and possibly other stains) briefs in the middle of the desert, promising to end himself before his family finds out what he’s done. Now Walter White is probably the most amazing villain that has ever existed on television, one you can’t help but root for while simultaneously praying that somebody takes him down. All of this was delivered via a suspenseful mix of tightly wound plot threads that seem organic, never labyrinthine.
You know how much that matters when you’re staring down the barrel of a gun or watching somebody have their throat slit with a box cutter? Absolutely nothing. That’s because the show is filled with absolutely smashing story points and action beats that beautifully complement the dramatics and characters. If you haven’t watched the show, I’ll just say four words from Season One’s “Crazy Handful of Nothin’” that fans will know by heart, and that nonfans will gleefully squeal at when they watch it for the first time: “This…is not meth.”
Look, it’s obvious that I could go on for longer, but you get the point. Really, any show that can combine all these elements into a great package is worth your time. But in the midst of our increasingly scandal-ridden environment, a show that wraps morality and thrills into a well-oiled machine of entertainment says more about our mental landscape and cultural consciousness that needs to be spoken aloud. That’s what makes BREAKING BAD the most important television show currently airing, and why you should really be watching it.
I mean, why should we be shocked at how a seemingly good man can act in his private life? Look at the further condemnation of Joe Paterno to see how quickly the façade of a public hero and brave man gives way to the ugliness inside. Not that we’ll ever truly know Paterno’s involvement the way that we know Walter White’s devolution into monstrosity, but a television program that examines the slow rot of a “good” man’s soul is worth more than all the “reality” shows in the world because reality is not easy. It’s messy, convoluted, and filled with uneasy truths that most of us don’t want to face.
How does one go about becoming the villain in their lives? How does one navigate the minefield of choices available to them? Does one minor temptation damn us if we pick the apple from the tree? And is there any hope for redemption?
These are not just questions in the show, but questions we face in our lives. BREAKING BAD asks these questions in abundance, and provides easy and complex answers. God bless this show for existing.
Finally, I want to express just how good this show is by talking about its most minimalist character. The arc of Hector “Tio” Salamanca, a stroke-addled former cartel higher-up that’s forced to communicate solely via a tiny bell attached to his wheelchair, should not exist on television like it does. Indeed, when he first appeared I thought the character would be a one-episode deus ex machina. Instead, he is so well-utilized on the show that you genuinely fear him when he’s onscreen. And this character is practically paralyzed, yet somehow can organically strike fear into those around him by his presence alone!
To me, that’s BREAKING BAD’s greatest achievement: Taking characters, making them real, and then making the audience experience it through powerful writing every week. Bravo, Vince Gilligan & company. Now bring on Heisenberg’s demise. I expect nothing less than amazement.