Hype is a fickle thing: it can destroy one’s appreciation of shows in ways which just aren’t justifiable. Breaking Bad is an incredibly hyped up show. Critically acclaimed and loved by TV connoisseurs, it was a show that I was hesitant to get into because I was scared it would not live up to its hype. But boy, not only did it live up to its praises, but it shattered all my expectations and is now clearly cemented as the best TV show of all time, in my opinion. Yes, it even usurped The Wire in my estimates.
What is it about this show that makes it so brilliant? Is it the high quality cinematography and painstakingly detailed shots? Is it the fantastic characters and cast whose lives and dreams we watch with bated breath? Is it the excellent script with its dashes of black humour mixed in with surreal, sometimes poignant moments of exposition? I can’t pinpoint it. I can’t tell you why this show is that good. I can only urge you to watch it for yourself, and let your sense of the aesthetic revel in one of the greatest TV accomplishments of our times.
For those who don’t know, Breaking Bad is primarily a story about a high-school Chemistry teacher who discovers he has lung cancer. Faced with crippling healthcare bills (boo on you America for not having universal healthcare) and a family already living on the poverty line, Walter White decides there’s money to be made in drugs – specifically, methamphetamine. He teams up with an ex-high school student called Jesse Pinkman, in order to cook up and then sell meth, and use the profits to set up a comfortable life for his family after he passes from cancer. The plot then focuses on Walter and Jesse as they bumble their way through the incredibly seedy world of drug dealing and all that involves, from shootings to gangs to crazy cartel members. We follow Walter White as he leads his double life as a top meth cook and as a family man with a disabled son and a pregnant wife. We follow him as he gets more and more embroiled into the world of drugs and general illegalities, until there comes a point where he is no longer an intruder in this world: he is a part of it.
Breaking Bad is fundamentally a study of pride. Walter White is pride incarnate, a modern day Icarus or Satan, whose hubris is the main force that drives the plot forward. There are multiple times where Walt is caught in ridiculous situations, and as the seasons go on, one can’t help but think that these situations are entirely avoidable. It’s an exercise in futility, as each situation is resolved only by creating more and more entanglements. They would all be avoidable if he would just get out, leave the drug dealing world behind and cash out his winnings. But like a gambling addict, he keeps pressing and pressing, and during this, he treads on the toes of people he really does not want to piss off. Pretty soon, it is too late, and redemption becomes an impossibility.
It is this hubris which transforms Walter White from the meek and polite Chemistry teacher to the all-out badass that is Heisenberg – his chosen pseudonym. Underneath the surface of this humble, suburban teacher is true desperation, as well as the unsettling feeling that all of us, no matter how comfortable, are just a stone-throw away from complete destruction. When we talk about character development, no one embodies that concept more than Walter White. Here, we turn a sensible, but boring character into someone who would give mafia bosses a run for their money. And all of it seems entirely achievable, entirely in line with the way the show is constructed and the way the character is set up. It’s a transformation which is done incredibly subtly, and it’s only really on a second watch-through that you remember how Walter was in the first season compared to the later seasons.
What of the other characters? Jesse Pinkman, likewise, goes through a huge transformation. His though is driven by the need to adapt and mature to the increasingly dangerous world he lives in. From small-time marijuana dealer to high-end meth production is a huge step up (or down, depending on your perspective), and Jesse’s changes are largely due to the pressures on him to be a reliable, consistent and hard-working part of the drug dealing team. Of course, Jesse also goes through the wringer after multiple tragedies, and those all affect his character too.
There’s also Skylar, Walter’s wife who is involuntarily dragged into this world. Then there’s Hank, Walter’s brother-in-law, a hotshot DEA agent who is on the hunt for the mysterious blue meth that Walter has been producing. There’s also Saul Goodman, a wisecracking defence attorney with shady connections and an even shadier work ethic. There are loads more characters too but I have to stop there to avoid spoilers, but each of the characters has fully realised personalities and each interacts with the main cast in unpredictable ways.
You see, this show is all about unpredictability. It helps that the underground drugs trade itself is highly risky and unpredictable, but the show takes that as a motto and just rolls with it. It’s a show that is constantly full of surprises, and even when I was looking out for it and engaging in the analysis that goes online, I was still often completely floored by new revelations. It helps that this show is entirely unique both in its story and its characters; I never feel as though I have met these characters before. They are complete strangers to me in literary trope terms, and that really is a refreshing change of pace from the majority of TV shows out there.
The other hugely compelling aspects of Breaking Bad are concerned with the incredibly high production values. It is a show that is shot immaculately, with great attention to detail and composition. Every scene feels like an artistic vision. There are notable episodes as well which eschew much plot development in favour of pure, artistic sublimeness and commentary on characters. For example, one episode called The Fly, is all close ups of Walter chasing a fly, which sounds incredibly dull but manages to be thrilling in its execution. I mentioned earlier that the show can feel very surreal at times, and largely this is due to the strange nature of certain shots. What significance did the mariachi band playing in the desert have to the rest of the show? I don’t know, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
So is Breaking Bad a show for everyone? Well it certainly is a show for those with good tastes in television, and yes, I’m aware of how elitist that sounds but aesthetically, I do think you can say this is an objectively good show. Whether you like it or enjoy it is a different matter though. Without doubt you need a certain disposition to black humour, tragedy and gore in order to stomach some of it. You also need to be able to deal with awkwardness, as the plots become intertwined in such elaborate ways that force confrontations between characters that they’d much rather not have. I’d recommend this show to everyone, but I’m well aware that it’s not going to appeal to everyone. Some will find it too violent, some will find it too slow. What I want to emphasise though is that the reasons why this show won’t appeal to people is not inherent to the show itself. There just isn’t anything outstandingly or notably bad about the show which would justify people disliking it. It really is to do with your own constitution and your own ability to deal with the dark themes of the show.
So for those of you who can enjoy it, then it really is something to behold and it is something that will reward you for your patience. I absolutely promise you that Breaking Bad is worth the investment of your time, and if you haven’t done so already, then now would be the perfect time to catch up. With 24 days to go until the final season, you have the time now to watch all the previous episodes and then you can join the exponentially growing audience who will tune in every week to catch the latest episode of Breaking Bad.