By the time you read this, one of the best television dramas of the last decade will have completed its final act. Breaking Bad is the story of a high school teacher who morphs into a drug kingpin, whose life of quiet desperation is upended by a diagnosis of terminal cancer, and then completely rebuilt around a prideful, ruthless and bad persona. (Readers, be sufficiently warned: this article contains spoilers, though efforts have been made to limit them.) By PAUL BERKOWITZ.
In the beginning, Walter White is a devoted family man who has seemingly been dealt a crappy hand by life. His son has cerebral palsy and his younger wife is pregnant with their second child. He works as a high-school chemistry teacher and moonlights at a car wash to bring in extra money. He doesn’t command much respect at either job but he keeps plugging away at his work for the sake of his family.
At the start of our story he has just turned 50 and he doesn’t have much to show for his years. He’s pretty much going through his life on autopilot, working two thankless jobs as the sole provider. And then he is diagnosed with inoperable, terminal lung cancer. He is told that he has but a few months to live.
With nothing to lose, and desperate to provide for his family, he decides to enter the illegal, highly lucrative business of methamphetamine manufacturing. He’ll make a lot of money, and then die, or so the plan goes. Of course, this well-laid plan gangs very, very a-gley.
For starters, Walter’s foray into the illegal drug world is not clean and painless. People start to die, often brutally. He is forced to lie to his family and the lies begin to increase in frequency and scope. His heavily pregnant, long-suffering wife Skylar realises she’s being lied to and her concern for Walter’s health is replaced with mistrust and suspicion.
The deaths of various drug dealers and junkies are passed off as an acceptable price for the White family’s financial security, and Walt doesn’t mind too much that the façade of his happy family is peeling away. But two things happen: Walt’s cancer enters remission and, at some point, he makes enough money to set his family up comfortably after he passes on. And yet, he doesn’t want to stop cooking meth.
As the audience, we are made to realise that Walt is lying to himself about his motivations for being in the meth business. He is incredibly, scarily, good at what he does. His product is the purest drug in the business. He constructs an alter ego for himself, the shadowy Heisenberg, who is as baleful and merciless as any of the cartel bosses or hired killers in the business.
We’re given more and more pieces to the puzzle that is Walter White/Heisenberg as the series unfolds. We learn that he was a founding partner of what is now a multi-billion dollar company, that he sold his share for a pittance and that he is deeply resentful of the fortune that he lost. We realise that this simmering resentment – and his terrible pride – impels him ever higher up the drug hierarchy until he has built an empire worth millions of dollars.
Walter is played by Bryan Cranston in what is a superlative, once-in-a-lifetime performance. He was chosen for the role by director Vince Gilligan due to his ability (according to Gilligan) to make an audience sympathise with the most unlikeable characters. Cranston is able to maintain this tension throughout the series even as his character commits more and more unforgiveable crimes.
Walter White becomes an increasingly unpleasant character: manipulative, self-serving and abusive. He clings to his one justification for his behaviour – it’s all for the good of the family – even as this grows more threadbare and his self-delusion spreads. Even so, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy for him and even to support him through some of the terrible things that he does.
Much of our support for Walt is due to the considerable acting talents of Cranston (who won three back-to-back Emmys for his efforts, and will be a strong contender in next year’s Emmys). Some of the support is because we know that Breaking Bad is a morality play of sorts (Gilligan has said as much) and we have been expecting a dénouement for our anti-hero for some time.
Breaking Bad has been compared to a Shakespearian tragedy, with its five seasons (acts) and flawed protagonist-turned-antagonist. Just as Macbeth’s ambition and Othello’s jealousy were their undoing, we’ve been waiting for Walter White’s pride to lead him to his inevitable fall.
Apart from Cranston’s acting talents, the rest of the cast have been top drawer. Aaron Paul has won two Emmys for his role as Walter’s sidekick Jesse Pinkman, and Anna Gunn has just received an Emmy for her portrayal of Walt’s long-suffering wife, Skylar. Other cast members have received award nominations and there’s a very good chance of more acting accolades for the final season.
The show’s writing and directing have been of the highest quality too, and the writers and directors have received their fair share of nominations and awards. What has set Breaking Bad apart from shows like Weeds (an obvious, if facile, comparison) is its pacing and the quality of its narrative structure. Earlier seasons have felt a bit slow in parts, with much time being devoted to the White family dynamics: the effect that Walt’s cancer has had on his wife and son; the slow dissolving of Walt and Skylar’s marital bond; and the necessary but unexciting details of the drugs business – finding distributors, hiring the right crooked lawyer, setting up a laboratory.
The traditional business model for television shows has depended heavily on generating sufficient ratings, which has in turn placed pressure on a show to produce fireworks. For a show like Weeds, this increasingly has meant that something must happen in every episode; cliff-hanger must follow cliff-hanger. Breaking Bad has resisted the urge to sensationalise its story, to substitute the human drama for more tits or dead bodies.
Its first few seasons were fraught with risk. The writers’ strike hit the show in the first season, resulting in a truncation of nine (planned) episodes into seven. This in turn placed pressure on the second season, which needed to be longer to compensate. The TV executives fought with Vince Gilligan over this and Gilligan won. He’d have to keep fighting to keep telling the story he wanted to tell and to resist compromising his original vision. Somehow, he kept winning.
Even by the fourth season, with three consecutive Best Actor awards under its belt, the show struggled to attract more than 2-million viewers per episode (the exception was the fourth season premiere). But by the fifth season something had changed.
Maybe the loyal fan support on social networks had reached a tipping point, or the critical acclaim had translated into popular support. Official viewership numbers were now easily exceeding 2-million people per episode and were within touching distance of 3-million.
By the time the show entered the final straight, around 5-million people were watching each episode. The third-last and second-last episodes attracted about 6.5-million viewers, and the final episode on Sunday had a staggering 10.3-million audience members.
These official numbers don’t include the hundreds of thousands of people who downloaded the show through non-official (illegal) channels such as the various bittorrents sites. There’s also no official quantification of the traffic that the show has generated on the Internet, although that itself has been no less impressive. The AV Club, one of the sites with a better class of reviewer and commenter, has attracted in excess of 4,000 comments per episode of Breaking Bad.
As we lay the show to rest, we say goodbye to one of the most unambiguously bad guys in recent times. Heisenberg and his homburg hat have represented a purer form of wickedness than Tony Soprano or Nucky Thompson. We will not see his like again, and we can breathe a sign of relief even as we shed a tear or two. Farewell to the show that’s made it so very good to be bad. DM
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