First, let me say that I will do my best to write this reflection without spoiling the beautiful twists, turns and drama that I’ve been lucky enough to experience.
As I begin watching the last eight episodes of Breaking Bad, I’ve become overwhelmed with the urgency to write about this fantastic viewing experience. I’ve been a fan of television shows my entire life. I remember watching Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest, One Life to Live and countless other serialized dramas as a child sprawled out on the orange living room carpet. Granted, those are all considered Soap Operas and, without question, the quality of television has evolved tremendously from the schmaltzy and over saturated stories of rich families and their melodramatic lives to the complex stories and character development of series like primetime network shows that broke new ground such as St. Elsewhere, NYPD Blue and ER to critically acclaimed series such as The Wire, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Breaking Bad.
Countless friends and fellow television enthusiasts pleaded with me to watch Breaking Bad as they know what an avid fan I am of quality television. I began this new journey on New Year’s Day, 2014. My general rule for new TV shows is that if I don’t feel a connection within the first three episodes, I move on. Quite frankly, I wasn’t drawn in by the first three episodes or, for that matter, the entire first season. Like most AMC shows and many shows of the same ilk, the drama, story and plot all develop very, very slowly. But like a festering volcano, sometimes years, decades and centuries of history, damage and pain marinate, stir and boil before we are privy to the beautiful and tragic explosions that present themselves when the world can no longer contain or suppress the emotional fires that lie beneath the plain and rigid surface.
Walter White begins as a humble chemistry teacher working at a carwash part-time to make ends meet while his wife, Skylar, is an expecting mother and homemaker raising her teenage son who is afflicted with cerebral palsy. It is painfully obvious from the beginning that the world has beaten down Walter White so when he receives his cancer diagnosis, the fossilized lava that has been dormant for most of Walter’s life begins to smolder and rises from its dormancy and Walter begins his slow demonic descent and parallel ascent amongst the ranks of drug lords. The drug world alone is fascinating but Breaking Bad transcends a simple tale of the drug lords, drug enforcement agents, corruption, politics and “bad guys” and “good guys.” Walter White is the ultimate anti-hero similar to Tony Soprano but Walter White, at first, simply wants to provide for his family before his life comes to an end. In many ways, the drug world provides turning points and benchmarks on this complicated character study of a family and incredibly complex and layered characters that allow for an insight into humanity which explores greed, ego, pride, loyalty, respect and every facet of human existence. Experiencing Breaking Bad is a lesson in self-exploration. Throughout the process, you cannot help but be compelled to question your own morals, values and beliefs.
Walter White lives in a small world with other fascinating characters that provide a plethora of perspectives. His wife challenged with deciphering who she is, what she believes and what her boundaries are. His DEA Agent brother in-law balances the responsibilities of his position against his superhero tendencies and fulfilling his own ego while his wife, Marie (Skylar’s sister), deals with her own demons of playing the semi-stepford wife while flirting with her own brushes with lying and breaking laws. Each character is layered with beautiful and bountiful number of complex characteristics. None more so than Jesse Pinkman. While Walter may be the center of Breaking Bad’s universe, I want to believe that this is Jesse’s story. (I’m not sure if this is the case as I haven’t completed the series.) However, similar to Samwise’s relationship to Frodo in the Lord of the Rings series, Jesse’s story is the most interesting. He is the moral compass of the story. With each decision, at every turn and each breath the show takes, Jesse provides the grounding and foundation. Jesse’s life is similar to Walter’s in that they have both been beaten down by the world for the decisions they’ve made but as they partner in this new meth enterprise, Jesse’s soul continues to be tortured.
Every aspect of Breaking Bad is virtually perfect. The storytelling is masterful. For a drama that doesn’t feature epic landscapes or complicated costumes, each scene is visually engaging. Part of the power behind the series is that the story embodies a finite period of time that was clearly predetermined. Vince Giligan seems to have written the story, which takes place in the span of about two years, in its entirety. In many ways, Breaking Bad could have been an Academy Award winning three-hour film. But, what producers, directors and writers provided is far more complicated, beautiful and memorable. However, more than anything else, the story, words and images are delivered impeccably by a group of actors that have provided the greatest collective performance in the history of television. Bryan Cranston has been well lauded and recognized for his work but the entire cast and I mean every single actor comes close to perfect. I’ll acknowledge four actors aside from Bryan Cranston that will struggle to achieve this level of excellence.
I will warn that some of the information below contains information that may be considered spoilers.
Giancarlo Esposito delivers chilling moments as Gus Fring.
Esposito masters the art of a dual role as a humble owner of an expansive fast food chain by day and a ruthless drug kingpin who “hides in plain sight” also by day. It is everything that Esposito does that builds this character from walking with hunched shoulders, smile with an unassuming manner and shake hands softly and without the hint of a threat. But, in the matter of seconds, Esposito stiffens his gate, glares at his associates with dagger filled eyes and can strike with the swiftness and cunning of the most ruthless snake. Except, Gus doesn’t hide under desert rocks but slithers amongst the wildlife of the Albuquerque urban jungle as both an upstanding member of the community and its most venomous enemy.
Krysten Ritter may have only had a brief stint in the series but her character, Jane, completely changes the series.
Jane allows us a perspective on how an addict recovers and backslides. Every scene she is in is rich with self-loathing, hatred, guilt, shame and love. Her relationship with Jesse propels the series to another level of excellence.
Jesse Plemmons doesn’t appear until the final season. While Plemmons seems to have made a living from his country bumpkin shtick, it is completely different with Breaking Bad’s Todd. Keeping in mind that I haven’t completed the series, Todd appears to be the second coming of Gus Fring. The kind of guy that can smile his way through every situation but shoot a child in the head without a morsel of regret. By far, Todd is the most evil character in the series because he is absolutely psychotic.
Aaron Paul plays Jesse Pinkman. I’m unable to properly or adequately articulate how impressive Paul’s performances have been. Paul bares his soul for Jesse Pinkman. He exposes every raw nerve the character has and lives in agony throughout the series. Jesse, more than anything, simply wants to be cared for and loved but even when he comes close, he fears that someone will steal it away from him. As we learn in the very early episodes, this certainly stems from losing his Aunt Jenny to cancer after he served as her caregiver. Jesse is a tortured soul on a never-ending and fruitless search for himself and for any type of relief from the self-inflicted and unresolved pain he can’t begin to process. Cranston may be perfect but it is Paul that truly allows Cranston to develop Walter White and Heisenberg. The majority of Cranston’s transformation takes place within his interactions with Jesse. Without Cranston, we wouldn’t have Walter White but without Aaron Paul, we wouldn’t have had Heisenberg.
Is Breaking Bad the greatest show ever?
(Spoilers for The Walking Dead, ER and Game of Thrones below.)
This is an almost impossible question for me to answer right now. When I’ve completed the series and have had an opportunity to process the entire series, I’ll take a stab at answer this question. For now, I’ll say that it is as good as anything I’ve ever seen. Some shows like The Sopranos, The Walking Dead, Six Feet Under and every other show listed with the best of the best have some mediocre moments. Breaking Bad not only doesn’t have any mediocre episodes, it doesn’t have any mediocre scenes. As I think back about every scene in television history that has made a lasting impact on me, I think of Dr. Green telling a father that his wife has died in childbirth during ER’s Love’s Labor Lost, Ned Stark’s beheading or The Red Wedding on Game of Thrones or Sophia emerging from the barn on The Walking Dead. Breaking Bad had five or six scenes that were this powerful but, for me, none more so than a conversation at a bar between Walter White and Jane’s father about family, sacrifice, struggles and water on Mars. This is the moment that I believe the series changed forever. Walter identifies, clearly, what and who he sees as family. However, we as the audience know who he is talking to and that the moment will mean something much more significant in the near future. The moment captured so much of the series for me. It was just two normal guys living their lives, having a drink and talking through their struggles set against the duality of science, philosophy, morals, ethics and existentialism while we, as an audience, are casting our own aspersions of what is wrong, right and what these men mean to the world.
Special thanks to Jennifer Williams for urging me to watch and enjoy. Forever grateful.