DISCLAIMER: I have tried to reduce the number of spoilers. However, I do discuss events that happen in the shows later seasons. If there is even a remote chance you might watch this show someday in the future, do yourself a favor and don’t keep reading. Actually, even if you haven’t seen the show and know you’ll never see it, there’s no point in reading on because this is meant for those who have watched the show. I don’t want to discourage readership, but I wrote this specifically to make viewers of the show reflect on their own opinions of how it ended and the overall arc and so forth. Thanks, disclaimer over.
Breaking Bad ended about two months ago, but I only just recently caught up with most of cable-subscribing/watching America and finished the show. Breaking Bad is a show that follows in the footsteps of shows like The Sopranos and Mad Men; a critical darling backed by commercial success. Multiple award wins in writing and acting. A story line that forces the viewer to face their perspective on morality and admit that black and white is very rarely the end of the story.
At the core of this show is Walter White. In many pieces I’ve read, he’s been labeled the anti-hero. He’s the bad guy the audience roots for, a la Tony Soprano, Hannibal Lector, etc. What makes this show compelling in a different way than The Sopranos or Mad Men is that the anti-hero isn’t really the right way to describe Walter White. Walter White is a character that, from the outset, seems to the audience to be a normal man, beaten down by the common American hardships of life. Low-paying career going nowhere, partially-handicapped child, an unexpected baby on the way, bills/mortgage to take care of, seeing more success in the lives of those around him, and then he is diagnosed with cancer. His way out of this, at least the way to provide for his family after he’s gone, is to cook high quality meth and make money from it. Thinking back on the show, and especially the early glimpses we get of Walt’s character, I do think that the motivation for his cooking comes mostly from his diagnosis and the desire to keep his family above water after he’s gone. That’s not completely it though. He starts cooking to provide for his family but I also think there is a little germ of an idea in his mind that he wants to do it. It’s a response to seeing his colleagues from college taking a company co-founded by Walt himself and turning it into a massive success. It’s a response to seeing his brother-in-law Hank find popularity, respect, and self-validation in his job with the DEA. He longs to be recognized by those around him, and he’s not. It’s this tiny little seed of pride that grows into something purely evil and heinous, and that is what this show is about.
Other anti-heroes have different arcs: Tony Soprano started bad and ended bad, with glimmers of good intentions or (somewhat) pure motivations throughout his story arc. Don Draper has a perfectly polished surface, and the antihero stuff is all underneath, where he cheats on his wife and abuses alcohol and convincingly lies to everyone about his entire upbringing. And we know about it from the show’s pilot. But the last time we saw Don, he was finally coming to terms with his history, enough so to share it in a moment of vulnerability during a pitch meeting, and even more momentous, bringing his three children to his childhood home, where so much pain and misery and backwards views about love and women were deeply rooted in the core of Don’s psyche. Tony’s line stays basically straight, Don’s has moved up and down but is trending upward, but Walter White is different. Walt’s arc goes, from beginning to end, straight downward. He starts the perpetual justification of his lifestyle by thinking of his family, and that quickly becomes overtaken by the sheer weight of his pride and his resentment towards nearly everyone around him.
It’s not an easy trajectory to watch either. The last 8 episodes of the show were some of the hardest television I’ve ever watched, and were emotionally jarring enough to make me think twice about automatically recommending this show to people who haven’t seen it. With someone like Tony or Don, you kind of know what you’re getting from the get-go. But with Walt, he’s set up in a way that you immediately identify and relate to him, and then watch him crumble. It’s terrifying because, like any worthwhile artistic endeavor, it forces you to reconcile his decisions with your own brain. Would I make that choice? Would I manipulate that person? Would I go to those lengths? And the entire time, for the entire show’s run, you seem him justify every action he makes, until the very, very end. The scene between Walt and Skyler was fraught with history, regret, betrayal, fear, resentment and bitterness. Yet it’s the one time the Walt finally admits to his utter selfishness. He did what he did for himself, not for his family. It made him feel alive. He chased something he thought would bring him satisfaction and it led him to ruin. And it automatically makes you wonder, is that what I would become if faced with the same situation? It’s a terrifying mental debate.
But that’s what makes this show such a fantastic dramatic affair. It unravels the true nature of humankind. While it often doesn’t manifest to a Walter White degree, the potential is there in every single one of us. The best media is that which makes us question what we know about reality and society and forces new self-realizations about ourselves, and this show does that better than 95% of the shows I’ve ever seen.
Aside from the overarching, philosophical debate about human nature and evil and all of that, the show is just put together so damn well. The acting is superb. From the minute he gets his cancer diagnosis, the Walter White from before is gone, and it happens in such a nuanced way. Bryan Cranston created something amazing with his portrayal of Walt, so much so that even after a very short time of getting to know him before his diagnosis, when he hears it, the audience already feels like the Walt we knew has changed and this is someone new. And that’s in the first episode. The transformation that Walt undergoes via Cranston is truly some of the best acting ever. As much as it annoyed me to see the same person winning Emmys every year, I now completely understand how merited those awards were. And it’s not just Cranston. Anna Gunn adds such refinement to the character of Skylar. As the spouse of the main pro/antagonist, Skylar has to go through so many shocking revelations, betrayals, decisions of bitterness and violence and anger and Gunn does this with so much grace.
And Aaron Paul…I haven’t honestly don’t know if I’ve ever empathized with a character as strongly as I did with Jesse Pinkman. To be sure, Jesse has many moments of selfishness, rage, regret, violence, etc. But at the end of the day, he spends the majority of his time trying to reconcile his guilt either directly or indirectly caused by Walt’s actions. Jesse’s story is sadder to me than Walt’s was. Walt increasingly acted with more conviction all the time. He was so sure of himself, sure that whatever he decided was the best course of action to take. Conversely, Jesse had no conviction. He had no reason to continue exposing himself to Walt’s lifestyle. But he had no reason not to either. And this led to him being forced to do unspeakable things that he couldn’t get over. Jesse was not without fault, but he also a victim caught up by forces beyond his control. And all he wanted was love. Jesse wanted to be loved by Walt, he wanted to be loved by Jane, and by his parents, and by Mike. And Walt just keeps using him, manipulating Jesse’s desire for legitimate human connection. The relationship between Walt and Jesse is at the core of this show, and it’s this relationship that best demonstrates how twisted Walt becomes. The character arc of Walt is so contingent on Jesse, and Aaron Paul’s raw vulnerability really breaks your heart. For as well as these two play off of each other, this also contributes to the one large problem I have with the show. More on that soon.
And obviously, huge props to Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, and the rest of the supporting cast. Each of these actors brought something out of their characters that at one point or another, made me shed tears. Truly sublime acting by the entire cast.
Let’s talk about plot. From the very outset, one of the elements of this show that kept me so entertained was the concept of immediacy. This show forced characters to deal with the consequences of their actions in the here and now. There was never a major problem that got resolved off-camera after an episode because the timeline jumped a month by the next episode. In the very first few episodes, Walt and Jesse had to continually deal with Krazy-8 and his partner. From one episode to the next, the show forced them to deal with the immediate ramifications of every decision. The show didn’t let itself off the hook ever.
Along with that, insane things happened all the time. Starting with Season 2, each season culminates in a shocking event. Please note, this is different than a twist. This show sets itself apart by creating an atmosphere of sheer intensity, so much so that by the end of any given season, you either know explicitly what’s going to happen or have a very good idea but that doesn’t take away from the shocking element of any given finale. I’d say the most obvious finale (in that you can see the end events coming) is Season 4, and even so, I paced around my house for a good five minutes after it ended. Each season grows and blossoms this intensity in a very subtle way so that by the end, it doesn’t matter that you can predict what’s going to happen. When the inevitable occurs, you freak out. It is extraordinarily well-built television.
And yet I keep coming back to the end of the show. I am not a “boo the finale sucked” type of watcher; a TV show’s finale will suck if the last season or previous seasons aren’t well written, so those who call out a show’s finale and nothing else aren’t thinking holistically. What I mean by the end of the show is specifically the last 3 episodes. What fell flat to me was the relationship between Walt and Jesse. I feel like the focal point fell directly on Walt and Jesse got lost in the mix, and I needed more of his character. I feel like the writers put Jesse through the most horrendous trials, one after another, and it wasn’t necessary for his emotional arc. Jesse has always been a broken young man but from Ozymandias on, he gets run over again and again. Why in the world would Walt tell him about Jane, after all that time? I get that he was trying to inflict maximum pain but it felt like a cheap writing device to kick off this 3 episode “Jesse gets shat on” arc. It is also this arc that sets up Jesse’s final scene, which rang slightly hollow for me. WHAT FOLLOWS IS THE BIGGEST SPOILER I’LL GIVE AWAY.
He just drives off. I get that he’s regained his freedom, but his life before being captured by Todd and Jack was nothing to write home about. He was still going through emotional turmoil and that doesn’t magically get fixed by escaping imprisonment. He excitedly drives off towards…more depression and a sense of worthlessness? Great. This was the one complaint I’ll keep for myself, I just didn’t get these last few episodes with Jesse.
No show is perfect, but this one is an absolute stand out. I will try and watch through it again, maybe in 10-20 years, but for now I’m going to let it be and say thank you to Vince Gilligan for creating a world that I dreaded becoming a part of yet couldn’t help but enjoy.