A little while back I confessed that, although I had enjoyed the first season of Better Call Saul I had not seen a minute of that show’s mothership, Breaking Bad. It wasn’t that I was unaware of it or avoiding it out of some hipsterish notion of cool. It just got past me (why must there be so much good TV on at the same time on the same night of the week?). But I read the hype and knew the show’s reputation. Now I’ve gone back and done my due diligence. Did it live up to the hype?
I usually try to push back against the hype on things like this, at least a little bit, but, damn, I can’t really do it here. Breaking Bad is everything great storytelling should be, tightly plotted and filled with well drawn, memorable characters. Moreover, it uses the visual and audible aspects of television in ways that most shows never dream of.
If you’ve been under a rock for the past few years, Breaking Bad is the story of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who turns to cooking methamphetamine (with the help of a former student turned junkie and small-time dealer, Jesse Pinkman) for money after being diagnosed with cancer. What plays out is Walt’s fall into ego-driven evil, as he finally finds personal satisfaction in his nearly pristine blue meth. It’s a reverse of the typical redemption arc where the bad guy comes good. Walt begins good (sort of) and goes very very wrong. It’s not uplifting stuff, but it’s riveting.
It’s not perfect, of course. It drags at times (particularly when it involves the long but inevitable rehab of Walt’s DEA Agent brother-in-law). Walt is occasionally too much James Bond or McGyver. And the entire premise – that ultra-pure meth would be that much more valuable – is dubious. But those are minor quibbles and, in the case of the last one, a great dramatic device for springing Walt’s ego upon us.
I suspect Walt might agree with that other great thinker, Zaphod Beeblebrox, that if “there’s anything more important than my ego . . .I want it caught and shot right now.” Starved for personal reward and nagged by the staggering success of former business partners, Walt repeatedly passes up moderately safe ways out of his life to as to continue his ego stroking meth cooks.
Equally important as a character, although it’s not played by any particular actor, is the War on (Some People’s) Drugs. Not only do we see both sides at play, but we see how inevitable it is that the drug trade continues on all the time. One of Walt’s ego problems is that when he tries to get out he finds out that others are selling blue meth that’s not as pure as his. It’s a personal insult. But dealers are going to sell whatever they can to those that want to buy, of which there will always be a supply. A war on what is essentially the human desire to soothe their lives will always be bound to fail.
While I came late to Breaking Bad proper, I read a lot about it while it was on the air, or shortly after it wrapped up. I noticed how images, phrases, and other parts of the series were seaping in the culture. It’s a TV show, right? So, of course they did. When a parent freaked out at finding Breaking Bad action figures on a store shelf somewhere, I chuckled and rolled my eyes.
But now, having watched the whole thing, the impact of the show on the culture kind of disturbs me. People know that, whatever its dramatic qualities (which are substantial), the show is basically about horrible people doing progressively more horrible things. Given that, things like producing a Breaking Bad vodka or Aaron Paul’s repeated attempts to capitalize on being Jesse Pinkman or the plans to open up a real Los Pollos Hermanos really rubs me the wrong way. It says something about our popular culture and the nature of celebrity and I’m not sure it’s good.
None of which takes away from the achievement of Breaking Bad (including Paul – Pinkman is, perhaps, the most sympathetic character, who consistently struggles with what he’s done and has so little idea of a better life that he can’t take any chance to find one). It is one of the gems of the current Golden Age of TV.