I’m a bit of a junkie when it comes to the consumption of film, television, books, music and Chipotle burritos. As such, I’ve seen my fair show of television shows, mostly dramas, as I tend to stay away from comedies. With that in mind, I cannot honestly think of a more compelling, riveting, intense, well-written, well-acted, well-directed television show in the history of television (of the ones I’ve seen, to be fair) than AMC’s Breaking Bad. I can’t even compare it to anything else because it’s unlike anything I’ve seen before.
There is a commonality amongst my junkie consumption of media: I gravitate towards grittiness, realism, and honest commentary and reflection upon the human condition. Breaking Bad has that in abundance. To understand the show the brilliance of this show, one must only look at the character evolution of Walter White. Here’s a seemingly normal guy living in normal America working a normal job with nothing too exciting going on. Certainly, there’s the added stress of taking care of a disabled son, the somewhat monotony of his carwash job, but nothing too earth shattering. Then, he’s diagnosed with cancer around the same time he learns he’s going to have a baby girl. Specifically, he has lung cancer and it could kill him.
Now, you have that normal guy thrust into a literal life or death situation and it most assuredly is going to create tension and cracks in his normal functioning. He’s desperate. He doesn’t want to leave behind a wife with a baby daughter and a disabled son sans any money to live. He’s a high school science teacher that also works at a carwash; he’s not exactly racking in the big bucks. So, what does he do? He gets into the meth business of course. Well, to be fair, it’s not that simple. His brother-in-law, Hank, is a crafty, hard-assed Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent, so via that connection, Walt learns the earning potential in cooking meth. He’s good with chemistry, he knows a former student that knows the drug world somewhat and the only thing left to do is to take the leap.
As the series progresses, Walt goes through a plethora of trials that test his character and continues the progression of his “breaking bad.” By the Season 5 mid-point finale, you no longer feel sympathetic for a cancer-ridden, down-on-his-luck, desperate Walter. You fucking despise him for all that he has done; chief among them is the poisoning of an innocent boy merely to serve as a pawn to get Jesse, the former student of his that he cooks meth with, to get back onto his side against the villainous drug lord, Gus. He also killed Gus’ muscle Mike in cold blood purely out of selfish reasons; something he had never truly done before.
More importantly, though, he’s the master of psychological manipulation. He’s fucking brutal. There is a scene where he’s just bearing down on his wife, Skylar (as she had come to know and even assist in his drug operations) and he says to her, essentially, to paraphrase, “What the fuck are you going to do? You can’t do shit to me. I own you.” She had sent the kids away because she feared for her life and here is this man, asserting his dominance to her, saying there isn’t anything she can do.
All in all, the character development of Walter is a brilliant, tour-de-force bit of characterization. He doesn’t care anymore about money or drugs; he’s a self-centered, egomaniac who lives to further his status. Born out of the precipice of facing his death and the monotonous life he was living, he’s grown to taking a perverted sense of pride in being “Heisenberg,” the greatest meth cooker in the United States and really, since he’s branched out to the Czech Republic, the world. Given that, there’s still a lingering since of sympathy for him, but nah, not really. In the aforementioned scene where he’s bearing down on Skylar, Skylar in a bit of shocking bluntness says to him, “I’m waiting. I’m just waiting for the cancer to return.” I mean, wow. A year ago, she never even would have imagined saying something so horrific to the man she loved, but well, a lot has happened in that year.
Juxtaposed to the progression of Walter “breaking bad” and ultimately, fully realizing the “badness,” Jesse has gone through a characterization process himself, whereby arguably he’s been “breaking good.” He was just some dumb junkie kid at the beginning of the series, but as it progressed, he’s shown himself to not only be resourceful and smart in his own way, but to be genuinely caring and loving of others. He’s not like Walter or Gus or even Mike wherein they are okay with killing innocents, if necessary or even if not necessary. Jesse does partake in some truly awful actions in the series, such as killing Glenn, a completely innocent man, but that was at the behest and prodding of Walter, to be fair. Jesse clearly wants out of the meth business, but there is a father-son dynamic with him and Walter, so he finds it hard to simply cut all ties. Again, this is despite the awful, atrocious way in which Walter has treated him repeatedly throughout the show.
Then there is Hank, the DEA agent. He’s the classic case of the tough man exterior with the soft inner core. He is damn good at his job. I joked with a friend that he should take Batman’s moniker as the “World’s Greatest Detective.” Because despite his being a hard-ass, a joker, a bit of a weirdo, he’s a damn fine agent; he is undeniably great at his job. Yet, even so, there is one glaring, obvious problem: his brother-in-law is the kingpin drug lord he’s been searching for the whole show. And Hank has inklings to it now after the mid-point finale. Let me back up a bit. Hank was in an altercation – to completely understate the intensity of the scene – with two Mexican assassins from the drug cartel – and was left almost paralyzed. Thereafter, during his recovery, he seemed to really doubt his ability as an agent and his potential to ever catch “Heisenberg.” So, consider, what will it do to his psyche to realize his brother-in-law was the man he was after all this time, right under his fucking nose? What will he do? I weep for him because it will probably kill his career and his emotional state.
Anyhow, to wrap this up, I love this show. There are a plethora of dynamic, complex, nuanced characters that interweave to tell the story of the main character, Walter, “breaking bad.” It’s as close to consistently perfect television as you are going to find. I cannot recommend this show more highly. Yes, there is a bit of a slow burn vibe to it at the beginning, but that’s to be expected when dealing with a show high on characterization. But it’s undeniably worth it for the payoff the show gives you – oh, the payoff is amazing. Go watch this now. You have tonight, tomorrow and some of Sunday to watch before the series finale starts up. You’ll be glad you did.