Inside 'Breaking Bad,' TV's Most Exquisitely Agonizing Drama

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Scenes from a marriage: Anna Gunn and Cranston in 'Breaking Bad'.
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A familiar sense of anxiety and dread hangs over nearly every moment of the opening episode of the fourth season of Breaking Bad. Walter White, the one-time high school chemistry teacher turned crystal-meth cook, frantically tries to talk his way out of his own impending execution. His partner, Jesse Pinkman, is still in a state of shock, having just committed an unpardonable act of violence against a rival meth chef. Walter's disappearance has his crooked lawyer panicking and his wife driven to distraction. For the climax, we get yet another startling, brutal murder, choreographed with deadly precision like a psychopathic, blood-drenched ballet.

If the first three seasons of Breaking Bad firmly established the show as one of the grimmest sagas of our time, an ambitious bid to explore an American dream gone horribly wrong, then the opening salvo of Season Four is a wrenching promise to plunge even deeper into the morass. But the puzzling marvel of Breaking Bad is that it is at once both so bleak and yet so watchable. "I'm as surprised as anyone that this show resonates at all," says creator Vince Gilligan, who earned his producing stripes working on The X-Files. "I scratch my head sometimes. How does it even exist?"

This article appears in the June 23, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available now on newsstands and in the online archive.

Bryan Cranston's Emmy Award-winning performance as Walter offers one big clue. Most of us would rather not deal with the sight of a man dying of cancer, or would avert our eyes from a crumbling marriage. But when Cranston is onscreen, you cannot look away, no matter how dire his predicament. If Breaking Bad is at heart, as Gilligan suggests, the story of a man having "the world's worst midlife crisis," then Cranston's uncanny ability to switch from slump-shouldered milquetoast to cold and calculating killer is what makes that crisis riveting. "The show would not succeed at all if it weren't for Bryan," says Gilligan.

 

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The defining contradiction of Walter White's life is that the longer he survives in the drug underworld, the more he seems to revel in the unconscionable things he must to do to stay alive. And yet, at the same time, some shreds of decency linger inside him. The new season declares that Walter's descent, his grim voyage from Mister Rogers to Michael Corleone, will continue unabated, but a reckoning to that contradiction is inevitable.

This overriding theme was set in the very first episode, when Walter explains to a classroom of teenagers that chemistry is all about "growth, decay. Transformation." The same definition applies to cancer, as well as to Walter's metamorphosis from chronic underachiever to amoral drug kingpin. Gilligan says he believes the narrative flows naturally from his determination to be as honest as possible about the consequences of Walter's decision to transform himself into a criminal. By Season Four, the things Walter must do to survive would have been incomprehensible to him a year earlier (all four seasons take place in one calendar year), but as he tells himself, he had no choice. The chain reaction must play itself out. Chemistry and cancer have no morals, no ethics, and Walter resolves his midlife crisis by emulating them.

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There are elements of The Godfather and The Sopranos in Breaking Bad ("If you're going to steal, steal from the best," says Gilligan), but we've never seen anything quite like this mixture of the mundane and monstrous before. And that's on purpose. Gilligan says he's watched more TV than "any human has a right to," and he is determined to not waste viewers' time by repeating what's already been done. Gilligan insists on pushing his viewers into unexplored territory, to show them "things they've never seen before." He takes the familiar and twists it into nightmare. Every second of the fourth-season premiere screams that Walter White will continue down this terrible path, but we've got to find out what happens, and how it's all going to end, even if, as Cranston almost gleefully promises, "we know it can't be good."

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From The Archives Issue 1133: June 23, 2011