Walter White could probably spring for some new glasses. The guy’s making money now, after becoming the top meth chef in Albuquerque, and he could also replace that Eighties computer watch. But he still wears his old-school nerd gear with pride. That’s the un-American power of Breaking Bad — it’s the Mad Men of really shitty clothes. At the beginning of the new season, Walter (Bryan Cranston) puts on a Kenny Rogers T-shirt and some white jeans, after a gruesome corpse disposal — and then he hits Denny’s for pancakes. That sums up all the moral tension of his world, but it also might be Walter’s fashion peak.
The American drabness all over every scene of Breaking Bad is key to why it’s become the most painfully intense drama on TV, and how Walter White has become our most frighteningly ordinary criminal. At the start of Season Four, the change feels almost complete: Walter is no longer a high school chemistry teacher who cooks meth on the side, with noble intentions. He’s not trying to kid himself he’s a decent man trying to take care of his family before the lung cancer takes care of him. At this point, Walter just likes the work. After feeling like a failure for most of his life, he likes being the best at something. That’s the high he’s addicted to — not the money, power or excitement. And it’s the high he’s willing to kill for.
Breaking Bad is a triumph that could only have happened right now, at this incredibly bizarre moment in TV history. It’s the culmination of the serial-drama era, when the groundbreaking success of The Sopranos created the audience for The Wire, Friday Night Lights, Deadwood and Mad Men. These are some of the most fanatically followed, minutely dissected shows ever filmed — and interestingly, they are all fundamentally stories about men and their jobs. These dramas are full of men trying to be men, questioning the rules of manhood they’ve inherited, obsessing over their work. They try to solve their problems by being more manly (“more like Pop,” as Fredo Corleone would say), only to find that creates increasingly bloody problems.
Yet these shows also count on you (or some guilty part of you) wanting to be the Man — there’s always the fantasy that if you happened to be born in a different place and time, you too would strut your shit around like Stringer Bell or Don Draper. Walter White, well, he isn’t particularly into being Walter White, and neither is anyone else. One of the most amazing twists of Breaking Bad is the way Walter never thinks he’s cool, never picks up any criminal-minded swagger. If The Sopranos was the Stones and The Wire was Zeppelin, Breaking Bad is Rush. Walter White is just a geek trapped in a conform-or-be-cast-out world, riding on through the friction of the day. But he chooses to exercise his free will — if only by cooking up his private recipe for insanely strong blue meth.
The story may have started with a dying man lowering himself to do dirty deeds in order to pile up cash to protect his wife and kids. But that seems like a long time ago. By now, all Walter wants is to cook. After meth kingpin Gus (a chilling Giancarlo Esposito) kills the competition, all he says to Walter is, “Get back to work.” What that means is Gus and Walter understand each other, and they both get why Walter does what he does. This guy needs the work — not the profits or the perks, but the work itself. The most shocking moments on Breaking Bad come from the idea that work corrupts you; getting better at your gig can turn you into a monster. The deeper Walter White gets into his criminal career, the more we can see in retrospect (even if he can’t) that the problem with his teaching career was that he wasn’t good enough at it. He knows being the best is the only thing that makes him unkillable — and he takes a sick pride in that.
The longer you watch Breaking Bad, the more terrifying Walter looks — not because you might share his vices, but because you might share his virtues. The idea that you can be utterly destroyed, in both body and soul, by a mixture of hard work and intelligence — that’s the most disturbing part of Walter’s story. It feels un-American and yet somehow all-American at the same time. You can relate to how fulfilled Walter is when he hears the magic words “Get back to work,” even though he’s covered in another man’s gore. But you also know the horrifying truth that the harder he works, the more blood he will see.
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This story is from the August 18, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.