O say, do those meth-scented khakis yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Some 10 years ago today, Breaking Bad aired its first episode – and the New Golden Age of Television turned a deeper shade of blue. Its creator, Vince Gilligan, was a veteran of pre-“prestige” genre television – in his case, a writing/producing run on The X-Files – and with his protagonist Walter White, he created a monster more frightening than any faced by Mulder and Scully. This was an everyman who fell on hard times after a cancer diagnosis, then used his genius, and the help of a former student, to build a crystal-meth cartel. It was the American Dream come true, until he destroyed himself and everyone he loved in the process. And what a process it was – a slow-rolling yet breakneck-speed tragedy that made for five seasons of the most compulsively watchable television ever aired.
The show’s uncanny ability to craft sequences – even entire episodes and multi-episode runs – of unbearably suspenseful action may be its greatest legacy. But in a strange way, that legacy is obscured by its protagonist’s high-concept character arc: the slow transformation of a resentful but mild-mannered high-school chemistry teacher into a mass-murdering drug lord, or as Gilligan put it, turning “Mr. Chips into Scarface.” Revisit Breaking Bad‘s writers’ strikeshortened first season, however, and you’ll see that things went south for Bryan Cranston’s beleaguered antihero almost immediately. The cold open for the very first episode depicts him recording a farewell message to his family because he believes he’s about to be arrested or murdered. He’s also just killed someone for the first time. It will become a hard habit to break.
Right away, the show’s tone of cascading catastrophe kicks in and, over numerous seasons, would never let up: through plane crashes, poisonings, parking-lot shootouts, poolside massacres and more. It culminates in what’s arguably the show’s high point, a three-episode-long game of cat and mouse between Walt and his ersatz patron turned nemesis, Gus “The Chicken Man” Fring. This is what closes the show’s fourth season – with a bang. By assembling a team of filmmakers including The Last Jedi‘s Rian Johnson and breakout director Michelle MacLaren, Gilligan was able to drop your heart deep into the pit of your stomach; you were lucky if it found a way to climb back out after the closing credits rolled, week after week after week. More than anything else, the emphasis on action turned Breaking Bad into must-see TV that grew its audience like “Heisenberg” grew his meth empire.
This technique can be found everywhere you look in prestige television today, from the battle set pieces of Game of Thrones to the white-knuckle espionage of The Americans. The shows that have taken Gilligan & Co’s slammed-pedal-to-the-metal approach all have very little in common with one another on the surface, or even directly beneath it. But Breaking Bad‘s gift for conveying the scope of Walt’s moral destructiveness through action is encoded in their shared DNA.
All of this gets overlooked in favor of the show’s place at the apex of the antihero trend, a subgenre of TV drama now as maligned as it was once celebrated. Paired in the public mind (and in network marketing) with its AMC stablemate Mad Men, Breaking Bad was also a merciless autopsy of an archetypal angry white man. Too often, it was treated by facile thinkpieces as a celebration of such men, rather than a dissection of them. Fans, too, could get it wrong. In the grand tradition of viewers who watched The Sopranos just to see who got whacked, a sizable segment of the audience tuned in to watch Heisenberg trounce all his enemies – some of whom believed that his own wife, Skyler White, belonged on the list. The backlash against Anna Gunn’s character reached the point where the actor herself was moved to pen a New York Times op-ed, lambasting the misogynistic vitriol slung at January Jones’s Betty Draper, Edie Falco’s Carmela Soprano and other significant others. (Macho, blinkered fans – this is why we can’t have good things, people.)
And in Year Two of the Trump era, Walt himself now provides a metaphor for a certain breed of toxic masculinity that’s all but irresistible. He’s a downwardly mobile, middle-aged, middle-class male betrayed by the crumbling healthcare system who becomes a small business owner, wages war against Mexicans and makes a deal with Nazis to preserve his political power. He even runs around in tighty whities. The resonance with the American Right, already hard to miss back when the show aired, now reads like a dark prophecy.
But a merely political read of the show flattens out the talent and depth that actor Bryan Cranston brought to his co-creation. Even when Heisenberg was at the height of his reign, the role still required the one-time Malcolm in the Middle co-star to bounce back and forth between concerned father (or father figure, in the case of his protégé Jesse Pinkman – played to perfection by ace-in-the-hole Aaron Paul), slapstick black-comedy goofball, in-over-his-head criminal and ruthless killer. Cranston could pull it all off, making you cower one moment and cry for him the next. And plenty of shows have starred men behaving badly, but few showed that bad behavior creating a domino effect that led to a plane crash that killed hundreds directly above the main character’s comfy suburban house – a form of cosmic payback straight out of Greek tragedy. Few also have shown their leading men hit rock bottom in a way that threatened not only their finances, their family and their self-image, but seemingly their very sanity. (See: Walt discovering the hidden fortune in his crawlspace has been depleted and cackling with the laughter of the damned while the camera floated up and away.)
If the series has faded from the zeitgeist somewhat, you could perhaps blame the finale – an attempt to provide closure that was perhaps a little too successful, and pulled a few too many punches at the expense of “redeeming” its chrome-domed king. We’d hardly be the first to say that if the show had ended two episodes earlier with the bleak and brutal “Ozymandias” – directed by Johnson, written by Moira Whalley-Beckett and frequently cited as the finest single episode in the history of television – it would be a better show.
But this stumble at the finish line can itself prove instructive, since it provides a full clip of ammo for the fight over the role series finales should play in our assessments of series as a whole. It does so in much the same way that the finale itself existed in conversation with The Sopranos‘ cut to black and Lost‘s journey into the light, to cite two previous blockbuster sign-offs. Success or failure, it exists to be argued about – which is a form of success all its own.
Most importantly, and more than any other show of its time, Breaking Bad proved that you can have your cake and choke on it too. Boasting roller-coaster thrills, catchphrase gold (“Science, bitch!” “I am the one who knocks!”) and a crack supporting cast so strong that they could sustain an entire second spinoff show (thank you, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks and Giancarlo Esposito), Breaking Bad was an absolute blast to watch and a delight to look forward to every week. Yet it bore no illusions about the horrors being perpetrated in its hero’s name; it never passed up an opportunity to remind us what he’d done in the name of “family.” Its balance between the exquisite and the awful – thrilling us with Walt’s misadventures one moment, beating us emotionally bloody with them the next – was unequaled in its time. It remains an achievement worth remembering and rewatching. To paraphrase the original Ozymandias himself: Look on its works, ye mighty, and despair.