When Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad debuted in 2008, it hit the ground running and arrived on the scene at a very interesting time in television history. Just one year earlier AMC premiered Mad Men while HBO was winding up the Sopranos with its divisive series finale. The entire landscape of the television industry was shifting tectonically, as people now recognized that prestige TV was a thing and the rise of streaming was not far off. So for many, especially in retrospect, we associate Breaking Bad with this golden era of 2000s Prestige TV that included a wave of bone fide cultural touchstones like Mad Men, the Sopranos and the Wire.
But I think that Breaking Bad, as good as it is, is closer to a show like Sons of Anarchy. Wildly entertaining? Sure. Addictively pulpy crime drama? Definitely. But does it really have anything intelligent or deep to say about its characters or society or any broader issues? Not really. For Breaking Bad, the show’s ambition really stops at simple, straightforward story-telling.
Breaking Bad is telling a darkly funny and very gripping story about a character who starts out weak and victimized, then empowers himself by cooking meth and over time makes the full heel turn to a creature of self-serving evil. It does this in (for the most part) insanely creative and entertaining ways. But other than a pretty compelling and textured Good Man Turns Evil character arc, carried by the show’s propulsive writing and great performances, there isn’t much of a “higher” message embedded in there.
That’s what separates Breaking Bad from Mad Men, which had very interesting and complex things to say about human relationships and society, the creative process, the passage of time and the roots of America’s soul-sucking consumerism. Breaking Bad is not, contrary to what you might have a read, a critical portrayal of America’s healthcare system. That is merely a plot device. Walter can’t afford his cancer treatment because the show needed to give him a reason to become a meth cook. Everything in the structure of this show is similarly functional.
There is nothing wrong with that. And it is pulled off well, with lots of thought and effort invested in making sure that everything made sense within the wider world they were creating. Unlike the later seasons of Game of Thrones, the writers of Breaking Bad were less in thrall to the structural demands of the plot – they put thought into making it flow naturally, rather than being held hostage by where the plot wanted to go next (well… most of the time anyway; see: Breaking Bad Season 2). But ultimately the show is very obviously simply striving to be an addictive, serialized narrative that compels you to keep watching by continually upping the stakes.
As an exercise in how to make great pulpy drama, this show excels. Walter White is a perfect foil for the put-upon everyman who lives out a kind of middle-class white male fantasy by becoming a regional meth kingpin. Brian Cranston is superb, and that needs no elaboration – he grabs that character and brings him all the way on a fascinating journey. From a narrative perspective, they cleverly paired him with his polar opposite, the impish turnip known as Jesse Pinkman. There’s nothing particularly innovative in that choice – it’s straight out of the old Sherlock Holmes playbook – but it is executed with consummate skill so that their odd-couple pairing is a constant source of comedy that occasionally bleeds into deeper territory.
Breaking Bad has a great hook – Walter’s pants go flying in the sky while he narrates a confession video. The next several episodes fill us in on how we got to that point, and it works like gangbusters. They tried this framing device in season 2, but bigger, with the weird teddy bear floating in a pool. This was an instance where they started from the end and then tried to figure out how to get there, and it was not good because they were held hostage by the plot. Vince Gilligan wisely abandoned that going forward.
But that’s the kind of show Breaking Bad was. The writers would come up with an impossible situation, and then reverse engineer the narrative. That gave the show its edge and its wildness. Sometimes it crapped out a few doo doo birds too, but nobody bats 1000. Then, of course, the world-building and character work were superb. Saul Goodman, Mike, Fring, Hank. All great supporting parts to flesh out this bizarre and macabre world, and they were introduced gradually and over time to keep juicing the narrative so it didn’t run out of steam. Fring was the perfect antagonist to pair Walter with, and at just the right time, to expand the Breaking Bad Universe when it needed more room to grow.
But after Fring was gone, the show basically coasted on fumes. Breaking Bad Season 5 had some great moments, but no antagonist could have filled Fring’s shoes and the neo-nazi bad guys were a pretty lazy stand-in. Also, the finale left much to be desired, playing it super safe by giving Walter a pretty terrible redemptive final act.
There were a couple consistent weaknesses, and they persisted for pretty much the whole show. One was an unusual fixation on children and murders. I have no idea what that was all about. Then there was the fact that Walter’s family is awful. I think the idea was that by making Walter have a terrible home life, it helped the audience to understand why he would want to become a meth cook.
But as time went on, Skyler and Walt Jr started playing a bigger role than just that of albatross, and in fact they were supposed to represent this major conflict in Walt’s psyche because he didn’t want to betray them. But in fact, they were simply terrible so it didn’t work to deepen Walt’s character because, I mean, anyone in his position would just tell Skyler to get fucked. Also, that family’s obsession with breakfast is at least as weird and disturbing as the obsession with child murders and I hated it.
There was also the fact that almost all the drug scenes played like they were written by a bunch of nerds who have never done drugs or even been around them. They had this cartoonish quality, like how someone who has never been strung out on speed for 2 days imagines it must be like. The effect it created was one of juvenile silliness, and I don’t think it was meant to be silly.
But anyway, those quibbles aside Breaking Bad was great for what it was. It built a wild and weird world, populated it with really interesting, funny characters and told a story that’s pretty damn impossible to turn away from while taking us on Walt’s epic journey from Loser to Evil Man. And all of that, on its own, is quite impressive and made Breaking Bad the great, beloved show that is it. But to talk about it being in the same class as Mad Men or the Sopranos, or God forbid The Wire, that is tantamount to sacrilege in my opinion.
Does the Breaking Bad movie, El Camino, live up to this high bar? Well, we’ll just have to see…