For most of its five year run, I knew about the TV series Breaking Bad but had never watched it. As the show wound down to its conclusion last month, I figured it was way past time to catch up and I watched all 62 episodes over the course of the past few weeks (mostly on my iPad on my commute to and from work).
I realized that while the show gets so much publicity in American media, 2 out of 3 people whom I’ve spoken to in the past week have never even heard of it, so let me digress and fill in some of the details.
Here’s the basic premise. Walter White is a 50 year old high school science teacher living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. After school he has a second job as a cashier in a local carwash and still can barely make ends meet. He has a 15 year old son with cerebral palsy and his 40 year old wife has just discovered she is pregnant again. And then White is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. His savings are nil, his insurance won’t cover the treatments he needs and he’ll have no money to leave his family when he dies.
White’s wife’s sister is a kleptomaniac nurse married to a DEA agent, Hank. One day Hank offers to put some excitement into Walter’s life by bringing him along on a bust. Walter recognizes one of his former students, Jesse, who eludes the police, and later tracks him down and suggests that he will “cook” crystal meth and Jesse can sell it for him.
But cooking and selling a little bit at a time doesn’t bring in the money fast enough. Walter and Jesse are soon working their way up the ladder of the illegal drug distribution network. And while the series initially has more than an expected bit of comedy in it, along the way the tone deepens and darkens as murder, betrayal and mayhem increase exponentially.
The series was the vision of Vince Gilligan, previously best known as a writer and producer of the X Files. It starred Bryan Cranston as Walter White. It is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the highest rated TV series on Metacritic, with a score of 99 out of 100. So far it has won one Emmy for best series, 3 for Cranston for best actor, one for Anna Gun for supporting actress (as White’s wife), 2 for Aaron Paul for best supporting actor (as Jesse). The Writers Guild of America named this the 13th best written show of all time. And it recently got even more attention when actor Anthony Hopkins wrote a public love letter to Bryan Cranston, writing, “Your performance as Walter White was the best acting I have seen – ever. You and all the cast are the best actors I’ve ever seen.”
One other thing I’d like to mention – Gilligan was especially adept at teasing the audience. The pre-credit sequence of many episodes was frequently something that wouldn’t be explained until ten or more episodes later, something so totally out of context and yet so totally captivating that one couldn’t wait for the secrets to be revealed.
There may be a few spoilers ahead.
I would say that the show was amazingly well scripted and acted. Not every episode was a masterpiece (I’m thinking of one in particular that was mostly about White trying to catch a fly that had gotten into his lab) but overall the quality was amazingly consistent from episode to episode and from start to finish.
Walter White clearly becomes a monster over the course of the series. And yet I found it easy to empathize with him throughout the show. Here’s why:
One key subplot that they return to often was the fact that White was the most brilliant student in college. He partners with his best friend and girlfriend to start up a company after college. Something happens, it’s never entirely explained, and the girlfriend is with his best friend and his interest in the company is bought out for $5,000 – and in “modern times” the company is worth billions.
Throughout the series, White is consistently the smartest man in the room. Over the course of 5 years he will encounter perhaps only two others who can match him in the brains department – Gus Fring (brilliantly portrayed by Giancarlo Esposito) and Mike (Jonathan Banks) – and he gets the better of them. He gets the better of everyone.
Perhaps it’s egotistical of me to think of myself as like White – a really smart person who was never able to translate all that knowledge into anything worthwhile, someone who despite a nice home and a loving family feels like a failure – but to some extent I do, down to the fact that I was screwed out of my share of a start-up while the other founders became not billionaires but definitely well-off.
Throughout the series, White insists that everything he is doing, he is doing for his family. That was one bit I could see through pretty easily. Early on, we see him humiliated at the car wash, wiping down the wheels of one of his student’s expensive sports cars. Many episodes later, we see him make people tremble at the mere mention of his name (well, his alias, “Heisenberg”). It’s not until one of the final episodes where he finally admits that, no, he wasn’t doing this for his family, he was doing it for himself. That he enjoyed the success, the money and most especially the power. It leaves me almost wanting my own “hey, I can make $80 million in two years making drugs” moment.
So I knew exactly where he was coming from. And even though I had some idea of how things would end (it was impossible to avoid, no matter how hard I tried), I found the ending to be emotionally satisfying. I “lived” with these people for two months. It was so well written and acted that I felt that I knew them. If things had to end, and logically had to end in a certain way – well, the way they got there was exactly right. I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
Is it the best show of all time? There’s no such animal. Is it now one of my favorite shows of all time? Definitely yes.
Now that it’s over, and now that I’ve finished watching all of it, I find myself somewhat breathless and unable to start up watching another series. I need a bit more time to “come down” before I’m ready to give my attention to another world.