Writer: John Shiban, George Mastras, Peter Gould, Thomas Schnauz
Devised by: Vince Gilligan
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Giancarlo Esposito
Broadcaster: AMC (USA)
First broadcast: 20 January 2008 (USA)
DVD classification: 18 (UK) Contains strong violence, drug and sex references
This is the first part of Sophie Lister's consideration of Breaking Bad seasons 1-4. Part 2 is here. This article inevitably contains some plot spoilers.
What's the greatest television drama of all time? It's surely an impossible question to answer. But for many critics, Breaking Bad is a healthy contender.
The series follows the devolution of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a mild-mannered chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Through his brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), who works as a Drug Enforcement agent, he hears about the profitable business of making methamphetamine (known as crystal meth). Desperate to leave behind money for his pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and disabled son Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte), the ever cautious and law-abiding Walt secretly enters the drug trade.
He enlists the help of ex-student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), a dropout and addict who provides the street-smarts, while Walt supplies the scientific expertise. The pair cook up a pure 'product' which is soon in demand from users – but at some cost. Within the first episode Walt has committed murder to save their lives, and so set himself on a moral downward spiral from which there's no escape. He has, to coin a Southern term for leaving the straight and narrow, 'broken bad'.
Breaking Bad is broadcast by the same American channel as Mad Men, and the two shows share many similarities. They're both critically revered and have relatively small, devoted fanbases. Each makes heavy use of subtext and symbolism; each centres around a deeply flawed male protagonist who has created a new identity for himself in order to compensate for his shortcomings. Mad Men, however, is the better-known and has greater cultural reach – perhaps purely because it takes place in such a glamorous world. Gripping, but also deeply grim, Breaking Bad is a far more uncomfortable watch.
Many have commented on the way that the show combines a kind of Shakespearean tragic sense with the black humour of the Coen brothers, lending it an odd but potent mixture of tones. Most unusually of all, the audience is asked to watch the protagonist journey from likeable sad-sack to deadly villain – from 'Mr Chips to Scarface,' as creator Vince Gilligan puts it. He explains the series' central concept:
Television is historically good at keeping its characters in a self-imposed stasis so that shows can go on for years or even decades. When I realised this, the logical next step was to think, how can I do a show in which the fundamental drive is toward change?
Things become truly interesting in Breaking Bad when the immediate threat of Walt's cancer is taken out of the equation. For the first two seasons, he is able to tell himself that everything he's doing – whether killing to keep his secret safe or indirectly ruining lives through the drugs he's making – is ultimately for the good of his family. But then the news comes that his cancer is in remission, and this reasoning won't wash any more. What becomes apparent to the audience, even as Walt evades it, is that his motives for making methamphetamine are no longer selfless, and perhaps never were.
In season one, we begin to understand that Walt considers himself a failure both as a scientist and as a man. Overlooked and slighted his entire life (at least, as far as he's concerned), he has failed to live up to the American masculine ideal. He will not even contemplate the idea of his wealthy friends financing his cancer treatment, demonstrating a streak of stubborn pride. He has been taught by his culture, and now believes, that to be a good husband and father means to provide financially for his family. Ultimately this is his priority, even if it means becoming a person his wife and children would be repelled by.
As his criminal alter-ego, Heisenberg, Walt discovers a power, self-respect and control which were missing from his former life. Heisenberg is exceptionally good at what he does and makes piles of money. He is feared and respected. The bitterness and resentment which have been building in Walt for years now find an outlet in Heisenberg's aggression. Actor Bryan Cranston observes that the potential for evil was always present in Walt:
A part of Heisenberg has always been there, but never realised. It's as if there's all these different seeds within a human being, but if they're not watered and given sunshine, they're not going to grow. So Walter started to nurture that part of him, because he needed to . . . and what comes to fruition is [Heisenberg].
It is heavily suggested that, just as Walt's mild exterior may have been concealing a monster all along, his meth-cooking partner Jesse's criminal persona is a mask for his soft-hearted true self. Poignantly, even as Jesse's relative innocence becomes apparent to the audience, Walt's pseudo-fatherly influence slowly acts to crush it. Left to his own devices, it's quite clear that Jesse would never have become anything more than a small-time dealer. But dragged into Walt's orbit, he loses everything, and eventually commits murder at his ex-teacher's bidding.
As the audience begins to consider Walt as being beyond redemption, the battle for Jesse's soul becomes the emotional core of the show. Instead of giving him the guidance and encouragement he so clearly craves, Walt has 'watered' all the wrong aspects of Jesse's personality, but it's still not too late. At the close of the fourth (and penultimate) season Jesse still has some semblance of a heart and conscience, while Walt has crossed yet another point-of-no-return in his descent into darkness.
Unlike the majority of current popular culture, Breaking Bad offers little reassurance when it comes to human nature. We are, the show suggests, such a fragile mix of good and evil that the right temptation could be all it takes to tip us over the edge. And this is all the more tragic because, in a different kind of world, we might just have the potential to flourish.
Author: Sophie Lister
© Copyright: Sophie Lister 2012