Warning: tons of spoilers. Do not read if you haven’t seen the latest Breaking Bad.
Breaking Bad is a show of “Whoa!” More than anything else over its four and a half seasons, the drama has proven a consistent ability to take your breath away. There was Walter White’s first drug deal, and the morning he let Jesse’s girlfriend die of an overdose. Or the parking lot stand-off between Hank Shrader and two decidedly bad-ass hitmen. And then, of course, the time we got to see the inside of Gus Fring’s skull. All unforgettable. But the greatest “Whoa!” of all, the most shocking move Breaking Bad will ever make has been saved for its last season. Because here, in the last eight episodes, the show has tried something never before done on television. Breaking Bad has asked its characters to change.
The first moment we see Walter White, way back when the series began in 2008, he is alone, naked, and afraid. He’s just crashed an RV full of Meth and bodies into the Arizona desert, and in his boots, tighty whities, and gas mask ensemble, he looks like a joke. A parody of a man, a punchline as the most helpless, out-of-his-depth dude to ever roam the earth. As sirens approach in the distance, Walter begins to cry, records a tearful goodbye to his wife and son, then holds up a gun and waits for his life to end. In the general food chain of humanity, Walter was below a gnat. He was a gnat without pants. A gnat who’s ruined everything and could really use a hug from his Mom. That’s where Walter White began. Where he ends is…a little different. Walter 2.0, the man we watched in the mid-season finale on Sunday night, is a drug lord, murderer, and leader of a criminal empire. He kills his enemies and terrifies his wife. He’s the largest Meth dealer in the Southwest, and apparently Czechoslovakia. If he came across Original Walter, the man crying in the desert, he’d look at him and laugh. Then, if he thought it to his advantage, he’d dissolve his body in a barrel of acid. It’s the biggest transformation we’ve ever seen from a lead character in television, and it breaks just about the only rules the medium has.
There are two laws that every TV show must follow. Both have a million variations, adjustments, and gradations in how they are obeyed, but they are sacred and unavoidable. The rules, as they say, are undefeated.
1. Your characters must not change.
2. Your lead must be sympathetic.
The fifth season of Breaking Bad sneaks up on these laws and suffocates them on their sleep. Not only, as we’ve said, does Walter change, but he changes into someone unsympathetic. It’s a double whammy – and the ballsiest thing I can remember a show doing. We’ve seen countless TV protagonists get right up to the edge of reform (either good or bad) before, but they never pull it off. Tony Soprano, Jimmy McNulty, Sam Malone, Hawkeye Pierce, David Brent – to name a few – all seemed to have moments of change, but ultimately ended their runs just how they began. Same goals, same objectives. That’s just the way TV works, you’re supposed to be able to tune in every week and know exactly where you stand. That’s Rule #1. Rule #2 is that when you tune in, you’re gonna find someone you understand. Someone at least a little part of you is rooting for. Dexter, House, Mad Men, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Weeds, 30 Rock, Nurse Jackie, Lost — all shows about flawed heroes who nonetheless had our sympathy. Maybe they made us laugh, or maybe they were doing the wrong thing for the right reason, or maybe they were just on an insanely confusing island that sooner or later anyone would get fed up with. Whatever it was, these characters were cleverly crafted to remain likable even in the face of horrible behavior. Walter White, however, lost his likability somewhere in the river next to his former partner Mike, who he killed for no valuable reason.
But don’t worry, none of this was a mistake. When the creator of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan, pitched the show to its star Bryan Cranston, he explained it very simply. “I want to take a sweet high school science teacher and turn him into Serpico.” And well, he nailed it. Initially, Walter wanted only enough money to either pay for his chemotherapy, or leave a nice nest egg for his family after he passed. Now, he wants everything. He wants to be the biggest, smartest, most dangerous man in the room – and he’s willing to give up his family, the very thing he was initially fighting for, to get it. Walter White is, in short, a very big asshole. Sometimes as a viewer it was a little off-putting, half-wishing someone would take down this man we used to love. According to the laws of TV, this shouldn’t work. We’re only supposed to want to invite likable people into our living rooms, and it’s hard to like a guy who recently ordered an octuple homicide. You wouldn’t invite him into your house unless you wanted to find your kids dead and a meth lab in your kitchen. So something’s gotta give. Either Breaking Bad is going to change the rules forever, or Vince Gilligan has one last trick up his sleeve.
The final eight episodes, which start airing in 2013, will give us the answer to that question. This week’s finale suggests that Walter has given up cooking Meth forever and will focus on his family. If he’s telling the truth, then his character’s dark change is undone. He was actually a good guy all along who just lost his way, and both he and his creators can plead temporary insanity. TV history can breathe a sigh of relief! However, if Walter was lying, if Heisenberg returns, or his battle with the DEA pulls him back to the dark side, then things are going to get a lot more complicated. Can Walter be the hero of the show if he tries to kill his brother-in-law Hank? Will we be asked to root for a man who cares about nothing but himself? And if Vince Gilligan manages to pull that off, will the traditional model of TV storytelling be changed forever? The great thing about Breaking Bad is, I honestly have no idea. But I do know that when it finally happens, there will be plenty of people saying “Whoa.”