At long last, the glorious finale to five heart-stopping seasons of Breaking Bad recently ended, and for those of you who have, like me, been following the series with bated breath, nothing else on television plays out quite like this drama.
Just what is it about Breaking Bad that captivates us? Is it Bryan Cranston? Is it the brilliant cinematography? Is it Bryan Cranston? (Oops I’ve said that already.) Is it the bizarre and anarchistic music score? Is it Vince Gilligan’s superb directorial abilities? Or is it the overwhelming standards of believability that all the cast possess in their respective roles? I believe it is each and every one of these things and more. To put it simply, this is one of the best, if not the best dramas I have ever watched in my life. That is why I believe it would make a fantastic novel. Before you hasten to correct me for hyperbolizing my love for a television show like this let me explain the reasons why I have so much respect for this show and its writers.
1. Because it is not a show. Duh.
Not really. It is an anti-show. Vince Gilligan has deceived us all. Not at the level it is being written at. It is a journey. Two parts drama-thriller and one part black comedy; Breaking Bad is reminiscent of a protracted Shakespearean chronicle, played out with a gritty realism that has the overtones of a Charles Dickens novel. The evolution of Walter White truly is a Bildungsroman, a journey of self-discovery that makes Walter (Bryan Cranston) embark on a quest to find out who he is and what he is capable of. There are elements of the tragic hamartia that plagues so many of William Shakespeare’s characters, that fatal flaw which always threatens to lead Walter to his bitter end. For Walter that fatal flaw is his ardent love of a job well done. He convinces himself that he is doing all this for his family, for the sake of supporting Walt Jr. (RJ. Mitte) and his wife, Skylar (Anna Gunn).
2. Because the characters in Breaking Bad change, just like us. Except for you, Marie. Consider diversifying the colour of your wardrobe.
In the pilot episode of Breaking Bad, Walter addresses a disinterested class of college students about the wonders of chemistry, he expounds that “Chemistry is, well technically, chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change.” A big reason why Breaking Bad is such an effective drama is that every character goes through a journey of liberation, an ‘awakening’ of sorts, a path of change, be it for good or bad. As Heraclitus once said, “the only thing constant is change”. The characters in Vince Gilligan’s world of Breaking Bad try their best to fight against it, but it is that inexorable pulse of change that provides the momentum for the events that take place in the series. And is that element of change not a twisted reflection of our own lives? Do we not have moments when we feel like we identify with Walter’s frustrations?
The change is physical, Walter sheds his hair due to his aggressive chemotherapy sessions, and he eventually shaves it all off, and grows increasingly thinner and wrinkled as the series progresses. The change is also metaphysical, Walter’s attitude to life changes from passive to aggressive, from anxious to domineering.
The tumour, which threatens to take over Walter’s life, grows and changes. Walter becomes the tumour; he is the cancer that causes the catalyst for change in the world of Breaking Bad.
3. Because you get to see the evolution of Walter White, up close. I mean every damn wrinkle, Bryan Cranston.
Here we see Walter White, an overqualified research chemist, co-founder of Gray Matter Technologies, no doubt a brilliant individual, working as an unsatisfied chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to support his family. He has selling his interest in the company he helped found for a mere $5, 000, which later on would prove to be a colossal mistake as his co-founders, Gretchen and Eliot, reap the benefits of the company’s billion dollar profits. Walter’s character at this point is mild-mannered, timid almost. He is isolated, an island, and after his diagnosis of lung cancer, he retreats further and further into his shell, shutting everyone out, including and especially his wife, Skylar. He grows detached and uninterested with the humdrum banalities of his daily life, and goes for a month without telling Skylar that he is stricken with cancer. Unbeknownst to him, Walter has another darker side, Heisenberg, a latent self-within-a-self which has been suppressed for over ’50-years’. With Walter’s diagnosis of lung cancer, something inside him snaps. He has been living in a fragile eggshell for half a decade, and the acuteness and immediacy of the diagnosis causes cracks to form in his carefully constructed façade of safety and protection. Over the course of Season 1, Walter grows gradually more cynical and jaded. He then undergoes a spiritual awakening, “I have spent my whole life scared, frightened of things that could happen, might happen, might not happen, 50-years I spent like that. Finding myself awake at three in the morning. But you know what? Ever since my diagnosis, I sleep just fine. What I came to realize is that fear, that’s the worst of it.” He realizes that the shadow of fear has been haunting him his entire life, casting a shroud on everything he has done and everything he has yet to do.
4. Because you are crushed by the death of the B*** in Apartment 23.
“I watched Jane die. I was there. And I watched her die. I watched her overdose and choke to death. I could have saved her. But I didn’t.” The death of Jane, Jesse’s love interest, was probably one of the first times we see Heisenberg for who he really is. Walter, in Heisenberg form, flipped Jane to face up from her recovery position meant that she would choke on her own vomit in the event she overdosed from heroin, and to make the whole event even more dark, he watched her die and did nothing, knowing that her death would be the just the push Jesse needed to eventually get him to ‘break bad’ again.
5. Because reading a Breaking Bad novel will make you hungry. Really hungry.
Walt Jr, why doth thou love breakfast so? Oh let me count the ways. I have lost count of the times I have reached for milk and cereal, eggs, bacon and pancakes due to Walt Junior and his love for breakfast. Whenever I suffer from lack of appetite, I simply watch Breaking Bad reruns. It has also lead to dirty looks from waitresses who hate it when I play with my bacon. (It’s not your damn birthday!)
6. Because it has some killer thematic elements. (Pun intended)
Breaking Bad has a number of themes, such as transformation, hope versus hopelessness, enlightenment, the impact of choices, be it good or bad and family relationships, to name a few. But perhaps its biggest thematic concern would be that of fear. The element of fear is not explicitly stated, it is merely present in everything Walter does and he grows throughout the series from being fearful to instilling fear in people.
7. Because it makes you question your morality and who you root for. And here I thought Jesse would be the bad influence.
Walter’s overwhelming need to ‘break bad’ steers Jesse away from his intentions to ‘break good’ and make the right choices in life, the irony here being that Walter the archetypal middle-aged educated adult should know better than to let Jesse the drug addict stay in the drug business.
8. Because you (finally?) get to root for Skylar.
Perhaps one of the most emotionally resonant scenes with regard to the supporting characters in Breaking Bad is Skylar White’s revelation that “someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family.” This statement is a bold and affirmative one that stands out amongst the female characters in this drama, and one that warmed me over to her character.
9. Mike Ehrmantraut. Enough said.
Mike’s ill-fated advice to Walter ignited a spark in him, making him realize that in order to become a drug lord, in order for him to fully be in control, he must lose Walter White and embrace his Heisenberg. “Just trying to do the right thing. But two weeks later he killed her. Of course. Caved her head in with the base of Waring blender. We got there and there was so much blood you can taste the metal. The moral of the story is I chose a half measure when I should have gone all the way. I’ll never make that mistake again. No more half measures, Walter. ” How badass was that monologue!
10. You get to see Bryan Cranston in his bald-headed Heisenberg-acting glory.
“You clearly don’t know who you’re talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No! I am the one who knocks!” Was it just me or was there quite a bit of sexual tension there between Walt and Skylar? It is unthinkable to explore the evolution of Walter White without this quote coming to mind. Heisenberg here is has broken the surface through sheer frustration from what Skylar perceives to be fear. As he grows more confident of his place in the grand scheme of things and of his abilities, he sheds this fear and something else takes it place. The need for control takes over. Walter always looks to ‘take care’ of the situation when it goes awry, employing whatever means necessary and going to morally dubious lengths to achieve it. He threatens Saul Goodman, employs Mike to do his dirty work, tricks Jesse by poisoning Brock and he eventually kills people who get in his way. He grows from someone who is afraid to take a human life to someone that takes life without second thought.
11. Because you get to see badass Heisenberg (and feel sickened by him)
By the beginning of Season 5, Walter has morphed fully into Heisenberg. Walter White is merely the shell, the empty vessel that contains the dark entity that is Heisenberg. The dualistic nature that Walter has struggled with is no more, he has wrestled with his demons and he has attained victory over them, not by defeat, but by swallowing them whole. I would like to think it shares a marked similarity to Ursula Le Guin’s protagonist Ged in The Wizards of Earthsea, who merges with his shadow and emerges stronger at the end, having confronted his demons. No other character on television has made me feel such a range of emotions towards them, from hatred to admiration to disgust.
12. Because the protagonist realizes why he does what he does. No cliffhangers.
In the final episode, Walter reaches a revelation, a pinnacle moment within the entire series. He has repeatedly stated over and over again, ad nauseum to drug lords, dealers and his wife, that he is cooking meth for the financial security of his family. In that singular moment, his last moment with Skylar, he admits what he has tried so hard to deny, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And, I was really… I was alive.” All along, what he really craved was the thrill of a job well done. Indeed, throughout the series, he is often cannot comprehend why Jesse is so adamant to get out of the meth industry when he has demonstrated what Walter views as exceptional talent. And when Walter dies, surrounded by the meth lab equipment he loves, to the lovesick lyrics of the upbeat “Baby Blue” by Badfinger, there is a terribly ironic yet fitting closure for the character and the series.
In conclusion, this brooding, fervent drama is one worth watching over and over again. Bryan Cranston and the rest of the cast have outdone themselves in so many ways. It is a window into the depravity of the human soul, and what human beings will do to achieve their own ends. That, I believe, is Vince Gilligan’s message to his viewers. We all can either break bad or good, but what makes us into monsters is not what happens in our lives. It is our choices. It is us.