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History of TV: Here's what was so good about 'Breaking Bad'

July 22, 2021
4 min read time

Some shows spread through the cultural zeitgeist like no other, and I feel like I can confidently say that Breaking Bad is one of those shows. It’s been on all of the “top” lists, and according to IMDb, it has 238 award nominations. A daunting subject to cover when all the world knows its name — and that of Walter White.

The antihero’s journey

In the case of Breaking Bad, the main character is the story hook. His journey — or rather, his fall into antiheroism — is the engine that drives the series. A man in the midst of a serious mid-life crisis learns he’s now also got terminal lung cancer and decides to start cooking crystal meth in order to support his wife, unborn daughter, and son after he’s gone.

Through every awkward moment of the pilot’s opening scenes, it’s impossible not to root for Walter to just tell everyone in his life that seems empowered to run over him to eff off. And when he finally tells his car wash boss just that, it’s exhilarating. When he fights back against the bullies goading his son, who has cerebral palsy, it’s also exhilarating, but in the kind of way that makes one question whether that was an actual win or not. Thus begins the five-season downward spiral into moral ambiguity.

From the moment Walter (embodied by Bryan Cranston) discusses his fascination with the study of matter to his apathetic high school chemistry class — clearly in love with the concept of change — to when he requests a ride-along with his brother-in-law, Drug Enforcement Administration agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), one apprehensively feels what’s coming. The storytelling components are expertly blended and set to a thrilling simmer. Walter closes that chemistry class introduction on ionic bonds, and from there we’re launched into his own internal transformation and need-based "attraction" to former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). A relationship that drives the show as they simultaneously grapple with their own arcs and loyalties to each other.

Witnessing Walter’s persona devolve from inconsequential and beat down to ruthless drug kingpin is noteworthy for screenwriters because the opinion of such a man should be clear, yet very much isn’t. Walter lives perpetually in the gray area; he is both empathetic and cold-blooded, ingenuous and manipulative. We also question whether he was ever truly so insignificant, or the sum of his actions all along (watch the relationship with his ex-lab assistant, Gretchen Schwartz, to draw your own conclusions).

For his part, Jesse follows the opposite of Walter's path. He’s what one might consider "the bad guy" in the beginning; low-level scum with the moniker Cap’n Cook and no vision. His journey directly intersects Walter’s with decisions that seem to have mental and moral repercussions for him, while Walter forges ahead to where there are no consequences anymore on a soul level. It’s a perfect symmetry to heighten each and every decision made by both Jesse and Walter.

The dark arts

Vince Gilligan’s slow-burn crime thriller compounded with dark humor and an incredible production team attracted killer talent (some from Gilligan's time on The X-Files) and a wide audience. In the pilot, Jesse says that cooking meth is "art" and the team behind Breaking Bad certainly viewed their show as such. Its gritty aesthetic — supported in every way possible by detailed, layered character arcs, expert pacing for ultimate tension, and visceral visuals — was backed by an on-point soundtrack that begins as lackluster as Walter’s life and amps up with the action. Mixed with Emmy®-nominated cinematography, the combined effort of these elements ensured that every onscreen moment wasn’t just seen by audiences, but felt.

Thematic resonance

Two centuries ago, John Dalberg-Acton stated, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Walter White definitely proved that point. A family man amongst family men — the show repeatedly cited familial relations as strong motivations for multiple characters on the good-bad spectrum — he’s also the poster boy for that fatal flaw: pride. Hinted at many times, including his rejection of chemotherapy that could’ve changed the course of his path, the flaw is finally realized when he tells Skyler (Anna Gunn) what we knew about him all along; that he was a drug lord because he liked it. "I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it." His egotistical reign, based on that age-old allure of money and power — especially when you’re essentially in a hell somewhat of your own making — is powerfully motivating. Even if his intentions started out "good." And therein lies the dichotomy Breaking Bad was most interested in: the nuanced layers involved in the decisions and actions that ultimately categorize one as "bad."

In retrospect

Breaking Bad raked in 16 Primetime Emmys, two Golden Globes®, two Peabody Awards, multiple others, and entered the Guinness World Records for the most critically acclaimed show of all time in 2013. Cranston won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series four times, Paul won for Supporting Actor three, and Gunn for Supporting Actress twice. There was Paul’s Jesse spin-off, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, and the prequel Better Call Saul series, a Spanish-language re-make, and an AMC true-crime docuseries inspired by Breaking Bad. Academy Award® nominee Rian Johnson directed three episodes of the show’s 62, including the acclaimed season five episode "Ozymandias."

The fun facts abound, but for screenwriters, nothing beats a breakdown of that pilot and discovering just why Walter is out in the New Mexico desert in those tighty-whities...

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