On Sunday night, American TV station AMC aired the final episode of the now legendary Breaking Bad. Like a lot of people in the UK, until the last few months I had heard very little about the show, except that Bryan Cranston kept winning Emmys for it and it was supposed to be “quite good”. Now, having watched the whole five series in the space of three weeks, it astounds me that a British TV station didn’t snap up this American gem.
Confined to the depths of Netflix, illegal downloads and boxsets, it says a lot about the way the public consumes television drama nowadays that this has become such a must-see essential TV event… except it’s not even been televised here. The internet has meant that if a programme is shown anywhere in the world, we can now watch it practically live and it almost makes TV scheduling itself completely obsolete. Do ratings actually mean something anymore, when the majority of people watch programmes on demand, when they want to, on catch-up or downloaded? And similarly why, I ask myself, have Channel 4 and ITV subsequently scheduled Homeland and Downton Abbey, two of the most successful dramas on TV, to air at the same time from this Sunday if they do? But this is off-point. Like Game Of Thrones earlier this year, the whole country is talking about a TV show they can’t even watch on terrestrial TV. So… why exactly DO I pay my license fee?
I began watching Breaking Bad on the basis of the bold claims via word of mouth, that the series is “The Greatest TV Show I have ever seen” and that “It has to be seen to be believed”. I’m naturally a sceptic. A recommendation like that is more likely to put me off watching something than entice me to indulge, but having recently finally given Homeland a go and found myself completely agreeing with the fanboys on the show’s standard, I thought I should give Breaking Bad a go.
It’s true that I found myself watching the first season and wondering what the hype was about, but I persevered, knowing that to follow a man’s descent into depravity, first you need to witness from whence he came. And thinking about it now, now that I’m far more familiar with his criminal mastermind alterego Heisenberg than the original Walter White of the earlier seasons, it’s astonishing to see just how far they took this character.
Breaking Bad is unlike any other television series I’ve seen before because the whole five seasons slot together to make a complete piece of work. There is no dilution, there is no stringing-on the viewer to keep them tuning in week after week, hoping for little snippets of a resolution; there is clearly an end-point and that end-point, as we’ve known from the very first episode, was always going to be Walt’s death. What we didn’t know was how, when or why that was going to happen. Breaking Bad is a cautionary tale, a reworking of the Everyman morality plays, an examination of “evil” and its origins, a play on the idea of the antihero; on the one hand it’s almost binary in its depiction of good and evil, yet its drama plays out in its shades of grey. It’s deliciously complicated, but also remarkably simple; a man is tempted, he gives into that temptation and then the ramifications spiral out of control. And the temptor becomes manifest in Heisenberg, this inner-demon who possesses and then takes control of the man we and his family knew as Walter White.
The other characters come to serve dramatic functions. This is not to say they are one-sided, or archetypes, or even stereotypes; it becomes quite clear by the end of the first season that what initially felt like an ensemble drama is certainly not that. Breaking Bad is the Walter White Show. Bryan Cranston has, for the past six years, delivered an astonishingly versatile performance of a man who finds his confidence and finds himself, but unlike most other works of fiction where this is true, his tale of overcoming the odds is not a triumph of good over evil, but instead the complete opposite. The very nature of this is challenging for an audience, but yet we find ourselves rooting for Walt, even though he poisoned a child, slaughters his enemies, bombs an old people’s home and watches his partner’s girlfriend choke to death on her own vomit. We should hate Walter White, but instead we’re fascinated by him. We may not empathise with him, but maybe as products of the reality media generation we just want to see what it was that created Frankenstein’s monster. We all acknowledge that Adolph Hitler was a genocidal maniac, but who of us would turn down the opportunity to see exactly how he lost his humanity and became the most notorious man in human history? Who wouldn’t want to know just why Ed Gein or Jack The Ripper or Charles Manson went on their killing sprees?
I think there comes a point with everyone watching the show when they stop identifying with Walt and instead sit back and just witness his acts, rather than living the story through him. What Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, very deftly inserted to counteract this was a character who works in complete opposition to Walt. Initially, Jesse Pinkman is one of Walt’s corrupting influences, but as time goes on and they encounter much darker and more powerful adversaries, Jesse’s function changes from antagonist, to sidekick, to victim. And just as Walt’s actions become less and less humane, Jesse becomes more and more humanised by his relationship with a young family. Once Walt is no longer our Everyman, Jesse is. It’s a clever and very effective narrative device.
Similarly, we watch Walt’s wife Skyler follow a massively fluctuating trajectory. She starts as an annoyance, then upon discovering her husband’s double-life she reacts with horror, then acceptance, then collusion, before she eventually becomes yet another victim of the Rise of Heisenberg and her whole world is torn to pieces. Anna Gunn’s performance as Skyler only comes into its own in the later seasons, but her motives becomes so muddied, her reasoning so complex, that when she begins to show signs of a Lady Macbeth-esque mania, attempting to drown herself in her swimming pool or turning on her sister Marie, the audience can finally completely empathise with a character who was initially inaccessible. Of our three leads, Skyler was the least likeable character in the show, while Walt was clearly our point of entry to the story; by mid-season five, this has completely switched.
However, despite all the moral ambiguity of our main characters there was one constant throughout. Hank, the upright (although maverick) policeman was the moral centre of our story. As long as there was Heisenberg there would always be Hank… until he’s brutally murdered just at the moment he captures his arch-nemesis. Breaking Bad certainly doesn’t shy away from bold story-telling. The game of cat and mouse between Hank and Walt was fascinating to watch, especially the moment when the policeman finally realised the true identity of Heisenberg, but Hank’s death truly compounded what we suspected about Breaking Bad all along – this is not a show about a drug-dealer trying to outwit the police, this is a show about the Creation of Greatness, for the word “Great” does not have to mean “Good”.
The show saw fantastic supporting turns from many characters who appeared to arrive from nowhere. From the smart-talking opportunist lawyer Saul Goodman, to the entrepreneurial drug overlord Gustav Fring; from the cleptomaniac neurotic Marie Schrader to the mobster hitman Mike Ehrmantraut; all were startlingly real and thoroughly realised characters, some empathetic and others completely terrifying. Their functions in the narrative were often pivotal, but this did not prevent them from becoming completely humanised and vivid characters who could easily have been swallowed up by the towering presence of Walter White. And in a testament to just how bold the storytelling was, Walter Junior, the son of our protagonist himself, is cast as severely disabled, and yet not once does this become the centre of the plot. It could have been so easy to centre a storyline about the disability itself, but not once did it take centre-stage. It’s a refreshing and fascinating narrative decision; Walter Junior is disabled, so what?
From high octane train heists to episodes talking solely about an insect, the structure and format of Breaking Bad is astonishing. One minute you’re watching a deep intellectual drama and the next you’re speeding through an action-film. It refuses to be categorised, pigeon-holed or predictable. Instead, it gives its characters room to breathe, but snatches from the audience its complacency, especially in its final two episodes. While many shows would take the gathering excitement of a rapidly increasing audience and blast through the ending with all guns blazing, Breaking Bad takes its time. In the penultimate episode it even dares to introduce a new character, Ed the extractor, and fully realises him over the course of the forty-five minutes. It boldly paced itself and let us see that it was Walt’s story that was driving this home-stretch.
As the final episode opened, we were taken to visit Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz. More so than any other characters, these small supporting parts were given a massive segment to tie up their loose end, which was a tense and thrilling scene. Then we were then taken through all of Walt’s life, briefly visiting Skyler, Marie, Walt Junior, Lydia and Todd before his final explosive show-down with the remaining antagonists. And Jesse. Like everyone, I waited with baited breath for the fate of our poor down-trodden hero and cheered as he took the moral high-ground and sped gloriously away. And as Walt dies of his wounds from the massacre, justice finally catches up, good triumphs over evil and the monster is finally killed. For this is after all the Everyman, and the wages of sin is death. The final episode of this triumphant TV programme did exactly as it had always promised.
So Breaking Bad went out with all guns blazing, its loose ends tied, its finale definite. There is a spin-off confirmed for lawyer Saul for those who need more of this universe, but for me, who consumed The Complete Work Of Walter White in three short weeks, I will now always argue in those late night conversation of “What was the Greatest TV Show of all time?” for the possibility – “Maybe it was Breaking Bad?” Though I fear for Vince Gilligan – if I were him I wouldn’t lift my pen again, because how could he possibly top this?