1. Yo biyotch, this show is the bomb!
Breaking Bad is the greatest television series ever made.
I continue to be surprised by how many like-minded friends have never seen it. (Then again there are a lot of TV shows out there.) But Breaking Bad is quite simply the best series I’ve ever seen, and I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve seen an awful lot of TV. (I am a radical traditionalist who can’t sing any folk songs, but who knows by heart the lyrics to the themes from The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan’s Island, and the Brady Bunch.)
Breaking Bad is the story of Walter White, a middle-aged high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Walter is a failure. He has a Ph.D., but couldn’t find a job at a university. He has watched while friends have gotten rich off of work he himself had a hand in developing. He does have a wonderful wife, Skylar, but their only child – and his namesake – has cerebral palsy. To make ends meet Walter must work part time at a car wash, where he is regularly humiliated by a vulgar foreign manager with enormous eyebrows. Skylar has a sister named Marie who is married to Hank, a DEA agent. Hank is a little fireplug of a guy with a comically macho, alpha male attitude. He’s fond of Walt, but loses no opportunity to remind him that he’s a milquetoast.
As if things aren’t bad enough, Walt discovers that he is in the advanced stages of lung cancer. At first, he decides to refuse treatment, as he is apparently not that anxious to hang on to life (who would be, in his shoes?). Under pressure from his family, however, he agrees to undergo chemotherapy. Predictably, his insurance won’t pay for everything, and Walt is left not only with the prospect of death, but of leaving his family destitute.
Then, one day, Hank invites Walt to witness a DEA raid on a meth lab. While waiting in the safety of Hank’s SUV, Walt watches as one of the meth cooks successfully escapes right under the noses of the cops. To his shock, Walt realizes it’s a former student of his, Jesse Pinkman. Jesse was not exactly a star pupil. In fact, Walt regarded him, correctly, as a drugged-out loser.
Now, Mr. White is Mr. Wasp (the surname kind of makes this emphatic, doesn’t it?), and a total square complete with pocket protector. Jesse, on the other hand, is the lowest sort of whigger. His every sentence begins with “yo” and tends to end with “bitch” (my section title above is an homage to him). He’s bad, but in a dopey, inept sort of way. His car actually sports a vanity plate that reads THE CAP’N – a rather imprudent reference to his street alias, “Captain Cook.” Worst of all, he can’t keep his hands off what he cooks.
Desperate to leave his family with a small legacy, Walt has a brilliant idea. All right, well, he has a terrible idea: he teams up with Jesse and the two of them cook crystal meth. Thanks to Walt’s chemical genius, it turns out to be the best meth ever to hit the streets.
2. “I am awake”
But there’s a lot more going on here with Walt than a noble desire to make money for his family. And this is pretty obvious from the beginning. Over and over again in the series, Walt insists that he’s doing it all for his family, that whatever he does he does for Skylar and Walter Junior (and, later, his infant daughter, who is born in the show’s second season). But we’re not buying it.
I’m reminded of the veteran UFC fighter I saw interviewed several years ago (I honestly forget who it was), who said that he was continuing to fight simply in order to provide for his family. Sure.
Early in the first season, just after Walt and Jesse have teamed up, Jesse asks him just why he’s getting mixed up in cooking meth. It’s one of the most memorable – and significant – scenes in the entire series. Jesse confronts him: “Some straight like you, giant stick up his ass. All of a sudden, at age . . . like what? 60? He’s just going to break bad?”
Oddly, Walt (who is 50) doesn’t mention his family at all when he answers Jesse. He pauses a moment, looking off into the distance, then simply says “I am awake.”
Facing death has awakened Walt, as it does many. But to what? To the realization not just that he has never really lived, but that he has never really lived as a man. What this show is actually all about is Walter White becoming a man.
Walt has always been a responsible, careful, attentive and devoted husband and father. But Walt has never taken a risk in his entire life, and he knows this. He has always played it safe. Now, facing death, he realizes he has nothing to lose.
Well, but wait that can’t be right. He could lose his family. His wife could leave him if she learns the truth – or the people he runs afoul of could kill his family for revenge (this comes close to happening in season four). This is the real reason why Walt’s claim that he’s doing it all for his family just doesn’t ring true. The reality is that something is actually overriding Walt’s concern for his family.
I would love to write a long commentary on this series, detailing how Walt’s character develops over time. But there are two problems with that. First, I don’t want to spoil the series for all of my readers who haven’t seen it yet. Honestly, this is the most riveting, suspenseful, unpredictable program I’ve ever seen. Some episodes are so tense and suspenseful they are almost unbearable, and their 47 minute length passes very quickly. Much too quickly, actually. I would hate to ruin this experience for others. The second problem is that the series isn’t over yet. I can’t really do a decent job of talking about what Breaking Bad means until its fifth and final season has come and gone. Just like I can’t offer an analysis of a novel I’ve only read four fifths of. When the series is over perhaps I’ll devote a longer essay to it.
But I can’t resist commenting a bit further, and in the process I promise I’ll only give away a few things.
3. Amoral Virtues
This is a superbly-written series, and character development is one its great strengths. We sense from the beginning that Walt’s character is going to undergo a metamorphosis; that he’s going to transform from a milquetoast into . . . into what? Well, pinning this down is a bit of a problem – due in the main to the series’ much-discussed “moral ambiguity.”
No judgment is ever made about Walt or any of the other characters. We sympathize with Walt from the beginning, initially taken in by his claim that he is cooking meth to provide for his family. In spite of how obnoxious and amoral he seems at first, we do grow to sympathize with Jesse Pinkman and to care about what happens to him. By season four the series even makes us care about Gus Fring, the ruthless drug lord for whom Walt and Jesse wind up working. This is part of the magic of Breaking Bad – that it manages to create characters whose actions are often objectively evil, but who we can’t help but care for. (In this respect, the series has often been compared to The Sopranos.)
I won’t be revealing too much if I tell you that by the end of season four Walt has gone from being Mr. Clean to being a ruthless, scheming bastard. And a cold-blooded killer. Yet we still care for him – and, more importantly, we admire him. Why? Well, to draw on a distinction Jack Donovan makes in The Way of Men, Walt had always been a “good man,” but he wasn’t so good “at being a man.” However, as his character develops he begins to display all those “amoral” masculine virtues Donovan writes about.
The new Walt is tough, strong, courageous, and masterful. It doesn’t really matter that these virtues are deployed toward unlawful and often destructive ends. We admire these qualities in Walt nonetheless. And frankly it’s hard for me to get too exercised over the unlawfulness of Walt’s actions. It’s hard for me to be too disapproving of anything that undermines the stability of modern American society. The men of Walt’s world are killers and kingpins and assassins – but at least they are still men. One of the larger philosophical issues raised by this series – too large for me to explore here – is the tension that sometimes exists between masculinity and law and order; or: between primal masculine virtue and the virtues necessary to sustain civilization.
Walt takes obvious pleasure in his own transformation. To be sure, he is deeply ambivalent about what he has become. We see him frequently struggling with guilt over the things he has done (one of which results indirectly in the downing of a jumbo jet!). But we also see him taking pride in his toughness and ruthlessness – pride in being the new badass in town with the badass (though amusing) alias “Heisenberg.” For all his moral qualms, he is enjoying what he has become. He enjoys feeling like a man for once in his life.
One of the interesting ironies to the series is the way in which it sets up and develops the contrast between Walt and Hank, the DEA agent brother-in-law. As mentioned earlier, Hank is a sort of swaggering alpha male type who makes Walt feel rather small in his presence. Despite this, Walt has great affection for his brother-in-law (the closeness of the family is one of the more endearing aspects of the series). As the storyline develops, however, the paths of the two men sharply diverge.
Walt is faced continually with situations that require courage, boldness, and guts – and again and again he acquits himself rather well. Even when he is required to kill – and (in one stomach-churning sequence) dispose of a body. Things go very differently, however, for tough guy Hank. Given the opportunity to join a major drug task force, Hank is put in a harrowing combat situation – and basically has a nervous breakdown. Deep down, Walt the geek has got what it takes. Hank — the man who postures at being a man — simply doesn’t. (Though later in the series he manages to redeem himself and win everyone’s admiration.)
Jesse represents a different case of transformation. It was hard – no, it was impossible — for me to like Jesse at first. He represents so much in this culture for which I have a visceral dislike. In addition to all the objectionable qualities mentioned earlier, he is weak, cowardly, unstable, unreliable, and disloyal. But as the series develops, Jesse grows up. In season four we see him displaying true courage, loyalty, and a sense of honor.
The dynamic between Walt and Jesse is really one of the highlights of Breaking Bad. Series creator Vince Gilligan originally intended to kill Jesse off at the end of the first season, an event that would plunge Walt into an orgy of guilt. After he had a chance to see the chemistry between these characters on screen, Gilligan wisely decided to change his mind. Walt and Jesse grow to care about each other, and unavoidably (given the age difference between them) the relationship becomes like that of father and son – though neither of them would ever admit that such a dynamic is present. Breaking Bad is the kind of “buddy picture” they haven’t made since the 1970s.
Walt loves Walter Junior, but the sad truth is that at some level he must feel dissatisfied that his only son, who bears his name, is not and never will be physically sound. Walter Junior’s disabled body is like a physical externalization of the state of Walt’s stunted soul at the beginning of Breaking Bad. Despite his many faults, Jesse becomes a kind of surrogate son to Walt. And he can be the kind of son Walter Junior can never be: tough, resourceful, and physically daring.
Walt is “awake.” He has seen the world as it really is, and found in himself the qualities that really matter in a man. Walter Junior and Skylar (at least, for part of the series’ run) are stuck in the realm of the shadows. There are elements to Breaking Bad that remind me of David Lynch, especially Blue Velvet.
4. Conclusion, Unfortunately
There isn’t a single aspect of Breaking Bad that doesn’t deserve praise: the writing, the cinematography, the editing, even the set decoration (check out Marie’s over-the-top purple interiors). What I haven’t said anything about so far is the one thing that has received the most praise from critics (who are almost unanimously gaga over this series): the acting. Bryan Cranston (who? You may well ask) is absolutely remarkable as Walt. And Aaron Paul is also outstanding as Jesse. Honestly, there’s not a weak link anywhere here.
All good things must come to an end, sadly, and Breaking Bad’s fifth season is slated to be its last. In fact, not only is this necessary – it’s actually quite good. Breaking Bad is a continuing story, and all stories must reach a conclusion. And I can also think of many series that went on too long, eventually running out of steam and making us forget why we had originally loved them. But there will never be another series like this one.
So what’s going to happen to Walt and Jesse? I really don’t even want to speculate. And it’s dangerous to do so: the writers of this series are so good at being unpredictable. I know one thing: I don’t want Walt to get caught. Or, put it this way: if he gets caught I don’t want him going to jail. I identify much too strongly with Walt. Somehow I find it very easy to put myself in Walt’s shoes, and when I watch the things he does I think to myself, “I would have done that too . . .” I don’t want anything bad to happen to Walt.
One wonders, though, what thought processes the writers will go through in reaching their conclusion. If Walt gets away with it, the series seems to sanction his actions. If he doesn’t, most of the viewers – and I’m certain of this – will be terribly disappointed. Of course, one plot element the writers seem to forget about from time to time is that Walt has cancer. It’s now in remission – but it could come back. Perhaps this is how Walt will cheat the hangman.
Believe me, this essay has barely touched on what a rich and complex series this is. Do yourself a favor and buy it, rent it, stream it – whatever – as soon as you finish reading this essay.