On saying goodbye to Breaking Bad, the greatest show of the decade.
By Mahnoor Yawar
“And as to you Death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to try to alarm me.” – Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
When first released, Whitman’s magnum opus served as a subversive ode to material reward and wonder in a largely spiritual society. In a show like Breaking Bad, where moral quandaries are routinely set aside in the face of instant wealth or power, there are few symbols more fitting. The book is a gift to the protagonist from an adoring assistant, who soon succumbs to his boss’s ruthless quest for dominance. This book is kept as a trophy, in a self-indulgent boost to his ego, and ultimately serves as the catalyst to his own downfall in an act of true, and perhaps somewhat literal, poetic justice.
The show has a fascinating premise– if the end was near, how quickly would you shed your inhibitions? When oft-undermined yet brilliant high school chemistry teacher and car wash employee Walter White is diagnosed with lung cancer, it sets off a chain of events like no other. Knowing he has a limited amount of time to secure the future of his wife and children, as well as to leave his mark on the world, he makes the unique decision to partner with a burned out former student and launch a rather dubiously motivated meth business (later empire). For five seasons, fans have followed his startling transformation from meek family man to ruthless meth lord, and now it comes to a thoroughly satisfying, albeit uncharacteristically neat, conclusion.
Creator Vince Gilligan (previously a writer and producer for The X-Files) had already planted himself firmly among television royalty, but this – his true masterpiece – is a triumph that pairs the nuance of a Shakespearean tragedy with the action and drama of a Tarantino film. That this is a show destined to spawn volumes of academic research is a given. It is a work of art, rich with symbolism and literary allusion, offering a unique portrait into individual agency and its myriad consequences. We see a man who turns his social invisibility into his greatest strength, and rips apart the fabric of his own world while hiding in plain sight.
Driven completely by its characters, Breaking Bad never shies away from testing its audience and their support. Walter White makes a compelling anti-hero, repeatedly making viewers question the extent of his moral ambiguity. You root for him right from the start, as he is henpecked by his domineering and very pregnant wife, or when his students witness him wiping down tires at the car wash where he has to work a thankless second job, or even when his cocky brother-in-law Hank commandeers attention at his own 50th birthday party. You want the little guy, the boring guy, the loser to have just one win. Except his “wins” get darker and darker, beyond reproach, and you’re left to question how far your sense of morality can withstand being in his corner.
With such a forceful character at the forefront, it falls to the most prominent secondary players to serve as the moral compass of the show. Here, this role alternates between two people – Walt’s business partner and former student, Jesse, and his initially oblivious wife, Skyler.
While Jesse is initially running his own meth cooking business under the moniker of “Cap’n Cook”, he quickly cedes to the superior ability of “Mr. White” after they begin their unlikely partnership. His character is the one most seeped in self-created consequences, falling victim to self-destructive guilt. He’s been rejected by his family much as he is later by Walt; he loses people close to him as a direct and indirect outcome of his own weaknesses and even literally ends up as a slave to an offshoot of the empire that he and Walt helped create. We are frequently bombarded by images of his aloneness, as one person after the other begins to abandon him or succumbs to their association with him. His slow but steady emotional breakdown is downright agonizing to watch, which makes his eventual freedom all the more satisfying.
Besides these two characters, the show features an impressive roster of bad guys that become progressively scarier as Walt moves up the ranks, but the show’s greatest strength lies in humanizing the bad. As much of a genius as Walt is, we only truly see the extent of his intellect as he reveals and exploits the core weakness of each these characters, be it for the overzealous Salamancas, the outwardly reputable business owner Gus Fring, or the eerily efficient Mike Ehrmantraut.
It’s as though Walt consistently needs the validation that comes from having someone close to him bear witness to his transformation. We see his barely concealed vindication as he reveals his true nature to Jesse, comes clean to Skyler, challenges Hank, and threatens the Schwartzes. He enjoys being recognized as anything but the “nice guy” that he is now perceived as being. And though he achieves his own rather twisted version of redemption at the end, it isn’t before he has waded through a significantly damaging vision of his aftermath. He does not truly realize how far he’s fallen until even Saul Goodman, the morally bankrupt lawyer who made it his purpose to clean up Walt’s messes, tells him he cannot go forward with him and his twisted plans.
Here is a show that walked the tightropes of social and racial politics, not always cleanly, with episodes that may not have always gelled perfectly with its rich overarching narrative, but that barely dents the show’s overall brilliance in its tidy balance of dark humor and heart-stopping, gut-wrenching twists.
To many fans, Breaking Bad was more than a show – it was a remarkable piece of storytelling with characters one could root for or revile at the drop of a hat. The show’s success relied heavily on how much its viewers invested in the outcome of their favorite characters, and for that, it will be missed.
Mahnoor Yawar is Articles Editor at The Missing Slate.