Everybody and their brother will blog about Breaking Bad this week, so I don’t need to chime in on that…so…what else are we going to talk about? Please. Some say we’re in a new Golden Age of television. Some say Breaking Bad is one of the best series of all time. Both ring true to my ear. There will be some spoilers here, in red.
So what made Breaking Bad so great? Was it the Nietzschean “will to power”, expressed in an honest way for the first time on television? Was it the lethally hip admixture of high chemistry and street drugs? Was it the character of Walter White? Jesse? Was it the magnetic acting? I could argue all these points, and strongly, but I think the setting in which all these facets found their gleam is the vision and execution of creator Vince Gilligan.
And execute he did. One of the strongest elements of Breaking Bad is its narrative economy. The storytelling is very straightforward, 96% pure, and doesn’t waste a lot of our time with non-essentials. Walt’s journey reaches very clear milestones regularly throughout the show, and the clarity of his journey make the simplistic narrative a deeply affecting one.
Walt’s journey, the central story, demonstrates perfectly this fundamental of storytelling: in a narrative, the stakes must rise toward a climax. Breaking Bad might be one of the best examples of how to raise the stakes. The magic of the show is that while the stakes went up continually and intensely, the story never felt like it was reaching beyond itself. Each new plateau of was handled realistically (at least in the psychology of the characters), and only until it was time to raise the stakes again. I have never seen a show escalate its dramatic action so consistently and effectively before now.
So many people died in the show. But think about Walt’s involvement with these deaths and the moral implications of each: in season one he kills someone in self-defense. Then he kills someone when there is no other safe option, when letting the person go would endanger his family (and think about how much he struggled with this conflict). Eventually we see him stand by and watch a girl die. He could have saved her life, but he lets her die because she has become inconvenient to him. Through coincidence, his negligence causes the death of an entire passenger plane full of people.
But still Walt remained reticent to take a life. We saw him bowl over a couple hood rats with his Aztec in order to save Jesse’s life (in one of the most intense television episodes I’ve ever seen). And on and on, Walt slowly lowers his criteria to the point where he orders the slaughter of a dozen prisoners in order to sever ties and stay clean.
The fact that his moral barriers were struck down so methodically makes me jealous of Vince Gilligan and all the people who got to work on Breaking Bad. What an impressive feat to sustain over 5 seasons without letting up or losing steam.
The storytelling of Breaking Bad might not be quite as nuanced as other dramas like Mad Men or The Wire, but its simplicity makes it more effective in many ways. Some of the “higher-brow” shows require slower action, more time for reflection and character development. But Breaking Bad kicks into high gear early on and doesn’t let up. And while it’s efficiently telling its story, highbrow concepts (such as the Nietzschean “will to power,” grey-scale ethics, etc.) present themselves as a digestif to the intense action.
And unlike many of those other shows, Breaking Bad sought to tell a finite story about one person with a beginning, middle, and end. The series closer Sunday night was a great piece of drama and the developments in it made perfect sense, whereas many other shows leave me without a strong sense of closure.
If the last episode didn’t seem quite as mind-blowing as you had hoped, consider the beautiful realm of possibilities created by the writers during the lead up to the finale. In the heat of the previous season, we could have cast our minds forward to any number of fantastic climaxes. It’s only because those potentialities were reduced to an actuality that the final episode might have left people a bit lukewarm. That, and the somewhat telegraphed convenience with which Walt’s final plan came together (to borrow a phrase from The A-Team).
The show ended as I hoped it would, without abandoning Walt completely to an immoral demise, but redeeming him just enough (through Jesse) so that people wouldn’t hunt down and kill Vince Gilligan. Way to watch your back Vince. He originally intended to kill Jesse.
For those 10.3 million of us who watched the finale together, Breaking Bad truly gave us one of those “shared moments” of TV legend. I’m naturally disappointed there is no more to look forward to, but I prefer a firm ending to a diluted story. Breaking Bad was somehow succinct in its 60+ hours, and I look forward to watching it again.