Monday, September 30, 2013

Series Review: Breaking Bad

Warning:  As you can probably tell, this contains spoilers about how the series ends so if you haven't watched the series finale yet, DON'T READ THIS!  If you have, read on.
Ok, so I know that I'm jumping on a very, VERY large bandwagon here as just about everyone who watches television is flipping their lid about the series finale last night, but I just have to weigh in.  This show was too good, too culturally huge and way too memorable for me to not feel compelled to share my opinion on it.  So here's my take.

Vince Gilligan created this series (according to Wikipedia) with the goal of creating a story around a primary protagonist who, by the end, will become the primary antagonist.  Let me just come right out and say it:  He did it.  Boy, oh boy, did he DO IT.

At the outset of the series Walter White is downright pathetic.  He's seriously underpaid, absurdly under appreciated, mistreated by his bitchy wife and teenage son and now, to top it off, he's got terminal cancer.  In other words, he's at the very end of his rope.  It is impossible not to feel bad for him and, by proxy, not to root for him.
At the end of the series Walt is downright evil.  And I mean EVIL.  (What he says to Jesse right before he has Todd and crew take him away?!? WOW!)  He's unequivocally DESTROYED the lives of literally everyone he's dealt with.  He's purposefully, knowingly crossed every line that one can cross.  He's wreaked such havoc on the world in general that his name is on par with Don Pablo in terms of infamy.

But here's the kicker: it's still impossible not to root for him!  He's killing people by the handful, hurting the few that are still left alive and generally acting like a tornado of destruction- but you still want him to win.  He's the bad guy, no doubt about it.  But much like Tony Soprano before him, he's the bad guy you're invested in.

Unlike Tony Soprano, and I cannot possibly tell you how relieved I am by this, his story has an end.  And it's a doozy.  But before I get to the recap, let me just sum this up by saying that Walt is one of the best written (and acted) characters on television- ever.  His character arc is so rich, so deep and has such an extreme turn around that you remember him forever.  A lot of people are saying it's the greatest character arc executed on television and, as lofty of a claim as that is, I think they're right.

Ok, onto the plot: each season of this show has a theme and they play around with images, literary references and musical themes frequently.  The first season is best known for the busted-up RV that Walt and Jesse start their floundering business relationship in.  Much like Walt, it's been through the ringer.  It barely runs, threatens to permanently crap out at any moment and has a messy, very sad sack appearance.
But, also like White, the RV's connotation is a family-friendly one evoking memories of family vacations, funny family photos and positive memories.  In the first season Walt is a good guy trying to secure his family's future.  Even when he commits his first murder, he's doing it because he believes (with good reason) that the man will kill his entire family if he does not.  His motives are good and in a lot of ways you can kind-of understand his choices.  When he does violate his moral compass he agonizes over it and feels immense guilt for his actions.  He's no angel, certainly, but you can argue the merit of his actions.

Season Two is all about the Pink Teddy bear which we learn the source of at the end of the season. 
What the exact symbolism of the teddy bear means is debated but there are overall themes of destruction, guilt and loss of innocence.  Walt is starting to come into his own as a drug manufacturer- he's taking more risks, demanding more, pushing Jesse and others around more and making a lot of morally questionable if not seriously wrong choices.  The story that he's doing it for his family gets weaker and weaker and Walt goes deeper and deeper into the world of illegal activities and although there are moments were he seems to notice and question his decline he continues his descent at every turn.

Season Three is best represented by the Heisenberg hat, Walt's costume for when he's trying to be bad ass. 
In season three, Walt starts to take more and more negative actions in order to be in control.  He's running a professional industrial-level meth lab, making business deals with drug king-pins (mainly Gus) and declaring himself as head of the household much to the dismay of his wife who starts out the season seeking a divorce from him.  He manipulates, lies far more often then he tells the truth, plots and plans with moral abandon and his kill count starts to seriously rack up.  While he's still telling the story that what he's doing is ultimately for his family, no one other than him is buying it anymore.
There's also a sense that Walt sees that his timeline is screwed up. There is one episode where he talks about the perfect moment- the moment when he should have died.  Before his moral compass was too far gone, before his family started to hate him, before he became more criminal than desperate provider.  There's a sense of loss of the good Walt and a feeling like it's too late to go back and his actions reflect this.

Season four is all about Walt's war with Gus (who, by the way, is one of the best television characters EVER!).  I think the most memorable image, to everyone who watched it, is what ends up happening to Gus. 
This is symbolic of Gus' split personality- the dark and light, the good and the bad.  It's a parallel drawn between Walt and the two sides of his personality.  Like Gus, by the end of the season his facade as a good guy is completely blown away and what is left is ugly, shocking, and horrifying.  Walt deliberately pursues negative action after negative action in pursuit of control over the drug empire.  Again, he sells it all to himself by saying that if he doesn't kill Gus, Gus'll kill his family- but his true motives are obvious and he makes fewer and fewer efforts to hide them.  Ultimately hurting even a small child to get his way the good guy mask is off and we see his true face.

And season Five is all about the repercussions of Walt's actions.  In the season opener we see Walt looking like something you might've pulled off the bottom of your shoe, sitting alone in a diner on his birthday.  It's one of the most depressing images ever and for a second- a split second- you feel bad for him.
The rest of the season- almost from the start- is about making it impossible for you to feel bad for him.  At the outset, we see the unimaginable shit storm caused by the death of Gus- a man with connections not easily eradicated in a fire.  Walt makes quick work of trying to clean up the evidence and no one is safe from his wrath.  He shows no more remorse for the murders he performs or orders and seems completely oblivious to the fact that his actions make him a monster.  As the season goes on, the lives of the characters around him are ruined one by one- either by murder, torture, or legal action.  The relationship most demonstrative of the destruction he causes and by far the deepest, most complex and ultimately most touching relationships of the show is the one he shares with Jesse.  At the end of the series he is a shell of a man-  emptied and filled by Walt's actions.  (I could write a master's thesis on this and still have more to say.  Just- ugh!)  Absolutely no one is safe and it's not surprising that the list of people left standing at the end of this show is a very short one.

Of course the death that we're most concerned about is Walt's- because after all, that's how this all started.  But rather than seeing him die of cancer in a hospital bed surrounded by the family that he started this all for we see him alone in a meth lab of his design dying of a semi-self inflicted gun shot wound.  His family hates him, the police hunt him and his business associates are all dead, dying or traumatized for life.  And yet, there is a sense of peace in this lonely old man.  He has, in spite of everything he's destroyed, accomplished something.  And though he ended up ruining the lives of everyone he ever cared about in the process he looks upon his works in pride.  It's one of the most haunting juxtapositions I've seen and with a truly amazing series leading up to it's nothing short of miraculous.
I know that the internet is exploding with people far more eloquent and well-versed in the details of television production saying that this amounted to one of the greatest shows of all time and while I get absolutely no points for originality in this, I have to agree with them.  Seriously, if you've somehow missed this do yourself a favor and commit to watching this series. 


  1. As someone who only made it through Season 1 and part of Season 2, I really appreciate a level-headed retrospective like this. I didn't stop watching because I disliked the show -- I stopped because I'm a colossal wimp. (I always call Reservoir Dogs "the most amazing film I should never have seen".) Thanks for this!

  2. It concluded the only way it could in a satisfactory manner - Walter's death. The show was sheer genius. I watched it with morbid fascination.

  3. Okay, I'm going to have to break down and watch this show. Now that it's complete, I can have marathon couch sessions!

  4. I have never seen one episode. Not my cup of tea - sometimes I don't mind being out of the 'norm' ! LOL

  5. Gustavo Freng was just an untouchable character, right to his final moment on screen. While I disliked how they ended the show, it doesn't detract from an incredible run. Some of the best dramatic television I've ever seen.


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