Having become a genuine pop-culture (if not cultural, is pop-culture now a redundant term?) phenomenon over its last season, Breaking Bad is something I came to late, but with its final episode airing this past weekend, I have caught up with and thought I’d join the rest of the world in sharing my thoughts.
I had, of course, heard of Breaking Bad, and the name Heisenberg had come to mean more than ‘just’ the guy who came up with an uncertainty principle, though I had not seen any of it until the middle of August – since then however I have changed this.
Much talk has been made of the series as a whole being a morality tale and certainly, on one level, it is as we see an everyman ‘break bad’ and the repercussion that come from this.
However, there is another side to this in that it constantly challenges us to relate to Walter White (Bryan Cranston) as the protagonist, of course as the series moves on this becomes harder and harder to do as Walt’s list of crimes and atrocities escalates making him undeniably, at best, an anti-hero, but there always seems to be something trying to drag us back onto his side no matter what he’s done.
So much so that, by the absolute end, we are almost again sympathetic towards this man we have seen manufacture and deal crystal meth, kill and have people killed and act in some of the most morally reprehensible ways committed to TV by a protagonist.
This is partially done through the show’s amazing slow burn of a development that started in its first episode (first broadcast in 2008) where we meet the mild-mannered Walter and his family – this is where, as a newcomer, I have a question in my head about the series.
Certainly I have enjoyed it a huge amount, to be totally honest I think it is probably the best TV I’ve ever seen, but I wonder if this slow burn, particularly during the second season, would have left me drift off too far and would have lost me had I watched it as it was broadcast? Of course I watched that series over a week, so we’ll never know, but that is probably the place where it most ran the risk of losing my interest.
The slow burn, in the end though, pays off in ways I have never seen in television as all the pieces slot into place perfectly and even characters who still felt underdeveloped (i.e. the fairly archetypal Neo-Nazis) completed the puzzle that has been the last few years of Walter White’s life, while also leaving a few things open enough to show that this is based in an approximation of the real world and, thankfully, completely steers away from directly showing any kind of confirmed happy endings, though they are suggested.
This is just a part of the amazing way in which the show as a whole has been put together. Clearly led by a head writer (and creator Vince Gilligan) with an aim, stylistically the show has matched this with similar grace notes appearing throughout that pull the whole series together, again in a way I’d not seen before.
So we get spectacular montages, often set to fantastically appropriate pop-rock songs, alongside convention defying POV shots (the advent of the GoPro and its ilk clearly having been a big thing here) and a deft use of comedy that has us laughing one minute and shocked at scenes of utter brutality the next in a way that sits just right.
The other thing pulled me in and kept me there were the characters. I’ve mentioned Walt above but without his extended family, both actual and metaphorical, the show would have been lost. Highlights among these are Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) who acts as something of a moral barometer and counterpoint to Walter in almost all regards and grows into the backbone of the show almost as much as the protagonist.
Then there are brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) and Walt’s wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) who, while not always fully rounded are used to get us into the space of different aspects of Walt and show us other sides of him, while also, particularly in the case of Hank, become our hero/antagonist at times.
Beyond this there are major but slightly more bit-part players who also help highlight aspects of Walter and his degeneration/regeneration including crystal meth kingpin Gus Fring, ‘cleaner’ (amongst other things) Mike (Jonathan Banks) and lawyer (and often comic relief) Saul (Bob Odenkirk).
What this highlights though is just how much this is all Walter White’s story as every character seems designed to reflect a part of him – again down to the brilliant design of Gilligan and his team, while also being characters we feel for in their own right.
If season two was the shows slow point, certainly the second half of season five is where it cranked everything up to a new gear of speed as the plot rocketed along. This may have left a few events seemingly dealt with a little too quickly, but never at the expense of emotion or story as certain episode, third to last Ozymandias in particular, left me shattered but having to know what came next, which is surely the aim of any serial drama from the tripe of soap opera land to the epics of HBO and, such as this, AMC.
Ending a series like Breaking Bad is never going to be an easy task, but it is something that has been done in fine style and has cemented a show that, up to this point has been teetering on the edge of classic TV, into being something entirely complete in a way few TV shows ever manage (see The X-Files or many others for examples where they go on too long or just meander out of ideas) – so, if you’ve read this and not seen it I strongly recommend you go out and see it and I hope I’ve not spoiled it too much.