If you don’t watch Breaking Bad – which concluded its excellent fourth season last Sunday – I can guarantee that you’ve at least had a number of friends try and sell you on the show. Breaking Bad fans tend to be rather evangelical in that sense.
And why shouldn’t they be? We’re talking about a show that brings in heavy-hitters like Brick and Brothers Bloom helmer Rian Johnson to direct mere bottle episodes. It’s a show where the dad from Malcolm in the Middle gets the chance to slowly yet seamlessly transform from an impotent, milquetoast high school chemistry teacher to a badass, merciless drug kingpin. Even the soundtrack is terrific, the last season alone utilizing perfectly selected needle drops from “Fever Ray” and “Apollo Sunshine” at ideal dramatic junctures.
Though at the end of the day, you don’t care about the immaculate craftsmanship of Breaking Bad – there are dozens of shows out there, past and present, which can attest to similar feats of consistent creative quality. You need a hook to convince you that catching up on the past four seasons of Breaking Bad (the first three of which are available on Netflix Streaming mind you…) is a more rewarding feat than doing the same for Deadwood or The Wire or whatever other critically acclaimed drama you just never managed to start.
So why is Breaking Bad different? Because it’s the first televised drama, to my recollection, that takes an imminently recognizable suburban American plateau full of RVs, fried chicken joints, and retirement homes, and uses it to tell the story of an honest-to-god birth of a supervillain.
When we first meet Walter White (Dr. Tim Whatley himself, a revelatory Bryan Cranston) in the Breaking Bad pilot, he is immediately presented as the ultimate example of deflated modern masculinity. A former star chemist turned high school science teacher, Walt puts in his time at the local car wash in order to make ends meet, degradingly scrubbing his own students’ cars for the sake of his pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and his cerebral palsy-stricken teenage son Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte). Yet when the non-smoker Walt is abruptly diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, it’s like a switch flips in his brain. Walt first begins cooking meth with former student Jesse Pinkman (a heartbreaking and brilliant Aaron Paul) in order to leave some extra cash behind for his family after he dies. However, as the show begins to embrace its Grand Guignol tendencies, Walt begins to descend into an increasingly hellish world of psychotic drug distributors, enormous subterranean “super labs,” and a pair of bloodthirsty mute ax-wielding twins from the Mexican cartel known only as “The Cousins.”
Wouldn’t you know it, as woefully unprepared as Walt is for such garish displays of turf-land warfare, it makes him come alive again. Escalation transpires. The meek Walter White of academia soon gives way to a new man who was buried just under the surface – who, while still petulant and prideful all the same, is now willing to ruthlessly murder if it means beating the competition. In the words of creator Vince Gilligan, over the course of the series and before our eyes, Walt goes from “Mr. Chips to Scarface,” and the transformation is utterly fascinating to behold.
In an above paragraph, I used the term “supervillain” for a specific reason. The criminal underworld of Walter White’s America is a grotesque place where the sight of a human head bomb-rigged to a tortoise in the middle of the Mexican desert is par for the course. While Walt may often play the victim, a breed of violence festers inside of him that often threatens to reduce the world around him to ash. Perhaps most frighteningly, as a chemist, he often proves himself most competent with homemade implements of destruction. In the year 2011, Lex Luthor drives a puke-green Pontiac Aztek, wears a pair of Clarks, and takes his fifteen-year-old son to school every morning. For my money, it’s the absolute best thing on television, now and in some time.