Why Breaking Bad is the Best Show On Television

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.

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8 Comments

  • David Newhouse
    October 14, 2011

    It is absolutely the best thing on television. If it goes off the air never having won the Best Drama Series Emmy, I will light Matthew Weiner on fire.

  • Joseph F. McNulty
    October 14, 2011

    Walt has now become the new Gus —- a cunning killer willing to use anyone and anything to accomplish his purposes. As he did in last year’s finale, he matched wits with the chessmaster, Gus, and managed to prevail. Gus died because he violated his own rules of caution, blinded by his hatred of Tio. He wanted to have the bitter pleasure of injecting the fatal shot into Tio himself, so he exposed himself in the one place where he was not protected. He realized his mistake at the last instant —- too late for him and Tyrus. He did not realize that Tio hated him so much that Tio was willing to cooperate with another enemy -— Walt -— and give up his own life, to kill Gus. Truly, “Mr. Chips” has become “Scarface,” as Vince Gilligan has said, especially since Walt, asked by Skyler as to whether he was involved in the death of Gus, answered laconically “I won.” He also murdered without hesitation at the laundry. I have been watching television over 50 years, and I cannot think of a better show that “Breaking Bad.” The recent episode “Salud” was the best hour of television since the moon landing. The only show that comes close to “Breaking Bad” in cinematic quality woud be the early episodes of “The Sopranos.” I think that “The Sopranos” lost something when Big Pussy went to sea. Nothing else comes close. I must admit that I have only seen one episode of “The Wire,” which I thought was fine (with a police commissioner telling his detective that he wanted to know IMMEDIATELY if a certain thing happened, when it was clear from the rest of the show that he did NOT want to know. He just wanted his denial ON THE RECORD for political purposes. I fear that “Breaking Bad” has lost something irreplacable with the death of Gus. Giancarlo Esposito deserves great praise for creating a great villian without histrionics, a courteous and glorious monster, killed by Tio, a vicious, if crippled, beast. I have watched the episode again, and, if possible, I like it even more. It is finely crafted and layered. It has a subtlety that rewards repeated viewing. I feel that I picked up so much seeing it again, For example, the mordant humor of Sol Goodman’s secretary grabbing her pathetic can of Mace when she hears the glass door shatter. Sol Goodman explaining that an old, sick guy in a wheelchair (who Walt will remember), communicates by ringing a bell -— if that “rings a bell,” of course, he says. Or the flop of Walt —- an aging man with a fatal disease -—crawling over the wall in his backyard. The gnarled glee of Tio as his message -—“Suck My . . .” -— is spelled out to the DEA in their meeting, as they anxiously scribble it down, letter by letter. The “High Noon” moment when Gus is walking into the nursing home (and the fabulous music) is as good as anything that I have ever seen (even at the movies). This is a triumph. I just hope the Emmys realize it. The trouble is, the are not enough award categories and award to honor anyone. For example, how do you faill to honor Giancarlo Esposito? But of course, you ought to honor Mark Margolis too.. He made an old man afflicted by a stroke who could not speak fascinating. That last scene, when you can see regret in his eyes (he knows that this is the end of him, too, and even life in a wheelchair is LIFE) before it turns to rage and determination to take the hated “Chicken Man” with him with the bomb. At the last instant, knowledge flickers across the eyes of Gus — he has finally figured it out — but too late for him and Tyrus. Walter White has outsmarted the cunning, polite Darth Vader of Albequerque.
    .

  • Sandra Sherman
    October 14, 2011

    I called it which I am proud of. This season has been relentless. Gus had to go no question. But Walt, Not good , Walt is heartless, aka Lilly of the Valley. This show, no question about it, is the best television ever made. I am hyper critical and I tell everyone about this show. It is not even a show it is an event. Unbeleivable writing, directing and acting. We are huge fans of Malcom in the Middle and I tell my daughter , “Do you see Hal? How he is acted? Now look at Walt. period. Anyone who isnt’ watching is losing out on an ourstanding series.

  • Willis Plummer
    October 14, 2011

    Chris — this is a great read.
    Commenters — please don’t spoil the show for anyone who has yet to finish Season 4!!!

  • Micky Coyne
    October 14, 2011

    I haven’t seen anyone mention this. But he was coughing again during the last three episodes. I remember distinctly when he was running through the house after he used the old woman as bait and in the crawlspace episode. And we had a the beginning of an episode where he got screened for cancer. Plus his foreshadowing talk with the stranger and his distracted hesitation when confronted by his son about his test all point to his cancer returning next season.

    My guess, the last episode will be him left alone dyeing in a (prison?) hospital. It’s all heading towards an ending Camus would be proud of.

    Love the show though. Could be a great spiral of destruction.

  • Joseph F. McNulty
    October 15, 2011

    Obviously, he cancer will, or has, returned. It will be the ironly of the powerful drug lord brought low by cancer — something that he can do nothing to stop. My recommendation for the last scene of “Breaking Bad”: everyone is dead. Jesse, Walt, in a showdown with the reformulated Mexican cartel, which decides to take over the Alberquerque operation. They are shot with “Fast and Furious” guns. They end up in shallow graves far in the desert — they just disappear. Hank is busy explaining to the DEA how he missed that his BROTHER-IN-LAW was a drug lord. Marie is busted again for shoplifting; this time, his friend on the police cannot help because of the suspicions against Hank. Was he involved in the destruction of the laundry to prevent the discovery of his brother-in-law? Where are Jesse and Walt? Did they escape thanks to a warning from Hank? It is discovered that Hank’s rehab was paid for with drug money. Doesn’t that implicate him? Mike has a heart attack while visiting his grand-daughter, “Godfather”–style; Skyler is a single Mom on the run wondering where all Walt’s drug profits went. The final scene is a press conference for a new “Albequerque’s Straight” anti-drug program. The MC is introducing all the speakers. He says, “And we are especially pleased to have with us today Albequerque’s newest Congressman, the Honorable Sol Goodman. Pan to the applauding crown, the applause led by his two well-dressed young aides, Skinny Pete and Badger. He speaks about his law experience. Yes, as his opponents say, he was a criminal lawyer, but he spent untold hours counselling defendants who were in trouble with the law becaus of drugs. Now, Albequerque has a new. and better, drug program, “Albequerque’s Straight.” He is proud to be part of it. The fight against drugs has, to be honest, changed his life. Pan to the finall shot — Walt’s duffle bag full of money in Saul Goodman’s safe.

  • Richard Higgins
    October 29, 2011

    Here is my response to people’s horror of the revelation in the final shot of episode 13.
    Michelle McClaren said it perfectly. I mean, yeah, Walt HAD to do it. The DEA was not going to guard them forever, and they probably would’ve just thought that that was a “giant jerk-off” as Hank put it. Then after everything was clear Gus would murder, MURDER, Hank, Marie, Skyler, Walter Jr., and HOLLY. Yeah, a baby. Walt knows so much about chemistry, that he was knew the kid would be ok. So, yeah a kid is sick for a little while, then hes fine, so he can save a baby’s life. So yeah, he did it without actually sacrificing the kid, or giving him any permanent injuries. Otherwise, a baby would have been murdered. So yeah, he HAD to do it. I don’t know I’d say he is scarface yet, parlty because I haven’t seen scarface but still, I can get an idea of what people mean when they say it, so I just don’t think he is there yet. He HAD to do it to save everybody. So he isn’t as terrible as a lot of people make him out to be.

  • sean m
    February 11, 2013

    Great, great writing. Your par line was superb. Great article man overall, thanks for the read.

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