For years I’ve wondered if a show would ever come along to dethrone The Wire, for me, as the best television series ever made. Breaking Bad may well be that show. I’m still on the fence, grant you – it’s hard to compare two shows with such distinctly different ambitions. But either way, Breaking Bad is an astonishing accomplishment in just about every respect.
Set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Breaking Bad is the story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a mild-mannered but brilliant chemistry teacher who’s had a run of hard luck. He’s never reached his potential as a scientist. His wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) is pregnant with a late-surprise daughter, and his son Walter Jr. (R.J. Mitte) has cerebral palsy. The icing on the cake? On his fiftieth birthday, he’s diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Depressed, financially stressed, and feeling like a failure in life, Walter takes up an offer from his DEA brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) to get “a little excitement” by going on a ridealong to a meth lab bust. He gets much more than he bargains for when, waiting alone in the car, he catches sight of one of his former students, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), fleeing the scene. And suddenly, in an out of character moment, he sees a solution to his crisis – and a way to secure the financial future of his family.
He and Jesse quickly go into the meth business together, but their working relationship is rocky from the start, and beset by crisis after horrific crisis. Between Walter’s exceptional chemistry and Jesse’s street connections, though, they’re soon producing the most coveted product in the Southwest. Of course as their business grows, so does the risk – leading to deeper and more intense criminal behavior at every turn. It also leads to deeper and more complicated entanglements with the underworld, from seedy street dealers to powerful Mexican cartels. Their circle of allies and business partners gradually expands to include sleazy bus-bench lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), inscrutable fixer Mike Ehrmantrout (Jonathan Banks), fastidious criminal mastermind Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), a neurotic distributor (Laura Fraser), and more. Each new connection is another loose thread that may later threaten to unravel Walter’s web of lies and deceptions. But with the ticking clock of cancer driving a newfound sense of freedom, Walter’s ever-escalating involvement gradually begins to change him: from a down-on-his-luck schlub to an utterly ruthless villain.
To go much further into story detail would be criminal, as plot surprise is such a huge weapon in Breaking Bad’s arsenal. But it’s impossible not to discuss structure in a general sense, because Breaking Bad’s approach to structure may be TV history’s most unique and audacious. In a medium often dictated by stasis and sustainability, Breaking Bad is intrinsically about change – it’s a long-form story of transformation, that uses its every moment to incrementally advance the emotional journeys of its characters, and the logistical underpinnings of its world. Even the best antihero TV of the last two decades has stretches of “episode end reset” disease – Tony Soprano or Vic Mackey dodging one more bullet to live another day and maintain their dastardly status quo. But Walter White’s death-defying escapes tend to upset the very landscape of his life, propelling us regularly into new paradigms. The Walter White of the pilot is a far cry from the Walter White of the finale, and everything in between factors into that dramatic change, whether it’s the show’s quiet broods or its explosive moments of violence and suspense.
While the overarching tale is linear, on the episode level the structure is deviously alinear. The teaser segments are often brilliantly crafted flashforward-mysteries, suggesting unforseeably drastic outcomes that the rest of the episode then goes on to unravel. This happens at the season level as well, particularly in the final year when Walter’s downfall is tantalizingly foreshadowed in earlier episodes. If Lost pioneered time-jumping story structure, Breaking Bad perfects it, and I daresay no show in TV history has ever opened and closed its episodes in more riveting fashion. Creator/showrunner Vince Gilligan and his writers not only keep the big picture in focus, but they populate it with memorable dialogue, unforgettable action, and meticulous detail. As far as TV writing goes, it’s an absolute clinic.
That writing is backed up in every department, from its gorgeous and inventive cinematography, to its spot-on sound and music editing, to its often brilliant direction. In a stable that includes the always-interesting Rian Johnson, the standout director for me quickly became Michelle MacLaren, whose episode “One Minute” contains one of the most nervewrackingly suspenseful action sequences I’ve ever seen on film. Her episodes are so stressful that I got to dread seeing her name in the credits, knowing it meant that at some point I was going to be turned inside out.
And of course there’s the sensational acting, particularly from Cranston and Paul, whose pivotal relationship proves to be the fulcrum of the series’ lever. Cranston thoroughly immerses himself in his role, maintaining a core of relatable humanity throughout Walter’s every stage of development: from desperate victim of circumstance, to dubious antihero, to utterly irredeemable villain. It’s a hairsplitting performance that enables you to invest in his plight even as he grows more repulsive and hateful. Aaron Paul nearly matches him with a reverse-transformation, from carefree two-bit punk to conscience-wracked criminal, enslaved by every dark decision of his past. That both are multiple Emmy winners is no shock. But everyone is good: Gunn, Mitte, Betsy Brandt (as Skyler’s nosey sister Marie), and Norris are terrific as the family members most frequently impacted by Walter’s behavior. (At times, Norris’s Hank – whose journey may be the most harrowing, filled with close calls, panic attacks, and PTSD – feels like the show’s secret hero.) On the criminal side, there’s scene-stealing comedy from Odenkirk, and quirky, tough guy gravitas from Banks. (Both will return in a related prequel series, Better Call Saul, which sounds like a very interesting project indeed.)
Breaking Bad’s subject matter, of course, is sure to be a turn-off to the wrong viewer. Its unforgiving drug world, its deliberately unsexy characters, its grim emotional context, and the shocking ugliness of its twists and turns make this an occasionally hard-to-watch, emotionally wrenching experience – especially, I suspect, if you marathon it. I quickly found that watching more than two episodes at a time was simply too shattering; once that rule was established, I only broke it for the home stretch. But anyone with a strong stomach and a keen interest in television story-telling really can’t afford to miss this series. I suspected, from the first moments of its masterful pilot, that watching it would fill a crucial void in my knowledge of the medium – and was I ever right. An absolute masterpiece.