By Josh Axelrod
***I will go into a few specific details of events from this show, so SPOILER ALERT***
I had a weird relationship with “Breaking Bad” before I started my binge a little over a month ago. I had tried it a few years ago but was bored by the first few episodes and gave up, admittedly too quickly. Ever since, all I heard about it was that it was god’s gift to television and the greatest show ever and yada yada yada.
I’m usually not a “I’m going to avoid it because everyone loves it” kind of person, but the hype surrounding “Breaking Bad” made me wary of giving it a second shot. How could it be better than “Mad Men” and “Game of Thrones?” Those are, in my opinion, the pinnacle of television dramas, and I just couldn’t understand how a show about an Albuquerque meth lord could even approach them in quality.
Now that I’ve watched all five seasons of “Breaking Bad,” I feel at least partially vindicated. It wasn’t as consistently good from start to finish as either “Mad Men” or “Game of Thrones.” In fact, the first two and a half seasons were well made but pretty boring. Then a flip switched toward the end of Season 3 and, for the rest of its run, “Breaking Bad” reached and sometimes surpassed the bar set by Don Draper and Tyrion Lannister.
For the uninitiated, “Breaking Bad” chronicles the transformation of Walter White (Bryan Cranston, deserving of every Emmy he earned) from mild-mannered high school chemistry science teacher to the Southwest’s most notorious crystal meth kingpin. On his 50th birthday, Walter was diagnosed with lung cancer. Realizing he needed to provide for his family financially after his death, Walter cooked up a scheme to cook meth with a former student of his, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul, who went through the ringer physically and emotionally).
The whole cast is pretty strong, including: R.J. Mitte as Walter Jr., Walt’s son with cerebral palsy (a much better TV kid than either Draper child); Dean Norris as Walt’s DEA agent brother-in-law Hank Schrader (my personal favorite character); Betsy Brandt as Walt’s shrewish sister-in-law Marie Schrader (she grew on me); and last but most definitely not least, Anna Gunn as Walt’s wife Skyler (more on her later).
It’s also worth noting that the setting is as much a character as anything else on this show. You don’t see much mainstream entertainment set in New Mexico, so that makes “Breaking Bad” novel right away. The desert stretches for miles, and the patches of civilization look like the best and worst of small town America. It’s also one of the few shows that felt like it was populated by real people, not actors. That’s a huge compliment.
As I said, the initial conceit of the show was that Walt and Jesse team up to cook and sell meth. It turned out that Walter’s chemistry background allowed him to brew the purest meth on the market, which created a quick demand for his product. As he gained notoriety as the mysterious cook Heisenberg, Walter sunk deeper into a world full of disorder and death. At the same time, he had to hide the truth of his double life from his family, most notably Hank, who began obsessively tracking down Heisenberg.
The first two and a half seasons weren’t particularly interesting television. The acting was solid and the cinematography was cool, but something wasn’t clicking for me. For some reason, I really couldn’t connect with Jesse. Aaron Paul is a fine actor, but the character of Jesse Pinkman didn’t become a real, functioning human being until Season 5. Until that point, he was an active problem for Walt, always screwing something up because he was a meth head moron.
I also want to use this opportunity to dispel the notion that this show knew how to do bottle episodes (episodes shot in one location with only a few actors to cut costs). Season 2’s “Four Days Out” and Season 3’s “Fly” were just simply not good TV. The first involved Jesse destroying his RV’s battery and stranding himself and Walt in the desert (Jesse was just the worst), and the latter showed Walt and Jesse — two grown men — try and fail to kill a fly for 45 minutes. I learned nothing new about their relationship from either episode.
Here’s my real theory for those first two and a half of seasons though. One of the reasons I love “Mad Men” is that the stakes are relatively low (it’s an ad agency in the 1960s), yet everything feels like it means so much. Those first few seasons of “Breaking Bad” were the only time I’ve ever thought to myself, A lot is happening but none of it feels very weighty. That sounds super pretentious, but that’s my logic and I’m sticking to it.
And then, toward the end of Season 3, it all started to mean something. Walt was in too deep with a terrifying meth distributor named Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito, one of the best TV villain ever) and, for the first time, I was afraid for his life, Jesse’s and his entire family’s. The situation just kept escalating from there, making Walt more and more desperate.
It was also around this point that Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) and Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) had their roles expanded. The former was a badass fixer who was capable of going Liam Neeson on anyone who messed with his money or granddaughter. The latter was Albuquerque’s famous fast-talking lawyer and Walt’s business partner. These two rounded out the ensemble and each added their own energy to a show that needed an injection of it. I’m definitely going to tune into “Better Call Saul” when it premieres on Feb. 9.
I’ve never seen a show do cliffhangers this well. How did people wait a year after Season 3 with Jesse pointing his gun in Gale Boetticher’s (David Costabile) face? Or after Hank discovered Walt’s secret at the end of Season 5 Part 1? Or when Todd (Jesse Plemons) shot that kid in the head? Or when Walt ran over two of Gus’s men to protect Jesse? Or when Walt watched Jane (Krysten Ritter) die and did nothing to help her? I could go on, but trust me when I say I’m happy I binged “Breaking Bad” with the entire series on Netflix.
I also want to go on record to say that Skyler White was a badass and a fantastic, nuanced character. I don’t understand all the hate that was thrust on her and prompted Anna Gunn to write this New York Times column defending her character. Everything Skyler did, as opposed to Walt, was to protect her family from both the law and her unpredictable husband who once told her, “I am the danger.” By the end, she realized what a monster Walt was and stood up to him with a knife in one of the most harrowing scenes ever. It seems to me that people forgot that Walt was a liar, killer and drug dealer while bashing his wife for not being okay with that.
I have no regrets about this binge. I finally understand what all the hype was about, even if it didn’t quite live up to the expectations. Despite a slow start, “Breaking Bad” ended on one of the highest notes ever (Get it? Highest?). Walter White will go down as a TV anti-hero on par with Don Draper. And the final two seasons of “Breaking Bad” are as good as TV gets. Bitch.