“Expertly written, virtuosic with its direction, and flawlessly performed, Breaking Bad is everything you could want in a drama. Critics will spend the next decade dissecting and arguing about what made it great, but the reasons are endless and already well documented.” – Nick Harley
Season 1: 7.5/10
Season 2: 8.0/10
Season 3: 9.0/10
Season 4-5(Part I): 9.5/10
Season 5 (Part II): 10/10
Series Overall: 9.0/10
Intense, thrilling, brilliant, thought-provoking and emotional, Breaking Bad is often deemed as one of the best American TV series ever produced. Words of compliment have never been so powerless in front of throngs of series admirers worshiping its plot, characterisation and directing. There are indeed many reasons why I like this series: the brilliant setting, authentic performances, surprising (yet somehow expected) plot turnings, and a story that never allows a single proper breath (not to even mention that the series only gets better towards the end). Each of these areas of production can potentially be expanded into a long analytical essay deciphering its unparalleled success. In my review, however, I would like to just focus on two particular aspects of Breaking Bad that impress me the most and definitely push the story far beyond a mediocre crime or family drama: its characterisation and moral theme.
Contrary to some other critically acclaimed TV series in recent years such as Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad unpacks its story with very few main characters. In fact, the main casts keep their major roles throughout, and audience never feel bored. The secret of the characters’ lasting lure is how the main casts evolve in an ingenious and convincing way. The inner layers of major characters have rarely been so complicated, sophisticated and intriguing in the history of American TV series.
Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a high school chemistry teacher and definitely a loser, had to live with his fierce, demanding wife, Skyler White (Anna Gunn) and an intellectually deficient son, Walter White Jr. (RJ Mitte). To make things worse, he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer at his early fifties. Desperate to leave some money to his family after his death, he decided to cook meth with his former student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), although his brother-in-law, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), happened to be a DEA agent. As Walter stepped into the pool of crime, he gradually faced no turning-back but went deeper into that pool. Walter directly or indirectly caused the death of Krazy-8, Jane Margolis, Gale Boetticher, Gustavo Fring, Mike Ermantraut and Jack Welker (together with his gang). His attitude towards killing people gradually changed. This psychological transition is definitely the most drastic among all the casts, and perhaps one of the most adventurous among all TV characters I have watched. The writers gamble on audience reception as they make the leading role in the show cruel, selfish and scary.
Yet, the character development of Walter White has received universal acclaim from critics and audience, with most of them praising its authenticity and subtlety. (The episode ‘Fly’ in Season Four is entirely used to metaphorically describe the inner struggle of Walter as his actions and plans became increasingly criminal. Devoting an entire episode just for one character transition is so rare on TV these days and extremely memorable.) As the character grew darker, Walter’s relationship with others gradually changed. His wife changed from controlling Walter to worrying about his safety and eventually to fearing her husband as if he was a ruthless monster. Jesse, his son-like partner, repelled Walter as he killed more and more people and struggled between feelings of admiration and hatred when he saw Walter. Walter also gradually became the more powerful and tough character when comparing with Hank. The writers of Breaking Bad do take character transitions seriously, and with impressive effort, they skilfully and purposefully plant certain events to support character development. Undoubtedly, the writers win the gamble.
Another character whom I want to discuss is Jesse Pinkman. When I watch him in the first season, I believe that he is little more than an uneducated and somehow idiotic drug addict who cannot think rationally, perceive the big picture or make sound decisions. I am indeed proven wrong. The character development of Jesse is equally successful, if not more, as compared to Walter White’s transition. Towards later seasons, I am surprised by the depth of the character. As Aaron Paul pointed out during an interview, Jesse was someone with a big heart but stepped into the wrong track, a sentiment that I cannot agree more. Jesse is definitely more than an idiotic drug-addict. His kindness and innocence are consistently and explicitly depicted throughout the entire series. Audience sympathy also gradually shifts from Walter to Jesse. His love for innocent kids and care for his lovers resonate intimately with viewers and gradually become the moral centre of the series. The contrast between Walter and Jesse has created dramatic conflicts and greatly increased the complexity of their relationship, which only makes the series more intriguing. In the end, Jesse could not agree with Walter on his cruel acts and resented him for poisoning Broke. Yet, he still hesitated to kill his partner. He cried and laughed simultaneously in his last shot, which is one of the most authentic and moving moments in the series.
In an interview with The New York Times, creator Vince Gilligan said the larger lesson of the series is that “actions have consequences”. Several critics points out that the series deliberately makes the difference, or the boundary, between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ obscure. What make a man ‘bad’ – his actions, motives, or conscious decisions – is the central question that drives Gilligan when writing the series and certainly deserves critical examination.
One interesting fictional set-up brought upfront many times in the series is that Walter’s lawyer, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), knew a friend who could wipe out one’s actions entirely, give him a new identity and help him start a different life, as long as he is willing to pay a large amount of cash. This set-up served as the last resort for Walt when he could no longer bear the consequences of his actions, ensure his own survival or protect his family. However, there was no way that he could get away so easily. When he wanted to escape the first time, he had insufficient cash as his wife, being afraid of tax authority check-ups, used the money to pay tax for Ted, her former lover. When he wanted to escape after Hank was killed, he made it but he was sent to a cold, isolated place where he could do nothing but miss his family and contemplate his actions with guilt.
I sense that Gilligan’s intension on this set-up is to suggest that living without the past (mistakes or burdens) is only possible for those without any responsibilities (like Saul Goodman, who was the only one in the series successfully escaped). People, with just a matter of time, have to live with their choices. Walter, despite being despised by his son, had to go back and leave the money to his family while saving Jesse from Jack and his gang. He wanted to apologise to his wife for the last time that he did all these for himself, after he finally realised his selfishness hidden inside the beautiful excuse “I deal drugs to financially support my family”. He wanted to see his children for one more time. Walter died saving Jesse from gun shots in a drug-manufacturing lab while touching the equipments in the lab with much nostalgia and Badfinger’s Baby Blue playing in the background:
Guess I got what I deserve
Kept you waiting there, too long my love
All that time, without a word
Didn’t know you’d think, that I’d forget, or I’d regret
The special love I have for you
My baby blue
Although Walter’s wishes were mostly fulfilled in the end, his family members and Jesse could never go back to their original life or live like nothing happened. The finale, perhaps one of the best ever produced, has a sad feeling and yet a deep sense of satisfaction and resolution at the same time. I am convinced that everything has to end in this way, with a bittersweet goodbye. The theme of the series gets powerfully elevated in the final season, revealing an important life lesson for everyone, good and bad.
It is hard to say whether this is a happy or sad ending, just like it is hard to fairly testify Walter White. Walter was once a loser who wanted to live for himself and do something he enjoyed. He did illegal business out of the wonderful intension to support his family. He killed others out of the natural instinct of survival. In the last season, at his darkest moment, he still begged Jack to save Hank; to my surprise, he was willing to give up all his money for Hank’s life simply because Hank was from his family, although Hank would not hesitate to arrest him. Humanity, with its associates such as love, pride, cruelty, and selfishness, has seldom been so ruthlessly revealed and utilised to create such brilliant, thought-provoking moments in a single story and guide the story to an inevitable end. It is the eternal theme that makes Breaking Bad so enjoyable, successful and important.
Goodbye, Mr. White, and thank you.