“If you don’t know who I am, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly…”
And so ends the first episode in the final (half) season of arguably, one of the greatest shows in the history of television. Critics and bloggers are not exactly known for their restraint when gushing about “the best” this, or “the worst” that. And yet, almost universally, people are in agreement that Breaking Bad is a groundbreaking show in television history; a show that transcends the cliché beats and tropes of traditional TV storytelling. Who could have imagined when this show began, that an actor best known as Seinfeld’s perverted dentist and Malcolm’s befuddled dad would turn in a performance that comfortably sits in the pantheon of all-time acting turns (though we do get a sense of his eventual fashion choices). It is a testament to Bryan Cranston’s range as an actor that we can see aspects of the manic energy he exuded as “dad” in Malcolm in the Middle during early seasons of Breaking Bad, only to have them be completely subsumed by Heisenberg.
Breaking Bad was never simply a show about drugs and the men who make them. What started off as a simple premise (what happens when a man whose life is on a clock, tries to provide for his family by cooking meth) has evolved into a story that veers from dark gangster drama to whimsical buddy comedy to family dramedy and back, in a seemingly effortless manner. Each season adds emotional complexity to its core characters, even as the show continually takes characters off of its chess board.
It was never a surprise that Walter White would eventually be seduced by the power offered to him by the drug trade. Creator Vince Gilligan had already made that point clear in his oft repeated quote about the show, “You take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface.” But even with the conclusion of this show never in doubt, it was always compelling to watch the devolution of Walter from the man that he was, to the man that he currently is. Walt isn’t someone who suddenly unleashes all the “evil” inside of him, once he makes the initial decision to “break bad.” Every step Walt takes is a slow and measured one towards the reckoning that he will surely face. Each decision he made, especially in the early seasons, could be seen as a rational, even pragmatic choice to protect himself and his family. And Walt apologists could always find reasons to defend their anti-hero. He had to poison Tuco to protect himself and Jesse. He didn’t actually kill Jane. He just didn’t do anything to save her. He ran over those dealers in his car to save Jesse’s life. If he didn’t kill Gus, he’d forever be under his thumb, fearing for his life. But as each of these seemingly barbaric decisions are made, we see a little bit more of Walt’s humanity slip away. The hunger for survival becomes a hunger for power.
And on the other side of this unlikely partnership, we see Jesse Pinkman develop an empathy that is hinted at in earlier episodes, but now appears fully formed. He no longer cares about the “blood money” he’s earned in the meth business. All he sees is the carnage that his partnership with Walt has left behind, and wants out. But, as is so often the case with those who end up in Heisenberg’s orbit, that is no simple task. Though Walt is no doubt the main character of this show, Jesse is the person that viewers can now relate to. And while there is almost no doubt how Walt’s story will ultimately end, Jesse’s final story remains yet to be seen.
But what really makes this gripping character story a TV classic is the way that Gilligan and his writing staff has coupled these fascinating characters with a narrative arc that is always surprising. Gilligan holds nothing back in his plotting, eschewing plot fillers and throwaway storylines whose only purpose is to extend the endgame. Take this recent premiere episode for example. <Spoiler Alert!> After Hank’s realization that Walt was indeed Heisenberg, I fully expected the next three episodes to cover Hank’s investigation into Walt’s, slowly gathering the evidence he needed to close the net around Walt’s empire, before revealing the truth. Instead, we are given yet another classic Breaking Bad scene where Walt confronts Hank about the GPS transmitter, and well, Hank punches Walt in the face (though he might as well have been punching me in the face, given the shock I felt at his reaction). Now, it would seem, that all hell is about to break loose. And really, there’s no telling what is going to happen from here. Gilligan and company decided to dispense with a traditional story that would dictate a gradual buildup towards a climactic showdown between Hank and Walt. Instead, they decided to immediately crank the dial to 11, and let the characters sort it out for themselves. In the hands of a lesser showrunner, I would worry that Gilligan blew his proverbial story load way too early. But if there’s one thing that following Breaking Bad these past five seasons has taught me, it’s that just when you think you’ve figured the show out, it becomes something else entirely. Walter White has already warned us all to tread lightly. But it’s clear that Vince Gilligan has no intention of following his own creation’s advice.