Breaking Bad is considered to be one of the greatest television shows ever made, yet I'm one of those people who finally decided to check it out after its final episode aired in 2013. The moment I got interested in the show was during a random visit to a video store. I was wandering through the aisles for DVD and Blu-ray disc sets of television shows and stopped in front of the Breaking Bad box sets, from "The Complete First Season" to "The Fifth Season" and "The Final Season" (the fifth and final seasons are actually two halves of season five). I noticed how the main character depicted on each cover gradually appeared meaner and darker as I looked at the box covers in order from left to right. Then I read about how the main character is a high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with lung cancer and decides to cook crystal meth on the side in order to pay for his cancer treatment and leave money for his family after he dies. Right away, I was hooked on the concept, because this would provide a fascinating character study, made especially intriguing by the character's transformation from good to bad.
Before I discuss the plot and characters of Breaking Bad, let me first describe the show's trademark technique of drawing the audience in. The opening scene of each episode before the show's title card acts as a teaser. Often, it presents something that leaves a question mark in our minds so that we must continue watching to discover more. It could involve a glimpse into the end of the episode, a prologue that is not explained until later, a suspenseful sequence, or even a look at a future episode. Other times, the teaser shows something up close, a flashback, or anything else that makes the fictional world more fascinating. After the teaser, you have the title card as the show's theme tune plays: a short piece that makes you think of both psychedelic drugs and the Wild West. (In a way, Breaking Bad is a modern-day Western, because it takes place in around the desert setting of Albuquerque, New Mexico, portrays the outlaw versus the law officer, and includes an occasional desert standoff or gunfight.)
The central character of Breaking Bad is Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the high school teacher with lung cancer I mentioned above. He is a middle-aged man with a wife named Skyler (Anna Gunn) and a teenage son with cerebral palsy named Walter "Flynn" White Jr. (RJ Mitte), as well as brother-in-law Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) and sister-in-law Marie Schrader (Betsy Brandt). It is through Hank that Walter learns about the profitability of the illicit drug trade, because Hank is a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent who, one day, lets Walk ride along while the DEA busts a meth lab. That's when Walter decides to use his chemistry knowledge to cook crystal meth for the extra cash he desperately needs. He also, by chance, runs into Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), one of his former students who has gotten into the drug business, and forms a partnership.
The first two seasons feature episodes that mix drama with dark comedy. Walter and Jesse form a meth lab in a motorhome that they drive out into the desert to cook meth without detection. However, they encounter two guys who become dangerous, forcing Walter to kill in self-defense. As dramatic as this is, disposing one of the victims involves a funny scene. Walter tells Jesse to buy a large container made of a specific type of plastic, one that will not degrade when a corrosive chemical will be used to disintegrate the corpse. Frustrated with this challenging task, Jesse decides to dissolve the corpse in the bathtub in his upstairs bathroom. Later, Walter and Jesse watch as part of Jesse's first floor ceiling collapses, followed by a mixture of pieces of the upstairs bathroom, the corrosive chemical, and the bloody remains of the victim. Needless to say, Walter and Jesse painstakingly clean the mess up to leave no trace of death.
Several other things are happening at the same time. Walter has to come up with excuses for his wife to conceal his drug-related activities, while cooking in the lab and encountering drug dealers and buyers who are amazed by how pure his product is. It does get harder to lie to Skyler, but Walter still finds ways. For example, after Walter is kidnapped for a long time, he comes up with an absurd but funny coverup. He walks into a supermarket and strips himself naked, so that when he is arrested and given a psychiatric evaluation, he can claim that he experienced a dissociative fugue, having no memory of what he has done probably because of the stress of his cancer diagnosis. Meanwhile, Hank the DEA agent is investigating the new pure meth product that has hit the streets, without knowing that Walter is behind it. In one amusing scene, Hank reviews security footage of Walter and Jesse stealing a chemical barrel and, without knowing it's them, laughs about it because the two thieves are stupid enough to carry the barrel, not simply roll it along the ground.
As the show moves along, new supporting characters enter the cast to bring drama and/or humor. For the latter, the best example is a crooked lawyer named Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). This guy is definitely a goofball character, with his thinning hair, off-beat personality, and a willingness to not only defend his client's rights but also provide any kind of assistance for their criminal activities. Saul does it all under the guise of a legitimate law firm with a catchy slogan: "Better Call Saul." That's not to say this character brings no drama. On the contrary, Saul is in the middle of things even when they take a nasty turn. There's a moment where Hank is very close to catching Walter and Jesse, but Saul helps out by having an assistant call Hank, pretending to be a cop reporting that his wife is in the hospital, so that Hank leaves in panic while Walter and Jesse make their escape.
But if you want 100% serious drama, look no further than Gustavo "Gus" Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). This guy is probably my favorite supporting character of Breaking Bad. To the regular person, he is a serious but friendly businessman who manages a Los Pollos Hermanos chicken restaurant, but to members of the drug underworld, he is a serious and deadly drug kingpin. Walter comes into contact with Gus in a drug deal that gives Walter his first million-dollar profit. The business relationship goes further when Gus hires Walter and lets him work in a large-scale meth lab hidden underneath an industrial laundry facility, a big step up from the small-scale motorhome meth lab. Still, Gus is not a man to mess with. In a terrifying scene, Gus uses a box cutter to kill another man, by standing behind the victim, holding the blade deep in the victim's chest, and maintaining that grip as the victim is flailing and bleeding to death.
Whereas seasons one and two have some drama and dark comedy, seasons three through five are mired in dark drama. There is where major events disrupt the lives of various characters. Walter loses his job as a teacher, Hank is severely shot and nearly killed by thugs, Skyler really suspects something is wrong with her husband, Walter increasingly resorts to murder in order to protect himself, and the son of one of Jesse's girlfriends is nearly poisoned to death. Events that seem to be unrelated to Walter are, in fact, connected to him in some way. In addition, as Walter advances rank in the drug underworld, he works with other characters, including a former cop named Mike (Jonathan Banks) and a businesswoman named Lydia (Laura Fraser).
Throughout most of the series, I admired much of what I was watching, such that my rating for the show had been a steady 9 out of 10 stars. I thought it would be my final rating for the series overall. But then it changed, once I watched the last eight episodes of the series that comprise "The Final Season." You see, for those episodes, the emotional intensity gets ratcheted up to maximum. The already intense drama become explosive and unbearably intense. You have relationships shattering, shocking death and destruction, major emotional disturbances, and, at the center of it all, Walter sinking to the moral abyss. The character, at this point, is a nearly unrecognizable shadow of his former self, with tiny amounts of humanity left, if any at all. If you want a real great example of all of this, watch the third to last episode titled "Ozymandias." This episodes features a climax that will make you gasp, scream, cry, and stay frozen in place as you witness the horrifying events that ensue. As a result, it is undoubtedly the best episode of Breaking Bad (and perhaps the greatest television episode ever in the history of television). But don't worry. Even if each of the last eight episodes has at least one emotionally-charged scene, you still have quieter moments that allow the audience to relax and reflect.
With all of this, it's time to address the big question. What makes Walter White transform from a sympathetic cancer patient to an unsympathetic criminal? This is something that can be analyzed and interpreted in multiple ways, and I have my own answers as well. To me, one major factor is the nature of the drug underworld. It's an illicit business where certain characters will not hesitate to take your life, meaning that one must kill in self-defense in order to survive. Walter has to do this a couple of times, and such experiences could certainly toughen him to the point where he must kill first before his rivals take the first shot. Other than that, Walter may have character flaws that are initially hidden but later revealed by the power he gains as a drug kingpin: a craving for money in amounts he has never had before (even as Walter can safely quit the business, he chooses to keep going), pride in his creation (Walter expresses disapproval of other people taking credit for his very pure meth product), a stubborn refusal to accept help from others (particularly with legal options to pay for cancer treatment), a strong need to not leave his family in debt (which is admirable, until Walter's family is put in danger), and a belief that he has nothing to lose as a drug kingpin if he's dying from cancer anyway (when, in fact, Walter loses a lot in terms of morality).
The success of Breaking Bad stems greatly from an outstanding cast, whether it's the principal or supporting cast. Everyone does a phenomenal job, so I won't go into detail about every actor and actress's performance. I would, however, like to talk a little more about the relationship between Walter and Jesse. Thanks to Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, respectively, these two characters truly come alive, both as allies and as enemies. At times, they work together in their joint business. Yet, they can be at odds with one another, even from the beginning. For instance, Walter may express dissatisfaction when Jesse doesn't get the formula right, or have arguments regarding profit and cost analysis of their meth. It has to do with the nature of the characters, with Walter being the book-smart one and Jesse being the street-smart one. But interestingly, it is Jesse who may emerge as the righteous one, because after a long period of time, Jesse still has regard for human life while Walter gradually has less of it.
Lastly, I give credit to the writers and directors of the show's 62 episodes, including creator Vince Gilligan. They all help create plotlines that intersect, interweave, collide, and twist in many interesting and unexpected ways. Yet, they keep it manageable to follow instead of letting it all be confusingly convoluted. Furthermore, all the scenes brought to life are opportunities for us to know who the characters really are instead of making us accept them as one-dimensional. This is true for recurring minor characters as much as the regular main characters.
So after seeing the row of DVD covers at the video store and checking out the full series over several months, I could not help but take a deep breath, smile, and applaud. Breaking Bad is no doubt a television masterpiece. It's hard to see it as such if you watch only some of the episodes, or even most of the episodes (particularly before the final eight). You have to watch it all from the first ("Pilot") to the last ("Felina"), so that you can take a step back, look at the major sections of the series, and fully appreciate the gradual transformations of the characters and the overall tone. Only then can you really take away the ultimate cautionary lesson of this dark tale: no amount of money is worth the sacrifice of morality and human life. Overall, Breaking Bad shatters people's expectations, with awesome results.
Anthony's Rating: 10/10
(Review originally published at http://www.anthonysfilmreview.com/Other/Breaking_Bad.htm)