Breaking Bad (2008 – 2013)

"It's Heisenberg" "You're goddamn right!"

When you’re the one person amongst a group of others who hasn’t taken part in something the larger group has, there are two natural responses: either go out and get on board, or move swiftly into defiance and determination to never engage with it.

I did this with Game of Thrones, having watched the first episode and not really gotten involved too much, while everyone else became slaves to the cult. When my Facebook news feed exploded in anguish one night over something called a “red wedding” I sat back smugly enjoying my torment-free night while those around me appeared to crumble.

Then of course, I ended up drinking the kool-aid and responded with similar shock to a woman getting stabbed in the baby and now consider myself one of the hordes eagerly awaiting season four.

Breaking Bad was much the same, only to a relentless degree. Whereas the ardent fans of Game of Thrones could admit that maybe the show wasn’t to everyone’s taste, it seems the Breaking Bad-ites considered it an evangelical rite of passage to get you on board. No one had a mild word to say about it. It was either the best television show ever made, or they hadn’t seen it either.

Truth be told, my reticence with Breaking Bad came about simply by not having got on board during its first few seasons and growing more aware of the fact that I would need to devote time to it, and time is not something I have a lot of in amidst my busy schedule of work and lazing around at home.

I had seen the pilot – it hadn’t sucked me in immediately, but I also knew that most premium dramas require a few episodes to get on board. Had I not been sick off school for a few days with little else unwatched in my DVD collection, I doubt I’d have ever become a fan of Rome, but with a couch-restricted ability to move in my ill health I mainlined the first season in two days. Though I wasn’t immediately sucked in with Breaking Bad, I knew it had potential – I promised myself I’d return to it someday. For many of my friends, this was not adequate, and it was impressed upon me at every turn that I was living a ghost of a life without experiences of Breaking Bad occupying suitable space in my mind.

Clearly, I watched it. I knew what a mistake I’d made by holding out for so long on Game of Thrones and with the relentlessly enthusiastic urging of my friends to also see it, I made the effort to get through at least the first season. And I quickly got on board with the rest of them, and now I can begrudgingly say that, yes, it’s one of the best television shows ever made.

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Perhaps the greatest strength of Breaking Bad is its consistency and devotion to quality. Over the course of five seasons and 62 episodes, there’s barely an episode that wastes a moment of time. More strikingly, over the course of 62 episodes, everything is maintained, by which I mean that the story builds and progresses over the course of the show, not just jumping from season-arc to season-arc. That’s not to say it’s a show that only has one story to tell, but it’s rare to see a series introduce something in its first season and carry it all the way through to the end.

Characters are built up over the series and events that affect them at one point actually make a continuing impression on them as the show plays out – there’s no status quo that gets reset week-to-week (which is common even in some of my favourite series) and the writing is (almost) always able to tailor the plotlines in such a way that they’re believable while still holding enough of that audience-appeal gold.

The basic concept of the story is nothing new – Walter White’s life-changing cancer diagnosis is cut from the same cloth as Lester Burnham meeting his daughter’s hot cheerleader friend. The difference is in the execution, and Breaking Bad is perhaps the best testament in recent television history to showing that you don’t need to always be doing something new and original, just as long as the stuff you’re doing that’s been done before is done well.

Bryan Cranston is every bit as good as everyone has said he is as Walter White. It’s a performance that almost faultlessly hits the mark at every occasion, and as much as hyperbole can reign supreme, it’s one of the best pieces of acting out there. The duality of terminal-Dad Walter White and druglord-genius Heisenberg could easily have been a two-note performance where one is called on when the other’s not needed, but Cranston switches between the two like a chameleon, making you fully believe that these radically different people both inhabit the same man.

Aaron Paul is as equally good as Jesse Pinkman. Though given less to do in terms of growing as a character (Jesse does go on a definite progression over the course of the series, but he’s also the most self-realised of all of the characters, even though he’d never know it) Paul throws himself into the role with a ferocity that makes Jesse one of the most sympathetic characters in the show, and definitely the shining-example of the show’s major theme that “the things you do affect others.”

Now I say the following fully aware that it might be interpreted as going against the status quo for the sake of it, but hear me out: I liked Skyler White. Anna Gunn was given the unenviable task of playing the voice-of-reason to a character who’s celebrated for his notorious badassery. I don’t think any of the hate that I’ve seen poured on Skyler (and sadly on Gunn herself) is particularly deserved; in the universe of the show, she’s married to a man who’s making a dangerous and criminal living off the manufacture of a drug that destroys people’s lives. Her natural response would (and should!) be to ensure her own safety and the safety of her children – but do a quick meme-search on Breaking Bad and you’ll see thousands of images depicting her as the worst of humanity for doing this. How dare she be an independent woman!

The supporting cast are all superb as well, but to list them all would be to make this review gargantuan. I particularly liked that Walt Jr. was written as a character who had a disability, but that his cerebral palsy informed as much about his character as it would have if they’d written him as being on the basketball team: present as an aspect, but not the sole defining trait. I liked that Hank was able to be rewritten from the show’s gregarious comic-relief into something of a tragicomic anti-hero as the series went on. I liked that Gustavo Fring was one of the most ruthless and lethal characters who has this massive aura of menace surrounding him, but that it’s also most accurate to describe him as prim and proper.

The direction over the series also varies from the great to the amazing, and it was a nice surprise to see how versatile the series could be when, by all my first impressions, it could have easily become Suburban Gangsters: The Criminal Career of Walter White. But the strongest element of this show, above it’s spectacular performances, fantastic direction, astoundingly well-chosen soundtrack and excellent style, is its writing. The show never resorts to clichés, though it does resort to tropes. But tropes are tools, and in this case, the writers used them to build one hell of a great series.

Season Four is easily the show’s strongest, and it’s a perfect example of how the writing in the show works as its greatest strength. I won’t spoil the details, but as each plot thread is gathered and woven over the course of the first ten episodes, they all come thundering into connection in ‘Crawlspace’ which executes one of the most thrilling final acts of any story I have ever seen – as everything falls apart and Walter seems at the very centre of it all, he snaps in a moment of unhinged mayhem, leading to a final scene that left me breathless and aching for the next episode. It couldn’t have done this if everything hadn’t been so precisely set up by the writers (or maybe it wasn’t precise – maybe it was just excellent luck and they pulled it off, but even so, what luck!) and pulled off with such expertise that the final two episodes of that series ride on almost solely from that final sequence.

Breaking Bad is not a show I was actively set against, but I didn’t expect to be won over by it as much as I was. I expected to feel the whip of hype-backlash and not appreciate it to anywhere near the same degree that my friends had. I was wrong.

By now you’ve probably heard enough about it to make up your own mind as to whether or not it’s your cup of tea. If you’re on the fence though, I’d urge you to give it a chance, because – much as you’re probably sick of hearing this – it’s one of the best TV shows out there.