2008, TV

Breaking Bad (2008)

This review obviously contains spoilers.

Breaking Bad is a product of what we might call the “second wave” of the golden age of television; the time when other channels besides HBO got in on the act of making movie-quality, mostly serialized TV, with boundary-pushing subject matter.

Because Breaking Bad first premiered nearly a decade after The Sopranos launched the era, it was obviously made with the benefit of the lessons learned from the first wave shows. Because of this, I suspect it will hold up a little better than, say, the first season of The Sopranos, which now looks like it was made in another time.

Many people have talked about Breaking Bad as one of the greatest TV shows of all-time, or perhaps the greatest. It is definitely not the greatest fictional TV show of all time – that award should probably go to The Wire if we’re being honest about it – but it is probably the greatest “thriller” TV has ever produced, and it is one of TV’s great black comedies.

Like most great drama, Breaking Bad tells us something the human condition: it shows us how crime actually happens. Most people aren’t born criminals or don’t one day wake up and say “Hey, I think I’ll be a meth kingpin!” Most criminals become criminals because of circumstances and the poor choices they make in response to those circumstances. Walt – though he is an extreme case – and Jesse are far more representative of actual criminals than Todd, who is a total psychopath and seems to have been “made” that way. (In real life, a small portion of people clinical psychopaths but most people are just trying to go about getting through life and most people are going to rationalize their bad – and good decisions –  which psychopaths and sociopaths do not need to do.)

So we have perhaps the best fictional TV story of how someone can go from “good” to “evil” simply by the choices they make when faced with difficult circumstances.

It’s interesting; I know a few people who have suggested Walt was always “evil.” I think this is an odd and overly traditional – i.e. religious – interpretation. Sure, we all have the potential to do terrible things, but that is only because there are no actual extra-human moral laws forcing our hands. Really, most of us are just normal people who do not face terrible circumstances every day. Trying to claim that Walt was always evil ignores the central message of the show: that the failings of healthcare and drug policy created the desperation that sent Walt to alternative means of earning money. It is only when he succeeded in transgressing that he began to lose his moral compass.

So, on the whole, the show is effective and, as I said, stands as one of the great thrillers in the history of the medium.

I had two major problems with it, neither of which I think makes the show on the whole particularly weak. I still think it was probably the best “thriller” in TV history, as I already said.

  1. First, the longer the show went on, the harder it was for me to suspend my disbelief: Walt and Jesse should have been caught or killed multiple times and what we might excuse for luck once or twice got hard to take eventually, especially when it came to Mike, a professional who should have easily handled or avoided Walt.
  2. Second, and for me much more serious, was the ending. If this show wanted to make a real statement about the power of circumstances and bad decisions in crime, Walt should have never been allowed to complete his revenge. Remember, he was dying of cancer. A shocking, uncompromising, unconventional and incredible thing to do would have been to let us see Walt’s plans for revenge, and to buy into how he was going to accomplish them, only to see Walt succumb to life: to cancer, to some associate of Tuco’s or Gus’ or Mike’s who had been missed or, frankly, to have been hit by a bus. Allowing Walt to achieve his end exactly how he saw fit – to get closure with Skylar and to provide for his children – added an element of poetic justice to the show that felt, to me, totally inappropriate and out of tone with everything that came before. I can’t help but feel disappointed that Walt was able to free Jesse and die on his own terms. He should have failed at his final mission. That would have been incredible and would have made it, in my mind, one of the greatest TV shows in history.


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