Illustration by Andre Carrilho
I have this friend. Isn’t this the way all stories like this begin? I have this friend, and without going into more detail than is called for, there was a point—let’s say sometime in the last few years, after the economy collapsed—when straits got so dire, when finances were so unforgiving, when there was no more income to make or credit to borrow, that one afternoon he suddenly knew, had he the ability to hack into JP Morgan Chase without risk and add a zero or two to his balance or delete a couple zeroes from his debt, he would have done it in a heartbeat without compunction. This is somebody, I should add, who would never steal a dollar from a stranger on the street; it would never cross his mind to stiff even the most passing of acquaintances who had loaned him money. But in a situation where no other recourse existed within sight of the imagination, a choice between keeping his wife and two kids under a roof and plundering the vault of one of the robber barons of our age was a no-brainer, any formerly held notions of criminal right and wrong steamrolled by the profoundly terrifying realization that at a certain point, life cuts no more slack.
This friend of mine, though—he had nothing on Walter White. The central figure of Breaking Bad, White is a high school teacher who can see the career he might have had as a Nobel Prize chemist disappearing down the fork in the road he never took. With a son who has cerebral palsy and an unplanned daughter on the way, a second job at a car wash slipping from his soapy grasp, and recently greeted by the news that he’s dying of cancer with only months to live, Walt is a Southwestern Job for the Great Recession. His back to the wall and no legally acceptable options at his disposal, Walt joins forces with his most exasperating former student and puts his chemistry to more profitable use, producing “the blue”—the purest meth the DEA (whose ranks include Walt’s brother-in-law) and the Mexican cartel have seen. If for a while the collateral damage of this new entrepreneurship is to people who deserve what they get, like a spreading bloodstain it soon reaches those who don’t.
I’ve decided Breaking Bad may be one of the best TV shows ever, but I had to watch every last episode of the first four seasons to come to that conclusion. In terms of sheer storytelling, it is the most coherent series I’ve seen with the exception of Battlestar Galactica; like that show, Bad feels conceived in total, although given the existential nature of series that survive season to season, that can’t be the case. If creator Vince Gilligan and his writers have had to contrive plot turns in order to write themselves out of corners—as has been true over the years even with superb endeavors like The West Wing, The Sopranos, and Mad Men—I haven’t noticed; every twist seems rooted in what’s come before, every character’s actions born of natural consequences. More than this, a testament to the integrity of the show is that sometimes it’s no fun. On at least one occasion I’ve left the story altogether, unable to take anymore, before being pulled back inexorably, and there are whole scenes I still fast-forward through. This isn’t due to squeamishness over the violence, which is as explicit as any on TV. Rather, the mounting moral compromises become too naked to bear watching, as played out by a splendid cast that includes Aaron Paul as congenital loser Jesse, occasionally emerging as the conscience of the story against all expectation; Anna Gunn as Walt’s wife, Skyler, who finds her rectitude crumbling as readily as that of the husband she judges so harshly; and an array of brilliant character actors like Dean Norris as the DEA brother-in-law whose bravado masks a growing sense of panic, Betsy Brandt as Skyler’s pushy kleptomaniacal sister, Giancarlo Esposito as a meticulous drug lord whose blood runs 32 degrees and dropping, Jonathan Banks as an ex-cop turned Zen assassin, and Bob Odenkirk, who steals every scene he’s in as a sleazy attorney. All these people feel as if they have stories behind them we’ll never hear.
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When Breaking Bad began, Bryan Cranston was known as the nincompoop father from the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle. In this six-degrees-of-separation world, I shave off four or five when it comes to Cranston: He got his start nearly 30 years ago with a community theater that my mother ran in the Valley. Legend has it that he was a pain in the ass who tried to tell everyone how to do their jobs; so perhaps for Cranston the role of a control freak vexed and finally enraged by how life refuses to conform to the predictability of a chemistry experiment is typecasting. The ultimate situationist, Walt rationalizes his escalating corruptions and compartmentalizes lapses that grow more epic in scale as he morphs from the mild mannered to the homicidal with utter conviction, consigning to the attic of the psyche his inner cold-blooded killer. At the end of the second season, watching first with alarm and then calculation the overdose of a young woman who’s tried to blackmail him, Walt crosses a line into the irredeemable, processing the transition with an effortlessness that eludes addict/slacker/self-proclaimed “bad guy” Jesse, who can’t escape his remorse no matter how much meth he takes or how loud he cranks his mega-thousand-buck sound system. In any case, Walt is the single most complex leading character in TV history. Each of his three Emmy Awards for Breaking Bad unassailable, no one is likely to think of Cranston as Malcolm’s dad again.
Of course Cranston and his show need another glowing review like a hole in the head. Let’s take note, then, of what’s gotten lost in much of the acclaim, which is the era that Breaking Bad chronicles and an audience often on the verge of its own ruin in this recession, with righteous larceny in its heart and suspicion that our institutions of higher finance remain untroubled by compassion let alone patriot-ism. Walter White’s is a desperation for our time, as familiar to the rest of us as a face in the mirror; and besides Michael Slovis’s cinematography, which catches the sagebrush and mesas of New Mexico at some hallucinatory pitch between Antonioni and Lynch, Breaking Bad’s evil genius—and I don’t use the term lightly—lies in the way Walt’s desperation keeps us rooting for him long after we’ve ceased to like him, long after we’ve stopped believing he deserves anything good. Part of this is because his core purpose for his progressively terrible deeds remains sincere, even when Walt’s wife delivers the line of the series: “Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family.”
At the close of season four, Walt says, “I won,” and a lesser series would have ended there. Instead the makers of Breaking Bad have announced that the current fifth season, which begins airing this summer, will be the last. For Walt this can only be ominous, implying a grim accounting, a coda of ramifications. In the look on his wife’s face at Walt’s proclamation of victory lies the future: She’s uncertain whether to feel triumph or relief or horror, and so are we. If what finally claims Walt is the cancer that’s been in remission, we no longer can be sure such an outcome is tragic, fitting, or too easy.