Created by: Vince Gilligan || Written by: Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, George Mastras, Sam Catlin, Moira Walley-Beckett, Thomas Schnauz
Directed by: Michelle MacLaren, Adam Bernstein, Vince Gilligan, Colin Bucksey, Michael Slovis, Bryan Cranston, Terry McDonough, Johan Renck, Rian Johnson || Starring: Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, R. J. Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, Steven Michael Quezada, Jonathan Banks, Giancarlo Esposito
No. of Seasons: 5 || No. of Episodes: 62
Breaking Bad was one of a trio of trendsetting shows from the basic cable network, AMC, including Mad Men (2007-2015) and The Walking Dead (2010-current), that dominated American popular culture during the late 2000s-2010s before the rise of Internet-based streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. All three could be considered loose descendants of the televised anti-hero made popular by the groundbreaking HBO drama, The Sopranos (1999-2007), Breaking Bad (henceforth, BB) and Mad Men in particular. Whether self-aware or not, these shows were arguably the first wave of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) “cover songs” if you will, in popular television, as well as the last trendsetting cultural phenomena created entirely for cable. Unlike Mad Men, which prompted as much political backlash as Game of Thrones (GoT, 2011-2019) and declined in ratings during its final seasons, and The Walking Dead, which cycled through multiple showrunners after its debut and has since become a shadow of its former self, BB only grew in popularity and critical recognition throughout its tenure. Its United States viewership plots like an exponential growth curve, while its satisfying finale is regarded by some as the industry standard for concluding a dramatic, high-profile television show.
BB’s reputation aside, my biggest problem with the show is related to most fans’ ubiquitous complaints about Anna Gunn’s female lead, Skyler White; she is perhaps written as unsympathetic or unlikable by design, given how she’s Bryan Cranston’s principal foil to becoming a full-time drug lord during the show’s first three seasons. My complaints stretch beyond Gunn’s realistic yet annoying portrayal of a generic housewife, however, and have to do with my conclusion that Cranston’s lead, Walter White, should’ve jettisoned his entire immediate family — including R. J. Mitte as his son, Walter White, Jr. — to streamline his protagonist’s development (i.e. “breaking bad”) and better focus the show’s primary crime drama plot. Put in simplest terms, I never found Cranston’s chemistry with Mitte or Gunn interesting, nor much cared for the fate of their supporting characters. The morality play behind Cranston’s transformation from a weak, bitter man into an extraordinary, yet evil one, is not subtle, and did not require dozens of episodes’ worth of juxtaposition with his oh so innocent, family lifestyle. No viewer could ever confuse Cranston’s selfish descent into criminal violence as “providing for his family,” and yet creator Vince Gilligan milked that surface-level theme for nearly the entire show.
This is in stark contrast to the portrayal of the domestic lives of Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano or of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in True Detective’s The Long Bright Dark (2014), which were crucial to those main characters’ development and the narrative momentum of their respective series. Other smaller complaints I have with BB include the show’s repeated use of point-of-view or 1st-person shots for no reason at all, repeated use of handheld cameras for dialogue, burning multiple episodes in multiple seasons on costar Jesse Pinkman’s (Aaron Paul) various guilt complexes, and Cranston leaving incriminating evidence in his bathroom as the sole, contrived justification for the latter half of season five.
Despite all that, BB’s entertainment value is considerable even when its main characters are wasting valuable screentime justifying their tardiness to family obligations. Its depiction of an educated yet otherwise ordinary man clashing with the criminal underworld, forsaking his unfulfilling lower middle-class lifestyle following a sudden terminal cancer diagnosis, is fascinating. Cranston’s portrayal of Walter White is one modern television’s greatest performances, and his character development may be modern popular culture’s most ambitious. His descent into evil is convincing at every turn, nuanced yet jarring when the story needs its protagonist’s actions to be. Cranston achieves the most satisfying of crime drama arcs — evading the law, defeating his criminal competitors, leaving financial security for his family whether they want it or not, going out with a bang on his terms, achieving infamy through his criminal alter ego — all without unnecessary moral preaching or glorification of organized crime. BB’s unapologetic depiction of an ordinary man sacrificing morality, familial responsibility, and lawfulness for power at any cost is, in a strange way, refreshing for its lack of outright machismo or stereotypical masculine swagger. Cranston’s Walter White becomes the baddest bad guy of them all without ever outgrowing his tighty-whities from the series’ pilot, making his evil transformation that much more believable.
Showrunner Gilligan’s masterful team of directors, including Michelle MacLaren, Rian Johnson, and even Cranston himself are terrific, utilizing humorous time-lapse sequences, montage sequences, and vicious cinematic violence to mix and match the absurd (i.e. a bumbling high-school chemistry teacher) with the terrifying (i.e. gangland executions, slinging crystal meth, etc.). The show revels in a drug lord poisoning an entire rival cartel, but also enjoys creative visual humor like its protagonist chucking a pizza onto a rooftop. BB remains one of the few high-profile modern shows (GoT is another example) to emphasize the diversity of its directors while maintaining an overarching visual style necessary to define the show’s themes. Compare Michelle MacLaren’s “One Minute” to Vince Gilligan’s “Face Off” to Rian Johnson’s “Fly,” and one can appreciate the series’ sheer variety yet simultaneous thematic consistency. Put another way, BB gives its directors freedom without losing control over them, a model that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008-present) popularized with theatrical filmmaking but was always a more natural fit with long-format television.
The landscape of New Mexico is portrayed as a character unto itself in BB. The sunsoaked, arid backdrop of the Chihuahuan Desert dominates most of the methamphetamine cooking scenes, and is used in conjunction with various montage sequences as well as many popular and original songs. The series’ Western aesthetic recalls the desert environments of Tremors (1990-2004) and other neo-frontier movies, contrasting the civilized lifestyles of America’s developing southwest with the lawless chaos of the area’s cartel activity. BB is not a purebred Western, to be sure, but so much of its audiovisual style and narrative are indebted to the classical stories of gunslingers, lawmen, and culture clash of Hollywood’s first original genre. I would go so far as to call the series a neo-Western crime drama, with all the best tropes of both gangster films and frontier tall-tales.
For all its overlooked shortcomings, Breaking Bad is a modern, gritty take on the premise from Revenge of the Nerds (1984), neither glorifying nor excusing its protagonist’s behavior, but also making no apology for championing school smarts over street smarts. The show argues the adaptability of the former over the latter, using perhaps the greatest character arc in modern pop culture and an all-star lineup of directors to illustrate its themes of seductive power. The show’s aforementioned shortcomings — weird POV-shots, an overemphasis on Aaron Paul’s emotional torment, and a bizarre commitment to the roles of R. J. Mitte and Anna Gunn — prevent the show from ranking among HBO’s greats, but on its absurdist terms, Breaking Bad is a neo-Western crime saga worth embracing.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The show that transformed Bryan Cranston’s legacy from the Dad from Malcolm in the Middle (2000-2006) commits to its ambitious, incredible central arc to great results. Creator Vince Gilligan makes great use of a variety of directors to illustrate this southwestern culture clash with action and humor, making for an unforgettable, unique modern crime story.
— However… Gilligan’s portrayal of Cranston’s familial supporting cast, Gunn and Mitte most of all, is a failure. The more Cranston’s Walter White commits to his criminal life, the less interesting and necessary his civilized origins become. Breaking Bad also dabbles in several inexplicable cinematographic and screenwriting choices.
—> HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, though, warts and all.