This week has seen the culmination of a six-year, five-season journey with the long-awaited conclusion of multi-award-winning US drama series Breaking Bad.
Broadcast by US cable channel AMC, Breaking Bad is much less well-known in the UK than in the States. (The first two seasons were shown in the UK on FX, a relatively low profile cable and satellite channel, and for some reason – perhaps contract issues — was never picked up by a bigger channel.) Having said that, unless you’ve taken a six-year hibernation from social media, you can’t have escaped having some level of awareness of the show; in recent days even the BBC website has mentioned it several times. According to its Wikipedia page, Breaking Bad is now among the most-watched cable shows on US television and is widely considered one of the greatest TV dramas of all time.
So what is all the fuss about?
Breaking Bad is a show that’s hard to describe in ways that will be readily appreciated by non-viewers. On a number of occasions I’ve tried to explain the storyline to others, only to be met by blank stares and polite expressions of scepticism. But here goes anyway. Late-40s high school chemistry teacher and all around regular guy Walter White lives with his family in Albuquerque, New Mexico. When he is diagnosed with lung cancer, he decides he needs to do something to earn enough money to cover his medical bills and provide for his family when he’s gone. His brother-in-law, who works for the Drug Enforcement Administration, unwittingly introduces him to the world of crystal meth, a highly addictive drug much in demand in the States, and Walter ends up joining forces with a former higher school school student of his, Jesse Pinkman, and using his inside knowledge of chemistry to cook a very high quality meth that quickly achieves cult status and comes to dominate the local market.
From that perhaps unlikely starting point, the plot meanders in various directions as Walter initially seeks to keep both his cancer and his budding career as a drug kingpin under wraps from his family and friends. But what began in his mind as a controlled and logical decision to meet a clearly defined need soon leads him further and further down paths he never imagined taking. As the stakes rise, it becomes increasingly difficult for Walt to maintain his dual life as both a loving, pillar-of-the-community family man and a serious player in the drug world. And the further he walks down the dark paths he has chosen, the greater the fallout for himself, his family and those closest to him.
That, in a nutshell, is the premise of the show. Like I said, the bare bones of the plot don’t necessarily sound like something that grabs you and makes you want to watch. Yet, as the Breaking Bad’s cult following attests, once you start watching Episode 1 of Season 1, grab you it does. And it holds you all the way through to the Season 5 finale.
So what is it about this show that makes it so compelling? It’s partly the superlative scriptwriting. Through five seasons, we have been presented with all manner of crises and cliffhangers, and in every case without fail former X Files writer Vince Gilligan and his team have managed to creatively confound our expectations while remaining absolutely faithful to the characters and the overall arc of the story. Part of the genius of Breaking Bad is to portray what is in some respects quite a fantastic scenario in a way that is utterly believable.
Then there are the actors. Bryan Cranston is superb as Walter White, a role for which he has won three consecutive Emmy awards as Outstanding Lead Actor. (Actually, you could say he has to play two roles – the man that Walter is at the beginning and the man he ends up becoming. He excellently captures every step of Walt’s descent into darkness.) For me, equally deserving of acclaim is Aaron Paul, who plays Walter’s young sidekick Jesse, a troubled soul in desperate need of a father figure to look up to. These two central roles are surrounded by a varied and colourful cast of characters, all played to perfection. That every part is played so convincingly is in large part testament to how supremely well these characters are written. There is nothing one dimensional about any of them; each person who appears in Breaking Bad, however large or small their part in the overall drama, is a richly complex and complete character.
But for me, what makes Breaking Bad so unique is the way that it is unafraid to tackle the darker aspects of human nature and to fearlessly follow the consequences of the choices people make, however difficult and disturbing they may ultimately prove to be. From a Christian perspective, it is a fascinating study of fallen human nature, pride, passion, sin and enslavement. The reason it is so engaging is because it is so real in its portrayal of human weakness. There are, mercifully, few people in the world who are wholly evil; even on our best days, most of us are a mixture of contradictions and opposing forces, with the capacity for both great good and great evil. Breaking Bad places these opposing forces under a magnifying glass in the person of Walter White, and reveals how the unresolved frustration and pain of rejection and disappointment can, if left unchecked, have terrifying consequences. I really want to hate and despise Walter, but at the same time I cannot help but recognise something of myself in him.
Yet for all the darkness of its subject matter, Breaking Bad is surprisingly fun to watch. It is peopled by a number of warm and engaging characters that you want to believe in and root for. It is undergirded by a rich vein of humour, of both the black and the laugh-out-loud varieties. And it offers remarkably insightful glimpses into the nature of hope and grace and the possibility of redemption.
It probably goes without saying that any show involving the world of drug-related crime is not going to appeal to the faint-hearted. There is a fair amount of bad language, and violence (sometimes of a very visual nature) and death are relatively frequent, as are sexual references. However, none of these elements are used gratuitously; the show simply depicts the world as it is, in all its glory and ugliness.
I’ll leave you with an overview trailer that was released prior to the final eight episodes of season 5 and is more or less spoiler-free. If you appreciate good television, do yourself a favour and at least give Breaking Bad a try. All five seasons are currently available on Netflix and iTunes in the UK, and the first four seasons are available on DVD and Blu-ray, with the fifth season no doubt to follow shortly.