The greatest advantage that television has over film is the ability to effectively tell the long form story. How often have we seen one of our favorite books truncated by the constraints of cinema? But on TV, if you are given enough time, you can slowly twist the screw in an excruciatingly satisfying way.
And that is the great accomplishment of Breaking Bad.
I was very late in coming to the show. The promotions did nothing to interest me: the dad from Malcolm in the Middle with a gun and in his tighty-whitey's. I couldn't make heads or tails of what the show was about. And even though it had been heaped with criticism, I am often suspicious of the critics that embrace wanton perversity and nihilism. But there were a number of people I knew and trusted who were effusive in their praise. So I began with an open mind.
And I went on the best single character arc ever in the history of television.
Breaking Bad works so amazingly because it understands Aristotle's maxim "plot is character expressed in action." The plot is about the character. For those unfamiliar, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is a mousey chemistry teacher who is pushed around by life. When he discovers he has terminal lung cancer, he decides to start cooking crystal meth with a former student and drug dealer Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). What follows is a step-by-step descent into the gates of hell.
The plot of the show appears seedy and vulgar, which it is. But show creator Vince Gilligan used this dark underbelly to explore deep and universal themes of morality and human nature. The show does a fantastic job of displaying Aristotle's and Thomas Aquinas' virtue ethics, which holds that our moral actions shape our moral character. Walter tries to create a separation between the evil deeds he performs and the good motive of taking care of his family. But he cannot do this. Virtue ethics teaches us that you ARE your choices. And when you make evil choices, your soul withers.
It also shows us the stupidity of purely pragmatic philosophy. Walter focuses only the pragmatic end of giving his family money instead of the deeper end of giving them the true treasure of time and love. That is because he sees nothing transcendent in his atheistic world-view, nothing of value other than the practical. As a result he only brings on them danger and ruin. That is because the central stupidity of pragmatism is that it claims to know and unknown future. How can I know what the best result will be if I do not know all of the possible outcomes?
The show is also a fantastic exploration of lost manhood. I've written on this blog before about how society has slowly been eroding real, solid masculinity from the culture. The problem with doing that is that masculinity is a natural inclination. If you remove it from a society, people will gravitate towards empty and hollow versions of it (as we see in the horrid 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon). Breaking Bad is essentially a Western in setting and violence, but we are not following the white hat, but (literally) the black hat. And in that culture, Walter feels like the ultimate prissy tenderfoot. He feels weak and emasculated. So he radically overcompensates. He does what he does because he has been starved of true masculine life and is now reduced to machismo. What the show does so well is that it shows Walter both terrifyingly violent and hollowly impotent AT THE SAME TIME. I don't know how they did it except for the stellar writing and acting.
Speaking of acting, people seem to be hyperbolic in their praise of Cranston. It is not hyperbole. He gives what, to my mind, is the greatest television performance ever. Everything he does, whether silly, smart, horrific, or wholesome is absolutely believable. Cranston does not shy away from showing us Walter's absolute evil while at the same time giving us just enough humanity to make us keep watching. He is riveting and his performance should be studied by anyone who wants to seriously pursue acting on film. The supporting cast also grew and met with amazing success in their craft. At first Aaron Paul's Jesse seemed like a one-dimensional punk. But Paul did an amazing thing by showing the slowly growing conscience in Jesse's soul while Walter's was dying. Anna Gunn as Walter's wife Skyler also was able to project the strength and intelligence that was necessary to follow and confront Walter along the way. I have a special respect for Dean Norris who played Walt's brother-in-law Hank the DEA agent. For the first season or so he was mainly the overly obnoxious comic relief. But slowly he became the hero and embodiment of manhood. While Walter always connived and squirmed his way out of each situation, Hank slowly learned to become a man and accept responsibility for all of his actions.
The directing is also some of the best in television. So few shows decide to take a decisively cinematic approach to filming for television. This may be due to constraints of time and budget. But Breaking Bad felt like watching an incredibly long and engaging movie series. It's not surprising that this show gave us bold directors like Rian Johnson who is directing Star Wars Episode VIII. But the show knows how to use the visuals in bold and rich ways. To this day, I show the parking lot scene from season 3 as a model of how to build a scene.
This is the episode that slowed things down a bit from the insanity of the first 3 episodes and it was about confronting the horrible reality of the disease Walter was fighting. And what makes this episode more engaging than the crazy violence from before is that you begin to understand that this is not a show about drug dealing; this is a show about the choices that shape the human soul. Both Walter and Jesse take a step back from the drug trade to evaluate who they are as people. And you can see the choice building up in them and the looming tragedy coming.
JUMP THE SHARK
This is not a bad episode in any way, but it keeps things a little too slow. It builds off of the previous episode, but it especially makes Skylar come off in a very cloying, unflattering way that lingers for the enter rest of the series.
Breaking Bad has a fantastically satisfying series finale. It ties up all of the loose threads of the show and gives you closure on the events. While everything might not be happy, the series give you a chance to say goodbye. The whole time you watch, you wonder of Walt will embrace the complete darkness in his soul or will he be able to pull out some kind of redemption in the end. Whether he does or not, you are compelled to find out how his story comes to a close. And it is the capstone to the amazing Cranston performance. He is able to do so much with the slightest look, gesture, and inflection of voice that you leave the series in awe of him.
Breaking Bad is an experience to be had. And it is one that works completely with a beginning, a middle, and an end. He holds a mirror up to nature and shows us our darker side and what happens to us if we make the wrong choices and take the quick and easy path. I don't think I shall see its like again.