It’s a declaration so often repeated in the article mill discussing television that it’s rapidly becoming a cliché, but nonetheless it is true that we are enjoying an unprecedented golden age of television. Primarily led by the American cable networks AMC and HBO, at least in terms of fictional dramas, shows are being produced that are more ambitious and accomplished than television was ever imagined capable of. Through this, the medium has broken free of the restrictive attitude that at its best it could only go so far as to imitate cinema, allowing it to stretch out into the untapped possibilities of itself as a medium, a prime example of which is Breaking Bad.
Although it is highly unlikely that there is anyone left on the internet completely oblivious of Breaking Bad, for the uninitiated, the AMC show follows the story of Walter White, a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The show begins as Walter learns he has terminal lung cancer, just after his fiftieth birthday. In order to make enough money to support his family after he is gone, Walt teams up with an old drop-out student and uses his chemistry skills to cook crystal meth. From this start point, the show follows a long trajectory that moves with ever increasing speed to turn Walt, as the creator and show-runner Vince Gilligan put it, from ‘Mr Chips into Scarface.’ The importance of this trajectory, its unshakeable place at the very core of the show, is in large part the genius of Breaking Bad and what makes it such an important show.
Essentially, most television shows exist to provide an episode’s worth of entertainment at a time. This lies behind the popular ‘monster of the week’ format, where a villain, mystery or crisis is introduced and resolved within the space of one episode. The focus Breaking Bad keeps on its overall story makes it one of, if not the, most tightly written TV shows of all time. No episode exists purely for its own sake and no scene is of throwaway importance. Rarely in television has not only individual events, but entire previous seasons remained crucial to the ongoing story. In this way, Breaking Bad is the ultimate culmination of a development that has occurred in television for the last two decades: it tells a consistently coherent epic story in a way only TV could tell it, but never has before.
This development is the subject of Brett Martin’s new book, Difficult Men: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad: Behind the Scenes of a Cultural Revolution. Although Breaking Bad began roughly around the same time as Mad Men (and the latter will end with its final season spread out over 2014 and 2015) it is easy to see why Martin places it at the end of his progression. The show feels like the next step in the chain beyond Mad Men because it interacts with itself as a television show. Mad Men also approaches this technique in being keenly aware of the cultural differences between the time periods of its characters and its audience and using this gap to great effect, such as in the reveal of the typewriter as ‘intimidating technology’ in episode one, but Breaking Bad goes further to explore the medium of television itself.
From its very beginning, Breaking Bad plays with television conventions by following someone who should be a secondary character. It is Walter’s action hero, wise cracking brother-in-law Hank, an agent of the DEA, who is the obvious main character (and his type has been in many police shows in the past). Moreover, as is hinted towards by a speech Walter delivers to his class in the very first episode, the show is about constant change. Lead actor, Bryan Cranston, has often discussed how this subverts the stasis so essential to the comfort we take in television shows, returning to our favourite characters and scenarios again and again, as we did in Cranston’s sitcom Malcolm in the Middle. Breaking Bad is in many ways a different show from season to season, as the ratio of black comedy to tragedy inverts and Walter transforms from anti-hero to villain. However, one of the greatest strokes of conceptual genius in the show is also the simplest. In the penultimate episode of season four, a long suffering background character, glimpsed dealing with the consequences of Walter’s actions throughout the show, takes a stand and demands a payoff, forcing the plot of the season’s final act to take a dangerous curve as a factor neither viewer nor main character would ever have considered demands to be recognised.
Topping even this came a brilliant moment in the recently finished final episodes, when the misogynistic and aggressive hate some fans have expressed towards the character of Skyler, Walt’s wife, was parodied and shown as a ridiculous point of view.
Ever the epitome of how the internet has changed television, from its complete run airing on Netflix to its engagement with the fevered analysis of every episode carried out on the internet, Breaking Bad often reminds us it is watching us as we are watching Breaking Bad.
Yet, it is the common subject running through the most respected shows of recent memory that makes the recent conclusion of Breaking Bad such an apt end for a televisual era: the exploration of the middle aged, anti-hero family man in crisis. Some shows may have experimented with this central idea, such as removing the family element in House or pushing the concept of anti-heroism in Dexter, but since The Sopranos, this has been the clay with which to work of many major shows. Even ensemble programme The Wire had the troubled cop McNulty to lead the show. Breaking Bad pushes right to the edge of this territory in making the leap from anti-hero to villain, making us question ourselves as viewers on how much we are willing to forgive of our main character, purely on the virtue of his being the protagonist.
This, aside from the fact that it is a superb show, has made the finale of Breaking Bad so exciting. Most likely, there will still be shows produced that revolve again around another man’s mid-life crisis, as the format is flogged into the ground until it stops producing money; but even so, Breaking Bad has given it a very fitting ending and passed on the torch to the exciting possibilities of new formats. Hopefully, we will see more shows centering on female protagonists, like Netflix’s recent Orange is the New Black, or ones that go in new directions such as Game of Thrones, whose protagonist Ned Stark is a refreshing change from anti-heroic leads.
Descriptions of Breaking Bad as a modern Great American Novel are apt but essentially reductive when it comes to determining the show’s legacy. Now the entire story is complete, it is at the very least arguable that it put no major foot wrong throughout its run, with no drop-off seasons or forgotten sub-plots that spoil the experience of watching the show as a whole. This consistency and precision of construction is more than television imitating books the way it used to imitate cinema, it is the latest achievement in its pioneering the limits of its medium. It is the perfect finale to what is hopefully act one of the rich future of television.