The Good, The Bad & The Buggy: Breaking Bad (2008-2013)
"Brutal", does not begin to describe the world of Breaking Bad. The drab lifestyle of Albuquerque, New Mexico is torn asunder by Walter White's manifest destiny. On the surface, Walter reneges on the Social Contract in order to provide for his family once he is diagnosed with terminal cancer, however, a deeper examination reveals that Walter's true mission is to live vicariously through the professional reputation and status of his former business partner performing heinous deeds that the partner would never have been able to accomplish. The partner exceeded Walter in every way except one - illegitimate criminality. Walter's paramount concern is to prove that success can be rightfully his, and his alone. The cancer is a mere catalyst for Walter's newly acquired taste for adrenaline rushes. His fearlessness emerges from his realization of fatality. In many ways, Jesse is just along for the ride. Walter is dishonest with everyone else about his intentions and reasons but true to himself, whereas Jesse is lying to himself as he attempts to purvey honesty with others. Together, they are Dr. Hyde and Mr. Frankenstein - a macabre duo caught up in the volatile life of narcotics production and distribution. The clock is always ticking and Walter's relinquishing of his wristwatch near the end of the last season signifies his acknowledgement that time has run out. The show is dark and the pace alternates between quicksand slogs and frenetic chases effectively rendering the viewing experience to be that of a rollercoaster ride.
This top ten list is the best, worst and oddest aspects of the series.
This top ten list is the best, worst and oddest aspects of the series.
1. Having Seconds - Minor Characters
Walter and Jesse are the major characters while Walter's family are the secondary characters of the show. However, the show bolsters an incredible set of minor characters that have pivotal roles in the plot of Breaking Bad. There isn't much humour in the show, but the sleazy lawyer, Saul, more than makes up for it with his wit and moxie. He is a caricature, but perfectly formed and up to the task of caring for Walter and Jesse's interests. His ethics are enigmatic in that he religiously upholds the lawyer-client privilege as a method of self-preservation. His loyalty isn't as admirable as it is completely necessary because without Saul's vigilance, Walter and Jesse would have been sold up the river early on. Mike is another vivid minor character. He both earns the trust of, and learns to trust Jesse despite being an ice cold, calculated Cleaner. Technically, he is the head of security for Gus, but his character is too ominous to be the nexus of any established network and in the end taking on a leadership role reveals his soft spots which Walter exploits in turn. Hector Salamanca is also a minor character that helps explain the drama and allows for appropriate closure to major story arcs. Salamanca is exactly what you would expect from the right-hand of a Mexican drug cartel honcho. He is defiant and prideful in a way that would make the Devil blush, yet his endurance is what gives him the keen sense to work with an enemy to exact a personal revenge. Salamanca's character epitomizes the stakes of the proverb, "is the enemy of my enemy, my friend or my enemy?"
2. First Impressions - Opening Vignettes
Each episode of Breaking Bad opens with a scene that may or may not fit into the story of that episode. The scene can be a flashback or flashforward, as well as being an abstract fantasy. All of these scenes relate to the plot and set the tone for the episode. These segments become appetizers to whet the appetite for the major drama ahead. The clever thing about these segments is that their abstraction from the main story of the episode encourages the spectator to be critically engaged from the onset.
3. The Money Shot - Series Climax
The end of Season 4 is the climax of the entire series, whereby the major threat to Walter is removed. The death of Gus is extremely dramatic and the tension runs high as Walter attempts to successfully pull off the assassination of the very paranoid Chilean drug lord. As Gus emerges from Salamanca's room after the explosion there is a moment where any sensible spectator would wonder whether Gus has some kind of supernatural ability. For a moment, we doubt Walter's fortitude and luck. Then the reveal and Gus indeed succumbs to his horrific injuries. It is no longer Walter vs. the World, and this sets up a finale season of Walter vs. himself. The removal of Gus is well-executed and Walter claims his ultimate victory by removing all of his obstacles. Unfortunately, his pride compels him to generate new obstacles that ultimately lead to his undoing.
4. The MacGyver Effect - Didactic Science
One of the most interesting elements of Breaking Bad is Walter's ingenuity with scientific gadgets. He is always crafting tools to help in ascending to mastery of his domain. Walter is known as a master chef in the meth cooking game, but his knowledge of science goes far beyond chemistry. He crafts bombs, concocts poisons and builds machine gun turrets. This man is a wolverine always backed into a corner, feral with deadly intent and every object within his purview is apt for conversion into a weapon.
1. Es-Tu Shithead? - Unlikable Characters
I have a very difficult time understanding the current appeal of the postmodern unhero. Dexter is one and Walter is another. These men are monsters beyond redemption. They are driven by base desires and their character is exceedingly weak. There is nothing to admire or look up to with characters such as this. Yet, people rally behind them abhorrently. It is a disturbing trend in our culture. Frank Castle (Marvel's The Punisher) was a police officer who had his family gunned down by the Mafia. Frank turned into a mercenary to exact revenge. He is a ruthless murderer and not a very nice guy, but he protects regular citizens from violent criminals. Even a thug like Scott Hall (professional wrestler) was known as "The Bad Guy", but still exhibited remorse over failing his mates (drunkenness when the nWo was splitting up) and maintained loyalty to those that respected him (Dusty Rhodes, Disco Inferno and Louie Spicolli). Those were unheroes when it stood for something positive. Now, the unhero is Dexter Morgan and Walter White, hurting everyone to heal themselves. That is the definition of weak, yet is lauded by fans. It is confounding. In Breaking Bad, it isn't just Walter and Jesse that are unlikable... all of the characters are. Walter Jr. is perhaps the only sympathetic character in the series, but doesn't have the constitution to act as foil for his father or anyone else. It is disheartening watching Breaking Bad and all the more disappointing that its popularity comes from its brutally realistic portrayals. Perhaps, the fans are celebrating that humanity at its best is lame. This leads me to seriously question who the fans of the show are. I see a Heisenberg t-shirt every now and then being sported by some proud dupe - why so proud? You like supporting a hypocrite that helps perpetuate the decimation of communities and brings grief, agony and anguish to millions? There is a special place in Hell for people with that level of indifference and contempt. Walter White is fictional; the fans are real and their values and views count. The show surely needed a Rita-type character (from Dexter) but instead got the cow, Skyler and the sow, Marie. Bummer.
2. You've been Foiled - Imbalanced Characters
Breaking Bad has a raw feel and the writing team did enough research that the stories seem authentic, however the world portrayed is so bleak that it cannot possibly be legitimized as real. The only necessary ingredient to anchor the diegesis to reality would be to have a single strong, positive character. In the real world, there are unmitigated positive characters - individuals who are kind and considerate, seeking to avoid conflict and who seek some degree of social harmony. They are few and far between in certain communities, but they always exist. This is why we have made it so far as a species - the balance of good and evil, kindness and malice, consideration and carelessness. Breaking Bad was all wolves with no sheep and this ensured that Walter's character would become totally unappealing (to a good person, that is). Skyler could have been made sweet or Walter Jr. could have been more capable and this would have enacted their characters as foils for Walter. If Walter had a foil, then his character would have gained a dimension and thus become vastly more appealing and accessible.
3. Taxation without Representation - Jesse the Noob
Jesse Pinkman is familiar with crumby communities and a legitimate member of them. He can throw a week-long meth party and rule the roost of Herpes-infested losers. However, he has neither the fortitude or know-how to run any sized distribution network for hard narcotics. Even if Jesse was chopping weed, he would be getting taxed regularly by real thugs, he would be getting pressed by buyers for spots and then would be running around town trying to collect unsuccessfully. There is nothing about Jesse's personality that induces fear or intimidation. It is simply unrealistic that he could be the lead meth dealer of any gang. His attempt to grab product back from Tuco is idiotic and exemplifies his lack of knowledge of the world of drug trafficking. Jesse comes off as a sweaty tweaker and not a ruthless thug with ice water in their veins. The latter is the consistent profile of hard drug dealers in destitute neighbourhoods.
4. Epilogue Writ Large - Season 5
The last season of the Breaking Bad series is an epilogue writ large. Walter has eliminated his competition, snuffed out his boss and secured his life and the rightful claim and control to his distinct product on the illegal drug market. In Season 5, Walter manages to lose all his money and kill himself, while briefly being the F.B.I.'s number one fugitive. It is a clusterfuck that would have been great action packed into a couple of episodes, but instead stretched out for an entire season. Closure in Dexter was too abrupt and pat, but closure in Breaking Bad was painfully plodding.
1. First Impressions - Lazy DEA
In the very first episode of Breaking Bad, Hank takes Walter for a ride-along on a stakeout of a supposed meth lab. Firstly, it is extremely unlikely that Hank would be allowed to bring Walter on the ride-along for an actual stakeout bust, by virtue of insurance and police protocol. Secondly, a block away from the suburb housing development is Jesse's car. The car doesn't fit into the landscape at all and has a vanity plate that draws attention. Seemingly, Hank and his partner totally miss spotting the car which is a little too convenient. As a result of their lax approach, Jesse is able to escape the area and drive away. Drama that is contrived loses its effect completely by those who notice the contrivance. Clearly, the writers could have cared less about whether intelligent, critical-minded spectators were watching the series opener. I don't believe that this indifference ever ceased throughout the production of Breaking Bad.
2. Explanation Overdue - Meth Addict House
Relatively early in the series, Jesse decides to man-up and retrieve money and product that was robbed from one of his dealers. He is totally unprepared for the task and ends up at the house of a couple of meth addicts. Likely, the house is actually for squatters, but the meth addicts are living there with their young son. Jesse shows a sincere concern for the son's well-being and this sentiment creeps up for Jesse in later seasons eventually leading to his undoing. The nonsense is that Jesse is a meth manufacturer and dealer, being a major cause of the child's predicament as his profession directly results in the condition of the boy's parents and thus the lifestyle of the child. This is all problematic, however, the idiotic plot contrivance comes when Jesse is able to use a landline phone in the house to call the police. Without providing a quick explanation for how meth addicts would be paying their phone bills, the whole situation is baffling and the reliance on suspension of disbelief is too onerous for an attentive spectator.