As anyone who’s seen a banner ad in the last two weeks can tell you, Breaking Bad is finally returning for the premiere of the first half of its fifth and final season. And holy hell, is everyone freaking out. Yes, it’s been a long time coming, but it seems Walter White’s saga has finally gone mainstream. You just never know how long it’s going to take, do you? After just one season (one daring, big budget, anyone-can-die-no-really season) Game of Thrones became must watch television, but it’s really only now, after about five years of build-up, that it feels like the return of Breaking Bad to the airways is a cultural event—everyone knows it’s coming, the legion of newcomers are scrambling to catch up, and the already dedicated fans can barely talk about anything else (my conversation break down at the moment is about 65% Heisenberg, 35% Batman).
Finally I get the sense that, as a Breaking Bad fan, I’m not privy to this great secret, this glorious hidden gem that I have to pass on to the largely unaware masses. Sure, a lot of this vindication is because several close friends are, at long last, drinking the Kool-Aid (hitting the blue sky?), but objectively speaking, the buzz about the premiere has been inescapable, from advertisements on every site worth a damn to a full fledged Comic Con panel. And although I believe it’s still not nearly as popular as the vastly inferior (although I haven’t seen the second season and the third looks promising) Walking Dead, it still feels like an acceptable amount of people acknowledge what a steadily growing viewership has been saying for years: There is nothing on TV like Breaking Bad, and it belongs at the very top of everyone’s “Things I should be Watching” list.
In anticipation of the premiere (more anticipation, that is. Most of my day is already going to be spent coordinating the viewing party at my place and catching up straggling friends) I’m going to discuss exactly what makes it so good, so compelling, so impossibly addictive.
Not many shows have as clear a thesis for what they’re trying to do as this one. From the beginning Vince Gilligan has been crystal clear: Take Walter White from Mr. Chips to Scarface. It’s almost amusing to see how appalled viewers are when he sinks ever deeper, considering that his descent is basically the idea that you’re signing on for. Obviously Walt is the show. Everything is anchored on his actions, his choices, how far he’s willing to go. The answer, of course, is all the way.
If you’re paying attention, you know everything you ever need to about Walt by episode four or five. Whichever one where he turns down his ex-partner Elliot’s charity. The show could have ended right there, except for the suicidal pride of the main character. Yes, he has cancer, no money, a disabled son, and a baby on the way. He’s got our sympathy. But every moral justification for cooking meth goes out the window when he’s handed a way out. If he was cooking meth for his family, he sure as hell would have been able to swallow his pride for them. But no. Though he’d never admit it, maybe never even become fully aware of it, he’s cooking meth for Walter White. And that’s so impossibly fascinating.
It’s been written a few other places that what sets Breaking Bad apart is its central morality. The majority of the other most acclaimed shows all have layered shades of gray that force characters to behave in certain ways because of the world in which they live. But on Breaking Bad there’s always a “right” thing to do. The characters just tend to choose differently, and we can’t stop watching them.
And why would we want to, when they’re written so well and brought to life even more vividly? We’re facing a situation where Bryan Cranston could conceivably get an Emmy for every single season of the show (three down, two to go), and doesn’t that just say it all? That for all the typical awards show politics, everyone still throws up their hands and recognizes that Walter White is far and away the best character on television. And the supporting cast, while small, has more standout performances than all but perhaps the massive ensemble on Game of Thrones.
The writers know how to construct brilliant characters (Walt, Jesse, Gus, Saul, and Mike are probably the most celebrated) and more importantly they know what to do with them. Everything that happens comes from character choice, and all of those choices have consequences. Walt cooks meth in the pilot, then spends the next few episodes cleaning up the insane aftermath.
In Breaking Bad, everything ripples, everything comes back. There aren’t loose ends. The sheer economy of the storytelling on display is staggering. Every scene has purpose either moving things forward or adding real depth. The show will never introduce a new character or plot line if it can get more mileage out of a player or an idea that’s already been established.
That guiding simplicity allows Breaking Bad to tell its story effectively no matter what arises. The original plan was to kill Jesse in the first season, but Aaron Paul and Cranston had such a great dynamic that they kept him for the entire series. Then season two was planned meticulously, with every episode subtly building to the audacious plane crash, while the third season was much more freewheeling, with the original antagonists getting replaced by Gus for the more structured fourth season, which built to its finale by weaving in Gus’s backstory through effective flashbacks that seamlessly blended with the history of the show.
Whether working as architects or improvisors, the writers are masterful. They’ve created a story that’s engrossing, rivetingly suspenseful, gruesomely violent, deeply (but never obnoxiously) symbolic, and darkly comic without ever missing a beat.
It’s a viewing experience as pure and addictive as the meth Walt cooks. And we’re all long overdue for a relapse.