Revisiting: ‘Breaking Bad’

Sunday, February 11, 2018 - 4:01pm

NOSELL

AMC

Revisiting is a new series where TV writers watch, or re-watch, popular TV shows they missed when airing in their prime. Writers will retrospectively review these shows and determine if they still live up to their hype years after their peak success.

Very rarely does there come a TV show that finds such widespread success as “Breaking Bad.” What started off as a cult favorite — only 1.9 million people tuned in for the season four finale — somehow became the show on everyone’s lips by its fifth and final season. With Netflix providing the ability for viewers to “catch-up binge” the series, word of mouth brought the show from its strong core fan group to a full-fledged TV epidemic. In a time when streaming was becoming the favored means of TV consumption, it was uncommon to find friends and families gathering together around a television once a week, anxiously awaiting the next installment of a show. While Netflix brought new life to the viewership through its platform, it also brought people in droves to watch the final season as it unfolded live with 10.3 million viewers tuning in. To this day, Breaking Bad remains the number one show first-time Netflix viewers choose to binge.

So, while the whole world seemed to be in disarray over this consensus hit, with Walter White’s name being spat about with fervor, I sat in uninterested ignorance, left out of the conversation. Being a chronic TV consumer, the fact that I had avoided watching “Breaking Bad” for so long was something I had to learn to be consciously ashamed of. While it is in my nature to abstain from partaking in cultural phenomenons just for the sake of stuborness, this time, it was personal. I don’t deal well with building suspense or dramatic irony; I squirm in my seat when I can see the demise of a protagonist developing before they can. Within the first few episodes, the underlying tension of the show (or at least a main one) reared its ugly head: Walt was taking his first steps to his eventual drug lord status, all the while having a DEA agent brother-in-law deeply intertwined in his personal life. When Hank came sniffing about J. P. Wynne High School (Walt’s place of employment) looking for stolen lab equipment that was involved in a meth cook, I slammed my laptop shut and never looked back. I felt I already knew where this show was headed, and this projected path I foresaw was too much for my weak heart to bear.

Cut to 2018. For the sake of the Revisiting series, I found my excuse to push through my TV baggage and give this cult classic the second chance it deserved. I was rewarded in full. I don’t know if I have just grown as a person and TV consumer since my first go at “Breaking Bad,” or if the pressure of needing to watch the series carried me through the suspense. But whatever the case, I emerged a full-fledged fan on the other side. “Breaking Bad” is a show that thrives on its character development, its unique cinematography and one hell of a plot. Perhaps the greatest feat the show pulls off is its ability to pack in edge-of-your-seat drama in every episode without the storyline ever feeling unrealistically or unnecessarily stretched — like any of Shonda Rhimes’s shows, for contrast.

What most people know to be the surface level plot of the show — a cancer diagnosis drives a high school chemistry teacher to cook meth for the sake of financial security — is all tackled within the first episode. The show expeditiously illustrates a painfully believable background of Walter White’s life, delineating what could push a meek and average man from living clean as Clorox to becoming a villainous kingpin. With so much of this initial plotline covered so quickly, I was confused as to where the show could really go from there — what a fool I was. What I at first thought to be the extent of Walt’s character arc I would soon learn was just the kindling with which a fire would be built.

Traditionally, an issue I have with enjoying TV is being pulled out of the story by unbelievable plot twists or uncharacteristic actions from a protagonist — it’s just a sign of bad writing. With “Breaking Bad,” the exact opposite was true. While this show delivers possibly one of the most radical and dramatic changes in character, never once did this transformation feel out of place. This dissolution of good-guy Walt made way for this generation’s textbook antihero. Commonly in TV and film, you want the protagonist to get away safe, and you truly believe all their actions are justified. As a “Breaking Bad” viewer, you still feel this with Walt, but slowly, your loyalty is brought into question as his actions go further from the ever-reinforced “I do this for my family” to undeniably evil and gratuitous. For this, among many other reasons, the evolution of Walter White is arguably one of the most compelling character arcs of our time — due in part to stellar writing, but mainly to an unforgettable performance from Bryan Cranston (“Malcolm in the Middle”).

That being said, Walt is not the only case of convincing and thorough character development. In very few instances did the show introduce a character who didn’t have their own unique backstory or compelling character arc. When I went back to rewatch season one, the difference in those leads that stuck around stood out because of how much change they had undergone. As much as the show is built around Walt, the life given to even the smallest characters gives viewers more chances to be drawn into the story. This ability of the supporting roles to bring about emotional reactions, like those usually tied to the protagonist, is all the more testament to the quality of writing in the show.

Aside from this strength in writing and character development, “Breaking Bad” shines through its highly-stylized cinematography, so exclusive to the show that it bears its own visual signature. The camera angles and perspectives used were unlike those I’ve seen in any other series, like looking up at Walt from the inside of a toilet bowl he’s plunging, or watching the blood and guts of a slain drug dealer being mopped off the camera lens, as if we were viewing looking up through a translucent floor. Yet another cinematic device that is completely singular to “Breaking Bad” is its use of the cold open to foreshadow major plot twists by means of plugging in seemingly unrelated scenes just before the title sequence — a key example of this being the pink, one-eyed teddy bear that plagued season two. These cold opens are misleading and confusing at first, but when the plot twist they’re alluding to finally comes to fruition, the narrative payoff is worth the wait. 

I’ve always said that for a TV show or film to truly be a true home-run, its writing, cinematography and plot must all be executed at maximum quality — “Breaking Bad” delivers this in every department, and then some. Though it was a slow starter in the public eye, the cult following it gained over time has assured the show a space in the canon of quality television. From one stubborn viewer who didn’t want to give it a chance: If you are still holding out like I did, do yourself a favor, get over yourself, and give into the mainstream. For just this once, it is worth it.

Since every episode of “Breaking Bad” delivers its own brand of suspense and drama, it can be difficult to narrow down what episodes really best exemplify the tumultuous journey of Walter White and those unfortunate enough to be wrapped up in his world. Though it is hard to choose the “best episodes” between all 62 installments of riveting action, each of the episodes I’ve selected instead represents a key moment or turning point, summarizing the evolution of Walter White.

“Crazy Handful of Nothin’,” season 1, episode 6:

The episode that once turned me away from the series now turns back to it — if only I had persevered a few more minutes the first time around! This episode is arguably the first time we see Walter’s façade crack and birth Heisenberg. “Crazy Handful of Nothin’” is exemplary of the show’s ability to pack each episode chock-full of riveting twists. In this episode, Walt shaves his head, officially donning Heisenberg’s trademark look, Hank comes to the high school in search of the missing meth lab equipment, and the drug lord Tuco hospitalizes Jesse. When Walt goes to Tuco in search of his money, he presents himself before the kingpin’s desk, looking meek as full-blown wimp Walt. As a viewer, I thought he was done for. After introducing himself to Tuco and viewers as “Heisenberg” for the first time, he takes what Tuco believed to be a meth crystal (actually fulminated mercury) and throws it to the ground, blowing out the windows of the building and rattling those inside. This serves as our formal introduction not only to Heisenberg but to the soon-to-be recurring theme that Walt’s chemistry genius will be what sets him apart from your average meth cook.

“Phoenix”: season 2, episode 12:

In my eyes, this is the first time we see that the noble-intentioned family man is gone, and a hardened shell of his former self is in his place. This episode epitomizes the dichotomy between Walter White’s two lives. As a quite literal example of his fading family-centric focus, Walt misses the birth of his daughter to complete a drug deal. In the interim, while Holly White was being brought into the world, Walt sat at the edge of Jesse’s bed and watched as Jane, Jesse’s girlfriend, asphyxiates on her vomit from a drug overdose and dies. Beginning with the birth of one daughter, and ending with the death of another, this chilling episode for me truly drew the line in the sand that Walt’s humanity had all but faded. It delivers the first, most prominent evidence that Walt will stop at nothing, and spare no one, to keep his drug ring afloat. 

“Ozymandias”: season 5, episode 14:

“Ozymandias” delivers arguably the moment that the whole series was building up to. As I mentioned before, one of the main tensions of the whole show is the disparity between Hank and Walt — DEA agent tracks drug kingpin who is under his nose the whole time. In the previous episode, “To’hajiilee,” Hank cornered Walt in the desert, where he had fled to protect his money after falling for an elaborate trap. At the beginning of this episode, we find Hank injured, with a gun pointed to his head while Walt pleads for his life. Ironically, this may be one of the greater acts of humanity we see from Walt, who offered up all of his money to spare his brother-in-law’s life. Moments later, however, without so much as a second thought, Walt gives the okay for Jesse, who he has otherwise treated as family, to be executed. Jesse is spared, but Hank dies at the hands of Jack Welker’s white supremacist gang bringing a heart-wrenching end to the suspense that had been built throughout the series thus far. With Hank dead and his family in the dark on what transpired between the two men, Walt sets out on his journey to his new life, and to start working towards “making it all worth it.”