Crystal Blue Persuasion: The Importance of Breaking Bad

I’ll admit that I was a Jesse-Come-Lately to the Breaking Bad party, but once I started watching the episodes on Netflix back-to-back-to-back-to-back and so on until I started dreaming of meth cooks and breakfast cereal, I couldn’t stop. Something about it was more intriguing than even Mad Men or The Walking Dead — perhaps the questionable motives of the characters, or the way every event made the viewer question their allegiances, or the sheer detail of each prop, camera angle and gesture.

And now on Sunday, after five seasons (four of which took up about three weeks of my life last winter), the show is coming to an end.

But you, because you probably don’t live under a rock, probably already knew that.

I don't think season one's Walt and Jesse knew that.
From the looks on their faces, I don’t think Season One’s Walt and Jesse knew that.

The end of Breaking Bad is not simply the end of a fantastic television show. I talked to a woman yesterday who didn’t watch it but made the comment, “If it’s so good, why are they ending it already?”

My response was, “Because it is, as you say, ‘so good.'”

Flashing back to the 1960s, The Dick Van Dyke Show ran for five seasons. By the end of its tenure, the sitcom was a sensation. The producers chose to cap it at five seasons, however, because they wanted to leave audiences wanting more. Today, BB creator Vince Gilligan is one of the few TV producers with that sensibility.

So that’s just the first reason the show is phenomenal. While other highly acclaimed programs such as Mad Men extend their seasons out until it seems like they’ll never end (AMC just announced the seventh season of the 1960s drama will span two years) or don’t know when to quit (I’m looking at you, Two and a Half Men), BB is making the very smart choice to end the story with a large viewership begging for more. It’s like leaving the party while everyone still wants you there.

Unlike any of the partygoers at Pinkman's week-long meth rave in season four.
Unlike any of the partygoers at Jesse’s week-long meth rave in season four.

The choice to end BB is just the tip of the awesomeness-iceberg, however. The show’s characters are dynamic and represent both self-sacrificing good (Walter’s ongoing mission to leave his family well-supplied after his death) and Satan-like evil (Todd’s murder of a child). Like any realistic group of people, the characters do good things and evil things. What make them different is that — partly thanks to the show’s linear plot — their motivations go deeper than dialogue. Without giving too much away, I’ll cite a recent call that Walt made to Skylar. On the outset, it seemed like he was chewing her out for her stupidity, unaware of the cops tapping the call. For viewers familiar with Walt’s personality, it was his way of making her look innocent. As for Skylar, she breaks the TV-wife mold as a strong woman unafraid of defying her husband and, sadly, dubbed a bitch by viewers because of her outspokenness (actress Anna Gunn addressed the hate toward her character in a New York Times column that’s well worth the read).

Breaking Bad isn’t safe from the pitfalls of other shows in that it does have some of the usual archetypes in the show; Saul Goodman is the snide shyster lawyer with commercials that rival the tackiness of real-life local lawyer TV spots (“Better Call Saul” is now becoming a spinoff series, thank the AMC gods). Huell is his strongman who’s as big as a house. Tucco is the stereotypical Latino cartel leader seen in network TV crime serials. Not every character can be a multi-facetted tour de force. That would take away from the complexity of even minor characters like Marie, whose kleptomania makes her a foil to Walt (he earns what he wants, while she takes what she wants).

Details also play a major part in making BB one of the better shows on television. Books have the ability to take a detail mentioned in the first few pages and apply it to the climax of the story; TV shows, because of their months-long run, have a far harder time. And yet, BB has some of the best detail recall and big-picture symbolism than many pieces of literature. Marie loves the color purple, so her house is always draped in purple. But when she and her husband show up for an awkward meeting with Walt and Skylar (and subsequently refuse the restaurant’s guacamole that’s made table side — table side, damn it!), a purple-clad Hank is the calmest out of the two, and she’s the one with a take-’em-down attitude while wearing black. 

“That’s reading too much into it,” you say.

“That’s what Breaking Bad is for,” I reply. What other show do you know of where two friends get on the phone or on Skype and have a showdown to see who caught more details or found more meaning in small moments of an episode? And I’m not exaggerating; after the third-to-last episode, my friend Ryan called me (I didn’t know people still actually called each other) and we had a rather intense battle of How-Many-Deep-Conclusions-Can-You-Draw-From-50-Minutes-Of-TV. He won, but I’m prepared for the next attack.

As ready as Jesse was with his ricin cigarette.
As prepared as Jesse was with his ricin cigarette, but less homicidal.

I don’t know of any other show that can really do that. Mad Men got close, but it has too big of a cast to be able to focus on any specific character. Conversations about The Walking Dead usually start and end with “Did you see Michonne take down that walker with piano wire?” “Yeah, that was awesome.”

The other night my mom and I were talking about the upcoming season of network shows. “They don’t seem to respect their viewers anymore,” she said resignedly. And that got me thinking; she’s right. Hit shows like Two and a Half Men and Revenge rehash the same jokes, themes, lines, character archetypes and plots as the shows that came before them. They don’t put anything into entertaining their audience because they assume their audience doesn’t need much to be kept happy.

And maybe they’re right in assuming so. Big Brother has been on for 15 seasons, Survivor for at least 20. CSI: has had its ups and downs over a decade, and Two and a Half Men (I know, I’m really picking on that one) just introduced a new character to replace Angus T. Jones.*

*I have more than a few qualms with the idea of having a cartoonish lesbian character be considered the new “half man.”

These shows have been on for a long time, and it’s because we keep watching them. So maybe the audience doesn’t deserve respect. Maybe we’ve showed such little regard for decent shows that make us think (Freaks and GeeksPushing DaisiesArrested Development) that the talented people who actually make good TV don’t feel like trying anymore.

Which is why Breaking Bad is not only a spectacular program (I think I’ve given enough evidence to cover that argument), but also an extremely important program to our television history. It showed jaded TV fans like me who rather pop in a DVD of The West Wing than watch current shows that there were producers and writers out there interested in providing intelligent, forward-thinking entertainment to viewers. In essence, it restored our faith in television as an art form rather than a commercial venture.

Or maybe both.
Or maybe both. (Pictured: Bryan Cranston’s earnings from Breaking Bad Season 4)

I’ll end with this. In eighth grade, I had to put together a poster on 1960s and ’70s television. Instead of hitting up the internet’s infinite wisdom, I sat down with my mom after dinner one night with a legal pad and pen to talk about what she remembered from her time as a kid. The list of shows she gave me was extensive: everything from The Dick Van Dyke Show and Big Valley (a western featuring a matriarch rather than “good ole pa” as head of the family) to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All in the Family. By the end of her impromptu lecture, I had pages of notes on what shows pointed the way to what we see today in our living rooms.

I don’t honestly know what I’d tell a 13-year-old about the 2000 and 2010’s TV scene. Sure, I’ll mention The West Wing as one of the greatest ensemble dramas ever created, and Arrested Development as a sitcom that anticipated the Rewatch Generation long before anyone else did. But apart from that, there’s only one show I could point to and say, “That one. That one I was proud to have watched because it changed the way we thought of TV.”

And that’s Breaking Bad.

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