It’s been talked about, watched, and puzzled over. Critics and audiences alike have called it one of the best TV shows of all time. The dialogue and images have become iconic. And, of course, it was filmed right here in New Mexico.
AMC’s Breaking Bad, created by former X-Files writer Vince Gilligan, has been universally lauded, winning ten Emmy Awards and consistently receiving high ratings from critics. Lead actor Bryan Cranston and supporting actor Aaron Paul were in particular singled out for their outstanding work in the series, which lasted from 2008-2013.
The story revolves around Walter White (Cranston), a struggling Albuquerque chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Faced with an uncertain future and his own mortality, Walter takes desperate measures to provide for his family. Unbeknownst to his pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and his disabled teenage son Walter Jr. (R.J. Mitte), Walter teams up with a former student of his, Jesse Pinkman (Paul), in order to cook, manufacture, and distribute crystal meth. In doing so, Walter becomes entangled in a dangerous business that threatens to destroy him and his family, including his in-laws, shallow kleptomaniac Marie (Betsy Brandt) and ruthless DEA agent Hank (Dean Norris).
Walter deals with numerous roadblocks and obstacles as he becomes Heisenberg, the most powerful drug lord in the border region. Things often go awry as he deals with rival suppliers for the cartel, the DEA, and everything in between – all while battling cancer. Helped by Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), a suitably slimy lawyer, Walter and Jesse become living legends in the meth business. Numerous memorable characters emerge in the drug underworld, including the mysterious Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) and the cold-blooded hit man Mike (Jonathan Banks), as Walter and Jesse are enveloped in an unforgiving business.
Initially, studios were uncomfortable with the premise of Gilligan’s show; they didn’t like the fact that the hero becomes the villain in the end. But AMC took a risk – and the rest, as they say, is history. The exceptional writing and jaw-dropping acting kept the show afloat, and also kept fans coming back for more. Cranston, best known as the goofy dad from Malcolm in the Middle, hits a grand-slam as Walter White/Heisenberg. The character is simultaneously appalling and sympathetic. He has a family. He’s dying of lung cancer. But he’s also a ruthless meth distributor whose own pride and greed will stop at nothing. In Gilligan’s own words, Cranston’s performance is “a trick. I still have no idea how he does it.”
On a side note, as intense as this story is, there is no preaching. This isn’t a PSA against drugs, a la “Meth – not even once.” This series does not show the consequences of using hard drugs; rather, it is about one man’s descent into destruction. In New Mexico, a real place that has a rate of drug use triple the national average, the show hit a nerve with people. Breaking Bad is undoubtedly a powerful show that is almost reminiscent of a Greek tragedy.
Gilligan rejected the traditional story arcs of primetime television, making the characters change over time rather than stay in limbo. A lapsed Catholic, Gilligan wanted the show to be about moral consequences, karma, and the cost of a life of crime.
And perhaps that is Breaking Bad‘s greatest strength – the fact that in the dark, unforgiving world of drug trafficking, there is still morality and there is still a cost of not doing the right thing. Despite Walter’s good intentions of wanting to help his family, what he does is still wrong, period. Gilligan went on record as saying that despite his lack of religious beliefs, he still believes in an absolute morality: “If there is no such thing as cosmic justice, what is the point of being good?” Gilligan asks.
In another interview, Gilligan mentioned the philosophy behind the morals of his show:
“I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen. My girlfriend says this great thing that’s become my philosophy as well. ‘I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.'”
In examining the title Breaking Bad (which means “to raise hell”), one can approach it philosophically: what makes a man bad? Is he born that way? Or does he consciously choose to make bad decisions that hurt him and the people he loves? The show certainly takes the latter approach, to its benefit. It’s refreshing to see a TV show with such an honest portrayal of humanity.
I end this post with an encouragement to everyone out there who has not seen this show. Watch it. It’s explosive, harrowing, and poses some great questions.