This past Sunday saw one of television’s most impressive shows fade to black. For over six years, Breaking Bad dared us to watch a mild-mannered man morph into a hellacious beast. The evolution of Walter White, a man who was once dedicated to his family but couldn’t prevent his hubris from eclipsing his soul, was beyond anything we could’ve asked for from a television show. Featuring tightly wound scripts, meticulously crafted characters, and cinematography that could rival work found in film, Breaking Bad is not only one of the pillars of TV’s golden age, but casts great shame onto a handful of cinematic efforts that invade the multiplexes week after week. Perhaps an apples to apples comparison between a television show and any given film is unfair. After all, a film inevitably has to end, while a television show can tweak its formula over the course of its entire run, if not a single season. Despite that major difference, a show as brazen as Breaking Bad demands adoration. Each episode brought an immense amount of raw drama to our homes, and it always toyed with our expectations as a modern-day Icarus laid claim to his throne while the bones of the innocent accumulated at his feet. Very rarely did the show veer towards convention, and when it did, it tricked us into believing we knew where we were going. Instead, it drove us off a cliff and let gravity guide us to a bone crushing demise.
The twists and turns undoubtedly lead to some shocking television. A few of the narrative detours even reached a level of depravity that would make most film executives nauseous. Because of its interest in exploring the abyss of a human’s soul, Breaking Bad made little time for emotional indifference. Rather, it was deeply invested in testing the audience. In most episodes, moral ambiguity reigned supreme, as creator Vince Gilligan and his crew of writers forced us to discern between triumph and tragedy, the innocent and the guilty, and the redeemable and the unforgivable. It was one of the more entertaining ways to take a Rorshach test. If only more films were like this, tying knots in our stomachs while leaving us to reconcile the principles we hold dear against the allegiances we forge with particular characters. Realistically, for us and the characters in Vince Gilligan’s darkly warped world, there are no clean getaways. A challenging narrative bearing an impressive thematic weight is just one of the reasons why many people hold television in a higher regard than films at the moment.
Complicating our reaction to the bad deeds of Walter White was Bryan Cranston’s towering performance every week. Cranston didn’t play Walter White anymore than he crawled into his skin and laid claim to his poisoned soul, spitting venom when he wasn’t deviously using another human being’s faults as a weapon of influence. Impressively, beneath the increasingly hardened skin of Walter White, Cranston managed to maintain an ounce of human decency and afforded us the opportunity to at least understand how a man could be seduced into a destructive life. With everyone loving a hero, Walter White’s success as a character, and to a degree a pop culture icon, is a monumental feat. The varying textures the character possesses overshadows just about anything on TV or in cinema. Realistically, both mediums should take a cue from Breaking Bad and find ways to create characters who are painfully complicated, not archetypes that sell to all four quadrants of the market. In my humble opinion, an anti-hero is far more relatable than a morally adjusted lead, if only because through their fragmented prism we can understand the malevolent urges boiling within ourselves, and maybe, just maybe, how to keep them in check.
Daring, provocative, and wildly entertaining, Breaking Bad is an unrelenting show that etches its place in entertainment history by following a monstrosity of a man destroying those around him in search of validation. It murders convention, ratchets up the tension, and, most importantly, challenges the moral ground we stand on. Nothing will likely be as great, but we’ll use it as a benchmark for quality years down the road. Television fans should champion its existence until the Sun burns out, and film mavens should demand this kind of quality in their cinemas. I pray we’ll see something this
good bad again.