I Am the One Who Knocks: The PopMatters' 'Breaking Bad' Companion
Our two-week-long Breaking Bad special section begins today. The show is a singular entity in the most-millennial television landscape, one that is heart-wrenching as it is funny, quirky as it is visceral. Let PopMatters show you every conceivable way that one can go out in the world and truly break bad.
Edited by Evan Sawdey and Produced by Evan Sawdey and Sarah Zupko
Bell. Bathtub. Cousins. ATM. Fly. Karaoke. Pizza. "Run."
There are very few pieces of art, whether they be TV shows, movies, novels, music, or theatre, where a single word can evoke so many vivid memories and moments. Yet Breaking Bad is unlike most shows, and each one of those words above, upon mere mention to even a casual observer, immediately conjures up a lavish set of visuals, feelings, and personal memories. Breaking Bad is a singular entity in the most-millennial television landscape, a show that is heart-wrenching as it is funny, quirky as it is visceral. The one sentence pitch -- a high school chemistry teacher discovers he has cancer so begins cooking crystal meth as a way to provide for his family -- was intriguing enough, but over the course of five breathtaking seasons, Breaking Bad has explored moral territory that is so dark, twisted, and debate-prone that despite its modest viewership, its impact across popular culture could be felt near-immediately. "Is there really blue crystal meth?" Stephen Colbert once asked creator Vince Gilligan. "There is now," Gilligan replied.
The story of the show's inception has been told many times over: after Gilligan -- a former X-Files scribe who was looking for work following the show's ending (almost everyone in the industry expected him to go straight into film) -- had a conversation with a friend about how under the right circumstances a perfectly normal person could make some dangerous decisions with their life, the idea for a character, Walter White, formed in his mind. It wasn't a very sexy pitch, but Gilligan's work spoke for itself, and he could at least arrange some meetings. He pitched it to every network you could imagine, but things never fully panned out until he took it to AMC, who was looking to make their mark with some original programming, the only other show they had in development being this little series called Mad Men. While there was some chatter from other networks about the show's prospects once AMC began taking a serious look at Gilligan's vision, the deal-clencher was when AMC offered Gilligan the chance to direct the pilot, setting the tone and visual style for the rest of the series that followed. Faster than you could say "fulminated mercury", a deal was set.
When it came to casting the lead, however, Gilligan was fairly adamant about bringing in his good friend Bryan Cranston, whom all of Hollywood remembered as the goofy father Hal from Malcolm in the Middle. Having worked with him on an X-Files episode called "Drive", wherein he had to play a horrendous character that the audience was actually supposed to sympathize with at the end, Gilligan made a strong pitch for Cranston, and before long, the former Seinfeld nemesis was secured in what would soon turn out to be the defining role in a career already filled with several of them. Cranston once said that if he died and was only remembered as Hal from Malcolm, he'd die a happy man, and he never once has hidden from the fact that he feels blessed for scoring yet another one of those rare "roles of a lifetime".
While the main cast was rounded out with Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, and RJ Mitte (and would later feature Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, and Giancarlo Esposito in some remarkably juicy recurring roles), it was the role of White's dropout, meth-making chemistry student Jesse Pinkman that proved to have a remarkably lasting legacy: his character was supposed to be killed off after just a few episodes, but after seeing what Aaron Paul -- who was best known for a small role on Big Love and two forgettable throwaway scenes in Mission: Impossible III at the time -- did with the role, he was written as a full-time character, and now it's literally impossible to think of what the show would've been like without him.
Yet what intrigues most about Breaking Bad isn't its as much its story, writing, acting, or directing (although all of those elements are equally stunning). From the get-go, Gilligan has said the series was about turning "Mr. Chips into Scarface", having seen so many TV shows start and end with the good guys still being the good guys and the bad guys still being the bad guys. Walter White's course was sewn of a much darker fabric, and while today we celebrate noted television anti-heroes like Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Vic Mackey and, well, almost half the characters of The Wire, Chuck Klosterman, in a 2011 piece that appeared on Grantland, nailed down one of the most hardest-to-articulate aspects of the show's intrigue:
This is where Breaking Bad diverges from [The Wire, Mad Men, and The Sopranos]. Breaking Bad is not a situation in which the characters' morality is static or contradictory or colored by the time frame; instead, it suggests that morality is continually a personal choice. When the show began, that didn't seem to be the case: It seemed like this was going to be the story of a man (Walter White, portrayed by Bryan Cranston) forced to become a criminal because he was dying of cancer. That's the elevator pitch. But that's completely unrelated to what the show has become. The central question on Breaking Bad is this: What makes a man "bad" -- his actions, his motives, or his conscious decision to be a bad person? Judging from the trajectory of its first three seasons, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan believes the answer is option No. 3. So what we see in Breaking Bad is a person who started as one type of human and decides to become something different. And because this is television -- because we were introduced to this man in a way that made him impossible to dislike, and because we experience TV through whichever character we understand the most -- the audience is placed in the curious position of continuing to root for an individual who's no longer good. And this is not a case like J.R. Ewing or Al Swearengen, where a character's over-the-top evilness immediately defined his charm; this is a series in which the main character has actively become evil, but we still want him to succeed. At this point, Walter White could do anything and I would continue to support his cause. In fact, his evolution has been so deft that I feel weird describing his persona as "evil," even though I can't justify why it would be incorrect to do so. Gilligan detailed this process in a recent interview with Newsweek: "Television is historically good at keeping its characters in a self-imposed stasis so that shows can go on for years or even decades. When I realized this, the logical next step was to think, how can I do a show in which the fundamental drive is toward change?"
In that same Newsweek article, the writer suggests Walter White's on-going metamorphosis is what makes Breaking Bad great. But that doesn't go far enough. It's not just that watching White's transformation is interesting; what's interesting is that this transformation involves the fundamental core of who he supposedly is, and that this (wholly constructed) core is an extension of his own free will. The difference between White in the middle of Season 1 and White in the debut of Season Four is not the product of his era or his upbringing or his social environment. It's a product of his own consciousness. He changed himself. At some point, he decided to become bad, and that's what matters.
Of course, this isn't to say that the show has its flaws, much as how Mad Men, The Sopranos, and The Wire all have their prospective flaws as well. Breaking Bad's Season Two climax -- after numerous flashback teases revealed more and more of what appeared to be a massively tragic event at the White's house -- felt like a bit of a sucker-punch when we found out what it actually was, and even Gilligan admitted that the writers had plotted that season out a bit too meticulously, soon course-correcting themselves by writing the nearly-mute characters of "The Cousins" at the start of Season Three, unsure of where they would end up, eventually writing themselves into corners where the only way out is the heart-stopping showdown that is "One Minute", one of the series several landmark episodes.
Yet if Breaking Bad could be boiled down into two major strengths, it would be its pacing and its continuity. While these don't seem like great strengths from the onset, one only needs to look at the show's truly flawless Season Four to see these aspects in fluid motion. While most shows simply want to flesh out the characters and plot enough to build up the next major set piece, Breaking Bad takes its time. In Season Four, after a stunning and bloody season opener in the form of the episode "Box Cutter", the show's next nine episodes slowly build a harrowing plot, providing few real "action" sequences to instead focus on the characters, the dynamics, and slowly -- sometimes painfully -- turning the screws of tension, leading to revelatory, horror-movie-like moments like "Crawl Space", after which the show proceeds to raise the stakes so high that watching an episode becomes a nail-biting exercise in true suspense (and with the show's moral ambiguity, it is completely unafraid to kill of characters at a moment's notice, making it truly impossible to predict what will happen next -- a true rarity).
The show's other big strength lies in how it depicts someone paying back taxes. No, this is not a joke. After Walt's long-suffering wife Skyler decides to go back to work for a former boss who holds a flame for her, Skyler signs off on some accounting records that she knows are fraudulent. It's a storyline that appears to drop-off, as most story-lines in TV shows often do, but no, it's not until whole later seasons that the consequences of her actions come back, setting even more events and desperate measures in motion. While this event might be almost trivial to some, Breaking Bad's juggling of such small details, and the consequences that stem from, is one of the things that actually keep it grounded, thus preventing the show's notable lapses into sights that are comical or even surreal (like the exposition-enhancing mariachi music video that opens Season Two's "Negroy y Azul") from floating too far off point.
While numerous think-pieces have already been written about the show, places like the Onion A.V. Club do top-notch episode recaps as they happen, and blogs like Heisenberg Chronicles collect some of the finest fan art ever assembled for a TV show (a lot of which you will see on display here), we here at PopMatters took a broader approach in analyzing the show's legacy. With the show's conclusion upon us, we are blessed with the art of perspective, able to not just discuss something like the pilot in depth, but also see where the seeds were sewn for important developments later on, catching those philosophical underpinnings as they happen, and then bring the whole thing into a broader, widescreen perspective.
There is so much to take in with Breaking Bad -- ranging from characters as profoundly unique as Gustavo Fring to the show's remarkably astute use of its New Mexico filming location to even the frequent Janus-invoking use of alter-egos and self-prescribed identities -- that we couldn't keep it into one mere overview. Instead, the PopMatters Breaking Bad Companion features numerous articles about virtually every aspect of the series, discussing everything from the Walt-Jesse teacher-pupil relationship to a defense of the frequently misunderstood Skyler White, along with a Frame-By-Frame overview of the show that features a detailed analysis of every single episode thus far and how these individual episodes fit into the series' overarching conceit.
So park the R.V., fry up some veggie bacon, and put your pitch-black pork pie hat on: Heisenberg and all his friends (and enemies) are here. Let PopMatters show you every conceivable way that one can go out in the world and truly break bad...
-- Evan Sawdey