There are imitators, then there are initiators. And for Vince Gilligan’s dark and brooding tale of one man’s spiralling descent into evil, Breaking Bad very much belongs to the latter category. Having initially placed its big stamp on the small screen back in 2008, the multi-award winning show is now approaching its much-anticipated curtain call. It’s a series that redefined the parameters of the small screen medium; a cerebral, thought-provoking thriller that was absolutely insistent about creating an immoral yet memorable persona. That persona in question is Walter Hartwell White; better known to you, I and the Albuquerque cartel as Heisenberg.
So often a show would ebb and flow in its concluding runs, creatively coaxing on recycled ideas and a general lack of momentum. For Breaking Bad, though, Gilligan’s creation is teetering on the edge of immortality. A fitting conclusion to what has been described as the greatest television show of our time would position the odyssey of Walter White on the medium’s pantheon. The kind of series you compare future television shows against and lambast because, quite simply, “it isn’t as good as Breaking Bad.”
It’s astonishing that the original concept for the show was passed around broadcasting channels six years ago as though it was, well, a stash of illegal methamphetamine. From HBO to FX, Breaking Bad stumbled around the major TV corporations before finally finding its home at AMC. Since this time, it’s attracted coveted guest directors such as Rian Johnson, Michelle MacLaren and Adam Bernstein; created diverse, memorable characters like the tragic Jesse Pinkman and morally oblivious Saul Goodman, and even popularised the use of ‘Bitch!’ in a colloquial context. It’s a show that lures you in with an innocent, cancer-stricken chemistry teacher caught in the limbo of a mid-life crisis before veering abruptly down on the good-guy-gone-really-bad narrative path.
In essence, Walter White, crippled with advanced, inoperable lung cancer, is forced into financially supporting his family before his time runs out; a support that transforms the humble, suburban dad of two into a merciless drug lord. This narrative gamble, one of manufacturing a corrupt central protagonist for mainstream television, has undeniably paid off. Gilligan has established a character arc that is perpetually dark and pretty much immune to compromise, which grants Bryan Cranston’s protagonist a gravitas that stands shoulder to shoulder with James Gandolfini’s monumental role in The Sopranos. It’s no wonder that the audience, myself included, find it difficult to watch just one episode at a time. After all, this is the series that recently earned a place in 2014’s Guinness Book Of World Records as the ‘Highest-Rated TV Show’ courtesy of Metacritic.
And so, after five technically stunning and downright arresting seasons, Walter White will hang up the Heisenberg guise once and for all. It’s an end that we always knew was coming, and to commend his thought-provoking journey, here are eight subsequent reasons why we’ll lament the end of his captivating reign.
Be warned, while I won’t seek out and expose specific plot points, if you aren’t caught up with the show, err on the side of caution – or should I say, tread lightly – before delving into this article.
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1) Skyler White
Now, before you go grabbing your pitchforks, there are a number of reasons why Walter White’s much-maligned other half belongs on this list. Yes, she may be the quintessential ball buster. And yes, she may fundamentally act as the frustrating ying to Heisenberg’s badass yang. Nevertheless, Skyler White is designed to counter and indeed complicate the entire premise of the show; an immovable obstacle in Walter’s path to drug lord supremacy. Anna Gunn, the actress who plays Skyler in the show, recently penned an op-ed over at New York Times addressing the vitriol that her Breaking Bad character so often evokes.
It’s an interesting piece, one which brings to the fore her ability to balance the sociopathic slant that Walter so effortlessly produces during the story. Because at her core, Skyler is a complex female character; a piece of the puzzle that Gilligan could’ve so easily relegated to a love sick wife at home constantly fretting about her husband’s safety. Granted, this is a strand of Skyler’s ethical fibre, but it is merely one piece cut from an intricate, morally ambiguous cloth. She isn’t defined by the overly simplistic archetypes of ‘wife’ and ‘mother’, rather, Skyler White stands shoulder to shoulder with the show’s big players – particularly in seasons 4 and 5, where she is essentially calling the shots.
At least in the earlier seasons, Skyler can be paralleled with the character of Rita from Dexter. Neither fully understood their husband/partner’s suspicious activity; all the while adding an extra layer of dramatic tension to the viewing experience. However, unlike Rita, once Skyler becomes aware of her husband’s drug empire, the narrative provides her with a new, intriguing dynamic that emphasises her place on the Breaking Bad hierarchy. Fling with co-worker notwithstanding, Skyler acts as the legally sane anchor amidst the plot’s sinister happenings – providing Walter with the money laundering option is a case in point. But above all, Mrs. White represents a well-rounded, adaptable character. Of course her moral standing experiences its fair share of peaks and troughs, but can’t the same be said about Walter himself?
Skyler is Walt’s necessary equal and is, arguably, the only character in the show capable of exposing his dormant vulnerability. Aiding and abetting his crystal meth empire is one thing, but doing it in such a way that portrays a realistic depth to her flawed character ultimately makes Skyler White authentic, even believable – bitch or not.Previous Next
2) Walter White/Heisenberg’s Infallible Screen Presence
Much can be said about Bryan Cranston’s turn as Walter White – seriously, I’d run out of superlatives sooner rather than later. In essence, though, he is a complex, challenging protagonist tethered with that one, fundamental moral compromise: the decision to cook crystal meth to provide for his family. As such, his progression as a character becomes all the more palpable as the series unfolds. Once a founding father of Gray Matter Technologies – which evolved into a wealthy, multi-national company – the Mr. White we are introduced to is an underachieving chemistry teacher at J.P. Wynne high school. Although, in the immediate aftermath of his 50th birthday, an unexpected diagnosis of stage-three lung cancer changes Walt’s outlook on life like a drastic tectonic shift within a subterranean plate.
Effectively straddling the morally intricate line between good and evil, Cranston’s on screen persona stamps his authority on the local drugs market with an unusually potent brand of crystal meth; an authority that would grow exponentially with each passing season. As his personality veers from acquiescent to aggressive, we as the audience become attached to this formidable alter-ego precisely because he’s formed before our very eyes. The scene from Breaking Bad‘s pilot where Walter exits a clothes store, only to reappear through the front door to put a group of petty bullies in their place, for example, typifies those early signs of a fractured self. In the case of Mr. White, these proverbial cracks spread rapidly and it isn’t long before he becomes drawn to the power and invigorating nature of his street-wise doppelganger.
We, however, refer to said doppelganger by another name: Heisenberg, the apex predator of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Inspired by physicist Werner Heisenberg – the Nobel Prize winning mind responsible for the Uncertainty Principle – the legacy of Walter’s alternative identity goes far beyond the iconic pork pie hat. Without delving too deeply into the scientific minutia, the parallels between the cook and the scientist are rather apparent. The concept that chaos exists under the veil of monotony is at the crux of Breaking Bad’s narrative arc. It’s clear, then, that Vince Gilligan took time to craft a memorable persona; a layered protagonist that is undoubtedly one of the most appreciated characters of modern television. Once Walter dons the Heisenberg guise – a figurative mask that retains a scene-stealing gravitas much like Batman’s cape and cowl – he is menace personified – and of course, the one who knocks.
Many have placed Breaking Bad’s lead character on the medium’s pantheon beside the late, great James Gandolfini. In fact, Cranston himself has stated that without Gandolfini’s decisive role as Tony Soprano, Walter White would have ceased to exist. Indeed, comparing Cranston with Gandolfini is praise in and of itself. His turn as Walter White is impressive not only because he balances vulnerability with malice so expertly, but because he does so in a way the challenges the audience’s perception of right and wrong.
Quite frankly, if Breaking Bad was the bottle, then Bryan Cranston was the lightning – tighty-whities and all.
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3) The Roster Of Villains
Though Walter White’s moral compass flickers frantically during the course of the show, Breaking Bad has a defined and downright formidable roster of scene-stealing villains. Perhaps one of the show’s most impressive feats, though, is its ability to render an iniquitous, yet memorable personality. Unlike the conventional bad guy archetype, Gilligan’s dark forces feel substantial and perfectly executed. From exploding turtles to bell-ringing cripples, the emphatic nature of Breaking Bad’s morally corrupt is an out-and-out testimony to the creative process at work behind the scenes.
We encounter Walt’s first, villainous obstacle in the form of Tuco Salamanca; a member of the Mexican family that encompasses Hector, Leonel and Marco. Serving as the over-arching antagonist for season one and the preliminary episodes of season two, Tuco is an unhinged sociopath with crucial links to the Juaréz cartel. While his spat with Walter was rather brief in the grand scheme of things, the influential kingpin helped cultivate Heisenberg into existence. After all, it’s only when our questionable protagonist confronts Tuco in season one that he debuts that famous guise for the very first time.
The show then balances Tuco’s erratic, loud-mouthed personality with the silent, but equally intimidating Hector Salamanca; a crippled uncle to Tuco with nothing but a bell to communicate with. It’s a frightening dynamic that the show uses to great effect (more on that later), though the Salamanca lineage also proliferates on into Season 3, where Leonel and Marco come into the fray. Raised under the brutal guidance of their uncle Hector, these twin siblings quickly became a terrifying screen presence. The mechanical movements, the reticent personas; quite frankly, the Salamanca twins – commonly referred to as “The Cousins” by their employer – are like a modern reimagining of the creepy Grady sisters from The Shining.
With that said, perhaps the title of Breaking Bad’s most enduring antagonist belongs to Gustavo Fring; Albuquerque’s very own genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist – you know, sort of. Acting as the figurative Joker to Walter’s Dark Knight, the jarringly calm and chilling founder of Los Pollos Hermanoes is the primary adversary for season four. Played by Giancarlo Esposito, Gus is not only an unconventional villain, his unflinching intelligence and courteous demeanour allows him to preserve a dark alter-ego from the eyes of the public; a feat that arguably emulates Walter’s infrastructure of pretences.
This is illustrated in a brilliantly tense scene during season two, where Gus – having donated to the DEA’s charity event – is given a tour of the department’s offices by Hank. Like a Trojan horse being ushered obliviously through the gates of Troy, Fring is able to acquire information about Walter all the while maintaining his ice cool deception in front of his constabulary affiliates. Given the depth of Gus’ character, though, this is but one example from his catalogue of scenery-chewing moments – his dinner scene with Walter is also exceptional.
But perhaps the most significant element of Gus’ brooding make-up is his peculiar chemistry with Walter. It’s an intriguing dynamic, one which so often evokes the familiar master and apprentice relationship trope. Although, what’s interesting, is that given the fate of the restaurant manager, Walt almost absorbs some of his characteristics – particularly in the current and final season. The ruthlessness. The unwaveringly calm demeanour. Heck, Mr. White even placed a towel down during the “Blood Money” episode to kneel on before he vomited – a very Fring-like trait.
It goes to show that these villains, unlike many antagonists on other, more procedurals television shows, are not disposable; in fact, they are anything but. The way in which their consequences proliferate throughout the series to haunt Mr. White et al typifies the show’s core, cause and effect legacy – the scene of Hank in Walter’s bathroom in season 5 is a prime example of this. They are memorable, well-rounded characters that are to Breaking Bad’s plot what sodium hydroxide is to the methamphetamine process – and we wouldn’t have it any other way.Previous Next
4) Those Signature Desert Stand Offs
Of course, discussing Breaking Bad’s impressive desert environments is a natural segueway from the show’s roster of villains. With much of the instrumental drug deals taking place in the Albuquerque outback, Gilligan channels the Western legacy of John Ford in visualising a beautiful yet arid landscape that can almost be considered a character of its own. Even the very first frame, which opens with a still shot of the New Mexico terrain, is visually striking. The relentless glare from the sun; the harsh and bleak environment, these are all elements that complement the show’s unforgiving theme, which in turn inject that extra layer of dramatic tension to the on screen proceedings.
It’s an alien environment that our two central protagonists – namely Walt and Jesse – struggle to cope with more often than not. This is perfectly illustrated when the inspiring drug duo are held captive by the criminally insane Tuco Salamanca out at his crippled Uncle’s shack. It’s a surreal, intense sequence that plays out remarkably well within the confinement of the hostage archetype. This is but one example from Breaking Bad’s extensive catalogue of desert standoffs, and it’s this unforgiving milieu of the North American Southwest that bestows Gilligan’s creation with a unique personality. Wide shots that position the characters as minute and blurry silhouettes, for example, illustrate that the setting is very much a core component of Breaking Bad’s DNA.
Though Albuquerque may have been initially favoured for its appealing tax breaks, in hindsight it’s difficult to imagine the tale of Walter White taking place anywhere else. The show’s creator even stated that the Albuquerque outback was considered “virgin territory for cinematography.” However, after five visually memorable seasons, Gilligan and his VFX team have irrefutably placed their own stamp on the vastness of North America’s Southwest.
Walter White’s story began out on the American frontier, a terrain in which Heisenberg was born, and it could well be that this same locale acts as his ultimate demise.
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5) The Impeccable Cinematography
From time-lapses to POV shots, every episode of Breaking Bad is infused with a rich and heavily stylised sense of imagery; an all style, all substance means of approach. The result is a visceral viewing experience that is hard to tear your eyes away from. And though he isn’t the sole instigator of the show’s visual language, much of this elegant camerawork can be attributed to Breaking Bad’s cinematographer and recurring director, Michael Slovis. Having joined the show mid-way through season one, Slovis has choreographed much of the visual storytelling – which is artfully captured using 35mm film.
From drug-induced hallucinations to frenetic handheld sequences, each take in Breaking Bad dovetails masterfully with the context. Perhaps the one factor that helps retain the power of these shots is their scarcity. If the risk of novelty is overuse, then Slovis and his VFX team air on the side of efficiency; for every time-lapse and wide shot serves the story organically, rather than feeling like a clichéd quirk. It’s a testimony to the meticulous detail that the director of photography encourages, and it’s a formula that Vince Gilligan doubles down on. For instance, Season 3’s much-loved bottle episode “Fly” is a fantastic example of an episode that is resourceful, visually astute, and all the more gripping for its minimalistic approach. In this sense, the show’s production value and attention to detail is almost unparalleled. A repeat viewing of any given episode allows you to pour over the minutia with a fine-toothed comb, unearthing clever plot devices and foreshadowing motifs as you go –the pink teddy bear that fell from the doomed flight 737, anyone?
With that said, it’s in the harsh terrain of the Albuquerque outback where the show’s astute visual language really comes to the fore. With the desert as his proverbial palette, Slovis utilises a bold, almost glaring use of light to emphasis the unforgiving nature of the surrounding terrain. It’s an environment that the illustrious DP has wholly embraced, resulting in an impeccable sense of place that is knowingly reminiscent of cinematic auteur Sergio Leone – the Italian godfather of the Western genre.
The atmospheric yellows, the striking meth-tined blues; heck, even Marie’s obsession with purple has become a recurring motif. Above all, though, these stylistic tendencies layer the show with added significance. From the aforementioned, perfectly executed desert scenes, to the montage sequences which, in particular, illustrate the manufacturing of crystal meth with such precision, you almost have to remind yourself that it is, in fact, a dramatisation.
You know, whenever someone asks you what makes Breaking Bad so special, it’s easy to praise the phenomenal acting by the central cast coupled with the riveting story. With that said, perhaps one undervalued element that absolutely sets the show apart is the at times flawless cinematography.Previous Next
6) The Almost Omnipresent Sense Of Tension
There’s been a tonne of digital ink spilled about Breaking Bad’s perpetual atmosphere. As a series, it generates a substantial amount of tension over its episodic run so that when the pay off arrives, and those signature confrontations occur, it’s like a dormant volcano awakening from its slumber – particularly in this decisive season, where the proverbial foundations have been rocked on more than one occasion. These crescendos – Walk and Hank in the garage, for example – are so effective precisely because they serve to unravel a four-and-a-half-season web of lies and deceit. A structure that has become so fragile, one simple disturbance would send vibrations searing through each of its intricate strands.
Though these pay-offs are suitably mesmerising when they detonate, Breaking Bad excels most in its cognitive approach to character continuity. It’s so precise and attentive, that as an audience member privy to the majority of information, witnessing the reveals is extremely satisfying because they feel consistent both tonally and in terms of narrative. Of course, these impressive, storytelling structures have to have a foundation: Walt’s over-arching secrecy; which is a plot device that acts as the lifeblood to the ubiquitous tension.
Keeping these dual existences separate is the fragile lynchpin in Walter’s illicit masterplan. With that said, part of the intrigue is when these identities begin to bleed into one another and the show poses the question: where exactly does Walter White end and Heisenberg begin? There’s such a palpable disparity between the unassuming family man and street-smart meth kingpin, that by the latter seasons of the show, the dramatic presence of Walter White on screen is enough to make you wring your hands with anxiety. This is perhaps best visualised during the domestic sequences that take the typical elephant-in-the-room trope to a whole new level. Plus, given the White family’s propensity to eat their dinner in complete silence, these scenes in particular are taciturn, even pensive, and stir the simmering cauldron of tension to great effect.
A key component to the enduring air of suspense, though, is Dave Porter’s versatile musical score. Having provided the non-diegetic soundtrack intermittently since the fourth episode of season one, Porter has helped channel the tone and theme of Breaking Bad with his stressed, on the nail vibes that not only accompany the crucial scenes, but compound the eerie and chilling atmosphere that defines Breaking Bad. From melancholy to apprehension, waywardness to betrayal, Porter’s compositions are as complex and multi-faceted as the show itself, and I for one can’t wait to hear how he complements the final hours of Walt’s tale with his score.
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7) The Dark Humour
Though the show has established its legacy with an unflinching approach to casualty and consequence, Vince Gilligan has undoubtedly weaved an intricate strand of dark humour through Breaking Bad’s narrative that counters its brooding tenor tremendously well. From Walt’s clumsy venture into the drug business in season one to the introduction – and continuing absurdity – of Saul Goodman from the second season onwards, the dark humour always comes as a welcomed change in tone that doesn’t detract from the show’s immense quality.
Perhaps the core of Breaking Bad’s comedic slant, though, is the dynamic between Walter and his former student Jesse. Dysfunctional, mismatched and almost always at odds; Albuquerque’s bumbling duo always seem to find themselves in the oddest of circumstances. For example, the energetic, at times outrageous attempts to avoid capture – such as the famous acid bath scene from “Cat’s in Tthe Bag…” – are so brilliantly bizarre that it’s hard not to find them entertaining. Of course, this is a tribute to Gilligan’s modus operandi, which visualises Walt’s peculiar tale in such a way that you never anticipate the events around the corner; be they comedic or dramatic.
The show’s particular humour spectrum, which ranges from the flippant to the pitch black, is embellished by the unique characters. Jesse’s enduring charismatic energy, for example, has inspired many beloved, t-shirt worthy quotes such as, “Yeah, Mr White! Yeah, Science!” or “This is my own private domicile and I will not be harassed, bitch!” These are but a few of the on-the-nose quips from the back catalogue of Aaron Paul’s character, who plays Jesse and all his luckless, at times tragic idiosyncrasies to perfection. Walt’s jovial partner in crime is only one example from the show’s excellent supporting cast, though. Mike Ehrmantraut – a.k.a World’s Best Grandad – is dry wit personified and when we are introduced to him in the finale of the second season, his relationships with Walt and, in particular, Jesse are simultaneously interesting and riddled with comedic irony.
With that said, when it comes to discussing the dark humour residing within Breaking Bad, it would be foolish to omit Saul McGill from the conversation. Better known as Saul Goodman – a fabricated pseudonym so that his name serves as the play on words, ‘S’all good, man!’ – Bob Odenkirk’s shamelessly cunning lawyer has become a hilarious cornerstone of the show. To label Saul as mere comedic relief, though, would grossly undervalue his character. The fact that the flippant schemer is getting his own spin-off series is a testimony to the depth of Breaking Bad’s supporting cast; though whether these standalone episodes survive on their own without the tonal contrast and indeed presence of Heisenberg et al remains to be seen.Previous Next
8) Vince Gilligan’s World – In All Its Relentlessly Addicting Glory
This factor serves as the ultimate tip of the hat to Breaking Bad in and of itself. As we reach the impending conclusion of the show, it’s easy to become swept up in the surrounding hyperbole. Heck, fan theories are circulating the internet like wildfire; particularly now, with the week by week episode structure carving out the space for intermittent speculation. Although this passion is perfectly rational, taking the time to step back from the show allows you to appreciate it for all its masterful qualities. Without echoing everything I’ve previously touched on – the well-written characters, the cinematography and Walter’s dark sense of empowerment, to name but a few – the minutia of the show, the very nuances between the characters as they flit between laudable and despicable bestow Breaking Bad with an addictive, almost infectious superiority.
The degradation of Walter White has been parodied, referenced and reappropiated over a plethora of different platforms. From music videos to fan art, Lego animations to a sketch in Family Guy, Breaking Bad has firmly cemented its legacy in the proverbial zeitgeist wall due to its TV excellence. Characters don’t just establish a narrative path, wrap themselves firmly within their status quo and then sleepwalk through the series. No. For Breaking Bad, characters evolve in response to their surrounding circumstances and challenge the very expectations of the audience as a result. One of the more recent scenes that encapsulated this in particular was during “Rabid Dog.” Due to a series of events that she couldn’t control, Skyler turns to Walt and murmurs, “What’s one more?” It was an unsympathetically ruthless quip from Mrs. White that perfectly portrayed her increasingly detached persona and, crucially, her acceptance of Walt’s immoral actions. From stoic to stone cold, Skyler’s stark metamorphosis can be directly paralleled with that of her other half in the sense that her personal transformation blatantly plays out before the audience’s very eyes.
It’s for this reason that we become so attached to the characters and their subsequent moral yo-yoing. For instance, Walt’s manipulation of Jesse – which has reached a tipping point in recent episodes – is so infuriating that it’s simultaneously hard to watch and perhaps even more difficult to switch off. Not only that, those unyielding sequences where Walter retains his po-faced, duplicitous expression in front of Walt Jr. are equally unbearable; such as the scene where he manipulates his son into not going to Marie’s house. Of course, this bold layer of deceit blankets the entire series which, coupled with the superior cliff-hangers and intriguing characters caught amidst Heisenberg’s subsequent maelstrom, it’s no wonder Breaking Bad and binge-watching go hand in hand.
With that said, Vince Gilligan’s tale is nearing its impending conclusion faster than any of us would like. In hindsight, the decision to divide season five into two distinct, 8-episode runs was effective in not only prolonging the show, but allowing the anticipation to simmer close to boiling point so that the eventual pay-off will be all the more satisfying. In fact, the show’s creator has even stated that he battled with depression during this hiatus due to the overhanging prospect of providing fans with a consistent ending. However, Gilligan now believes he is proud of the end result that will (hopefully) live up to his own stratospheric standards; standards that aren’t likely to emulated for a very long time.
The final episode of Breaking Bad will air on AMC Sunday, 29th September, before becoming available on Netflix in the UK on Monday 30th. In the meantime, tell us what you’ll miss most about the show in the comments below.Previous