10 Reasons Breaking Bad Is Still Underrated, Yes, Underrated

Breaking Bad11 10 Reasons Breaking Bad Is Still Underrated, Yes, Underrated

The main reason I would insist that Breaking Bad, which made its glorious final return to our televisions on Sunday, is perpetually underrated is that it’s virtually impossible to overstate just how good this show is. We’re in an era where there are few singular pinnacles of achievement that are universally accepted as great. There are Breaking Bad fans, but there are also Game of Thrones fans, Mad Men peeps, Walking Dead enthusiasts, all claiming their favorites are the greatest TV shows of all time. The sad passing of James Gandolfini brought out many voices reasserting that The Sopranos is the best or at least the most important TV drama of all time and the default choices for numbers two and three on that podium are Deadwood and The Wire. The debate over the best and the pluralistic nature of modern cultural opinion—generally positive aspects of the current climate—might as well fall by the wayside for the time being.

It’s certainly standing on top of these aforementioned lofty shoulders, but Vince Gilligan’s show has to be considered modern television’s Michael Jordan: other shows may exist in the same medium, the same league, but Breaking Bad is operating on a level higher than any other, gliding over all as it were. It’s easy to disregard as slick trash given its fanboyish base of followers, especially if you’re, you know, lazy. I’d say it’s more of a testament to the cast and crew of the show that it functions as compelling drama, suspenseful action, Shakespearean tragedy, cinematic expression and dark comedy all at once. Works that appeal to what’s considered the high and low ends of the spectrum of appreciation of art are especially valuable because they expose the two for being rather arbitrarily distinct and far more similar than either side would freely admit. Great art doesn’t have to be a slog, and entertainment doesn’t have to be dumb.

Here are 10 reasons Breaking Bad deserves to be universally recognized as TV’s greatest achievement thus far.

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1) It gets better and better from season to season

Breaking Bad2 10 Reasons Breaking Bad Is Still Underrated, Yes, Underrated

This is a rare feat for TV shows to achieve; the tendency is usually for an exceptionally good show to have the trajectory of a strong first season, a couple other subsequent seasons of high quality material, and then a sad decline into irrelevancy before trying to salvage a compelling conclusion. I’ve also heard other series with five-season formats be compared to Shakespearean tragedies that play out in five acts, with the story’s climax coming in Act III. The Wire could be said to follow this design, considering its fifth season that underwhelmed its audience.

Breaking Bad, on the other hand, while maintaining this five-act arc, seems to be getting more and more technically impressive, narratively airtight, and emotionally and dramatically satisfying. It’s possible that its thematic climax indeed came at the end of Season 3, when Walter, through Jesse, actively kills his first relatively innocent victim. But Season 4 witnessed the murderous chess match between Walt and Gus, which culminated in its own explosive finale. Season 5 is heading towards Walt versus The World, whether it’s Mike, Jesse, or Hank. The first two seasons seem less significant because of their scope; they’re meant to set up the character of Walter and the progression of his character’s metamorphosis is brought on by the scope of his ambition, so the stakes are naturally going to be higher. As the second half of Season 5 approaches, the tension is building to a fever pitch, which is exactly where its creators want it to be.

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2) People unfairly judge it solely by its early seasons

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I have obviously recommended Breaking Bad to countless people, and most take to it pretty much immediately. Others, though, are less impressed by the first two seasons, and this disappointment is kind of understandable. The first season especially, hampered and shortened by that infamous Writers’ Strike of 2008, does not on its own indicate that the series deserves the praise it went on to receive. It dials up the intensity in Season 2, but it’s really not until seasons 3 and 4 that the show really developed the renown it holds today.

It’s actually probably more apt to say it dialed up the heat a bit. To use the show’s own chemical analogy angle, the first two seasons operate on something of a slow burn, and it reaches a boiling point later than most series may have done (that sad metaphor is brought to you by my arts degree). All that’s to say is that the show takes it time and slowly builds momentum as it goes, so its beginning and eventual ending are going to be remarkably different in their pacing, without a doubt. But it’s also a show that is specifically about change, the change in its hero who becomes an anti-hero, as well as the very nature of what it would take for a mild mannered person to change into a cold-hearted killer. That makes it perfectly understandable why it feels almost like a completely different show from Season 1 to Season 5—the tone of the show changes with its protagonist. So if you’re one of those people who is skeptical that Breaking Bad is as good as people say, give it time to heat up.

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3) There has not been a TV show that is more visually compelling

Breaking Bad4 10 Reasons Breaking Bad Is Still Underrated, Yes, Underrated

The opening to Season 3 marked a dramatic change in the way Breaking Bad was going to present itself visually, and was possibly the most stunning, most cinematic sequence ever to appear on a television episode at the time. It was an introduction to the Cousins, the Salamanca Twins we’d be intrigued by for much of the season, and an announcement that this season of the show would be different than the previous two.

All we see in this prologue to the episode “No Mas” is a number of people crawling in the Mexican sand towards some hut that houses a deity Vince Gilligan revealed is Santa Muerte. The religious rite featured is odd enough, and then we see two twins emerge from a Mercedes and join in on the congregational sand crawl. It all builds to the reveal that they are serving up a drawing of Heisenberg to their death god.

This is some high end Coen brothers shit right here. No words are spoken, no explanation given; we’re left only with the images and the surrealistic impression it leaves with us. And we instantly know these twins are important and want to know more. The show has continued to do this as it has gone forward. Cinematographer Michael Slovis is earning loads of accolades for his work, and deservedly so. The show’s distinct look, both the way it shoots Albuquerque, New Mexico as well as good old Mexico itself, are uniformly gorgeous and haunting with they need to be. Even little things like the way it pulls back to a wide shot as we watch Walt shoot and kill two men in Season 3’s penultimate episode, a contrast to the tight closeup of Jesse pointing the gun at Gale in the season’s closing shot. Many of its visual strengths go undetected yet contribute to the menacing spirit of the show’s final seasons. Despite being a writer’s medium, Breaking Bad has found a way to express itself more cinematically than any series to come before.

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4) It has always known exactly the show that it wants to be

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When people have gone back to rewatch Breaking Bad from its beginning after having seen a few seasons, the most common observation is that from the very first episode the show clearly states its motives. From the first moment that we see Walt in the chemistry classroom, he’s talking about chemistry being the science of change, solution and dissolution, transformation. Vince Gilligan has described many times that his goal in this series was to see if he could turn Mr. Chips into Scarface—taking a harmless, non-threatening man and turning him into a merciless drug lord. It’s his own personal chemistry experiment, playing out before our eyes.

The crazy thing about it is that it seems to have worked. The transformation of Walter White into Heisenberg, or maybe more accurately, the bringing out of the Heisenbergian properties that were in Walter all along by his circumstances, has made for one of the most exciting and mesmerizing stories of our generation. It’s an experiment that capitalizes on the inherent qualities of the medium of television that I alluded to earlier. Because we tend to experience television in the present, that it unfolds before us seemingly in real time and week after week, year after year, has the potential to veer off in unexpected ways, taking a character and transforming him into someone else entirely is risky in terms of convention, but incredibly compelling material. The fact that it’s an unfinished story makes its potential energy part of the equation to hold our interest. This was Gilligan’s whole prerogative, and this linear intention has proved to be transformative for the medium itself.

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5) Its focus is fairly singular and straightforward

Breaking Bad9 10 Reasons Breaking Bad Is Still Underrated, Yes, Underrated

A result of the clear concept that Vince Gilligan and company had for the show from day one has been the singularity of focus on the character of Walter White and the concept of cause and effect, the consequences of choices and the responsibility of the individual. Virtually every aspect of the show is meant to elucidate where Walter is at, what he’s up against, what his state of mind is, and what he has to react to.

Plenty of shows tries to do what Breaking Bad has excelled at, and that is the expansion and contraction of its universe. There’s something deeply satisfying about this, perhaps because it parallels the history of our own universe. Think of Game of Thrones, the way we started out with this world of characters who became separated and spread out all over the world, with indications or at least the expectation that they’ll be brought back together at some point (and with some exceptions). True Blood has done this in its strongest seasons, but lost this focus over time, and suffered as a result it would seem. Gilligan’s team has never strayed from this emphasis on Walt. Even the seemingly peripheral stories, like the airline crash and Gus’ backstory, are meant to show the vast effects of Walt’s initial decision to cook meth. It all comes back to that choice, his decision to manufacture this harmful drug to pay medical bills and finance his family’s future rather than accepting handouts from friends. That makes everything in the show an offshoot of one decision, and is why the whole story feel more firmly anchored than most others.

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6) It features complex supporting characters

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It’s another aspect of the show that gets overlooked, but for a show that is so focused on its protagonist, Breaking Bad boasts a cast of supporting characters that are subtly and beautifully richly developed. For all the internet malice directed at her, Skyler has really been retroactively validated as a voice of reason in the face of a husband who is murdering people and making drugs that are subsequently ruining countless lives. Of course, she gives in to Walt to an extent, but continues to be one of the few voices of morality in the show. Jesse, likewise, has become perhaps the show’s new hero, the only one who can potentially stop Walter’s reign of terror.

My two personal favorites, as much as I love Saul Goodman (what a name for a lawyer, “’sall good, man!”), are Hank and Gus. Gus’ own arc that was detailed in Season 4 is set up to be compared with Walt’s, that they’re two opposing forces that were essentially destined to come to a head. And Giancarlo Esposito is phenomenal in the role. Hank though, man. Hank is the prototypical cop character told from the inside out, a master class in masculine bravado used as a cover for deep insecurities and anxieties, who wears the mask of an oaf while being extremely serious and good at his job. His world comes crumbling down after he gets shot, but instead of succumbing to his fears and embarrassment at having his wife essentially become his mother and caregiver, he pretty much singlehandedly discovers the identity of Heisenberg. He might be the show’s protagonist in this final act.

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7) It takes some impressive, ambitious formal risks

Breaking Bad7 10 Reasons Breaking Bad Is Still Underrated, Yes, Underrated

Television directors are starting to earn attention and admiration from watchers like never before, and Breaking Bad has done its share of ushering in tremendous new directorial talents as well as securing the skills of established filmmakers for various episodes. The big breakout star of the series behind the scenes seems to be Michelle MacLaren, directing several episodes of the final two seasons, including the brilliant Season 5A finale. She’s also directed episodes in the past season of Game of Thrones.

Another director gaining notice for contributions to the show has been Rian Johnson, noted director of Looper and Brick, and the man behind the famous “Fly” episode of Season 3. This episode more than perhaps any other highlighted the series’ willingness to go out on a limb for the sake of experimentation.

Yes, it was conjured up because they had gone over budget for the season, but its execution and masterful expression of these characters made it one of the series’ most beloved episodes. The whole series also has a few signatures, some more effective and provocative than others, but the fact that it tries different visual and rhythmic schemes shows its commitment to novelty in its storytelling. The leitmotif of the rear tracking shot of various characters, like Walt walking toward Gus’ house, or Gus walking towards Hector’s home, resonates. The POV shots from the perspective of the bottom of a grave garner less enthusiasm for me personally, although others eat it up. The ambition of the series extends far beyond its storytelling itself, to style, cinematic expression, and a stated willingness to experiment. It deserves enormous credit for this.

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8) It has redefined the “Oh shit!” moment in TV

breakingbad gusbombed 10 Reasons Breaking Bad Is Still Underrated, Yes, Underrated

The “Rains of Castamere” episode of Game of Thrones saw perhaps the largest outpouring of grief we have ever seen in a TV moment, an unexpected (for non-readers) turn of events in a series committed to reminding its audience that no character is safe and all men (and sometimes women and unborn infants) must die. But one thing the show taught us, and it did so even more specifically through the liberties taken in its adaptations from the novel, is that these moments are far more affecting when they are preceded by stories and characters in which we have become deeply invested. The depth of investment is crucial. It’s only with these levels of depth that “oh shit” moments can reach their proper heights.

It’s the way Breaking Bad sets up its big moments that gives them their enormous punch. For a while, it revolves around our investment in Walt; we’re rooting for him. As he becomes more villainous, Jesse becomes the center of our investment, although Walt still carries sentimental value without question. So when Walt first throws down the fulminated mercury at Tuco and Co., we’re relieved and excited that he has not only escaped a tight spot, but asserted himself as a player to be reckoned with. We’re relieved when he saves Jesse from certain death in his car, and shocked when he shoots the perpetrators in the head before he tells Jesse, “Run.” And then we feel for Jesse as he points his gun at Gale, to save Walt’s life and, to him, his own. We’re more familiar with Walt and so his victory over Gus feels sweet, although we should question how sound this moral logic is. The point is the setup of these moments comes from terrific dramatization but also tremendous characterization, and the way it pulls off these moments is unparalleled. And what other show can say that during one of its biggest “oh shit” moments, a character is actually taking a shit?

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9) The long stretches between “Oh shit” moments are just as absorbing

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I try really hard to resist the impulse of simply looking forward to the next big set piece and appreciating the drama and relationships that take place between the “oh shit” moments, but it can be difficult. I have to admit that I did not appreciate Walt’s “I am the danger” speech the first time around because I was so tightly clenched in anticipation of what was going to happen with Gus. That’s why when most people take the time to go back and watch episodes again, the dialogue and texture of scenes comes out a lot more. The “one who knocks” lines may be the most popular example of how beautifully written the show can be. It’s a perfect little monologue, beautifully delivered by Bryan Cranston, who has become a one-man intensity machine, the type of leading man we can’t take our eyes off of and are constantly thinking about when he’s offscreen.

The aforementioned side stories involving supporting characters are also a big reason why the scenes between the big climactic moments never fail to hold our interest. And then there’s the less climactic moments that are nonetheless oh shit-worthy, like the “Crystal Blue Persuasion” montage in Season 5A’s finale. If this was a show that relied solely on its explosive scenes, it would still be a solid, standout drama.

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10) The effect it has had on subsequent televisual ambitions is clear

Breaking Bad10 10 Reasons Breaking Bad Is Still Underrated, Yes, Underrated

Many shows have come to replicate some of the tactics Breaking Bad has employed, to varying degrees of success. I maintain that it has had the single greatest influence in the past few years of television seeking a more cinematic look and feel. This is evident from the first episode, from the first script according to its writers and actors, but it became more and more pronounced as it went on, which demonstrates that it’s a major priority for Vince Gilligan to uphold and advance this kind of aesthetic. So more recently we’ve seen people like Martin Scorsese and Frank Darabont and David Fincher become more active on the TV scene in Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead and House of Cards. Shows strive to be even more movielike now than ever before, and Breaking Bad advanced this trend to a further extent than any other show, period. Previous shows may have moved the bar more, but where it’s at today is thanks to the huge push from Breaking Bad’s contributions to the medium.

Judging a show before it has even ended is tough. It’s like judging a person’s life before they’ve died—you can’t fully evaluate the effect a person had, for whatever psychological reason, until their personal story has officially ended. That’s why the death of a public figure comes with such an outpouring of appreciation for the works and contributions they made in their lifetime. Until that point, they could still have done more, and their passing means that their legacy is more visible. I think once Breaking Bad has ended, and years down the road, we’ll have a clearer picture of what it ultimately will mean to the history of television. But from my limited perspective, I’m confident it will be the benchmark for TV quality in the generations to come. It deserves to be recognized for this more. Until it is, to my mind it will continue to be underrated.

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  • Marc C Wu

    Loved the article and totally agree. Generations from now people will look back and consider this a true classic. I’m just glad to be alive, experiencing the content as it premiers live.

  • Giorgio Palmas

    I discovered many subtle plot points re-watching. When Walt was spinning the revolver on the table, the third time it pointed to the lilies of the valley plant and a plot in his mind took root.

    • http://Geekshizzle.com/ TheFran

      Right! Never picked this up before, thanks!

  • Nathan Falldorf

    Totally agree. Breaking Bad is poetic, I think Dexter was close to the level, but after season 4 completely dropped the ball and became stale. Plus supporting characters in Dexter are completely forgettable. I was worried from the time I started watching the show in the first season that somehow the writers would screw this masterpiece up, or get tired and repeat stories to drag out its popularity, but they kept it fresh and surprising every season. Great article!!!

  • Hershey Maxwell Barber

    I really have no idea what I will do with my life once it is done and over.

  • David

    Wait, nobody actually thinks The Walking Dead is the best show ever, right?

    I mean, come on. How could anyone think that? I mean, it’s okay. Sometimes it can be pretty good. That’s about it.

  • David

    Also, I thought season 1 and 2 were brilliant. The following season were better, but season 1 and 2 were still fantastic and better than the overwhelming majority of what else is or was on offer.

  • mrwho

    “For all the internet malice directed at her, Skyler has really been
    retroactively validated as a voice of reason in the face of a husband
    who is murdering people and making drugs that are subsequently ruining
    countless lives.”

    For people who paid attention and thought a little, it certainly wasn’t retroactive. I agree though, the supporting characters in Breaking Bad were great.