This week’s Binge TV delivers you Breaking Bad, a show unanimously praised by the masses, but one that’s deeply flawed nevertheless. If you haven’t watched it yet – well, then, why the hell not? It has its problems, yes, but it makes for stunning viewing.
The problems revolve around the character of Walter White. Yes, he is dying from cancer, and yes, he is trying to make money for his family. But the timeframe of the series shows him changing from a timid family man to a ruthless killer in a matter of months, something which is quite hard to believe. He will do anything for his wife, son, and unborn daughter to secure their financial future, so much so that he alienates them in the end. As Heisenberg rises towards the culmination of the show, very little, if anything, remains of Walter White.
The first season shows Walter’s diagnosis and his coming together with former student Jesse Pinkman to cook crystal meth. Both Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul are sublime from the onset. Their flawed and sparring relationship makes for tantalising viewing, something which carries them throughout the entire five seasons, although some of it does admittedly grate in the middle. Their plan to cook meth in a motor home in the middle of the New Mexico desert is ingenious, and right from the ‘Pilot’, you know this is a show with some cojones (translation: balls).
The first season marginalises the other main characters somewhat, but it is necessary to lay the foundations of the relationship between the two leads. Anna Gunn’s Skylar White doesn’t really come into her own until the third season, Dean Norris’ Hank Schrader is utilised flawlessly in the final season, and Bob Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman is brilliant from his season two introduction to his lacklustre final shot. RJ Mitte’s Walter Jr. and Betsy Brandt’s Marie Schrader don’t really do all that much, but they are both given some decent enough material to work with, especially when Walter’s deceit comes out towards the end of the show.
The second season introduces us to the formidable threat of Gustavo Fring, his silent-but-deadly comrade Mike Ehrmantraut and the previously mentioned Saul Goodman. All three of these new characters work instantly, but Fring should have been offed a season before he was. His parting shot, in all its gruesome glory, is visceral, striking and extremely memorable. It was perhaps the greatest death in the history of television. Mike’s untimely demise, on the other hand, was unnecessary. We see Walter’s darkness manifest as he offs Mike in painstaking fashion before melting his body. Mike was a character who grew every season and one whom shouldn’t have been killed at all. Thankfully he’ll be returning in Better Call Saul, the spinoff scheduled to premiere next year.
The third season falters, somewhat, as Walter and Jesse’s strained relationship begins to drag. But both actors are seminal throughout, and they deserve each and every award laden upon them. They took every word given to them and made them entirely captivating. As does Anna Gunn, this season, as she begins to dice with the devil. She stands off against Bryan Cranston and shows that she shouldn’t be undermined as an actress. It took two-and-a-half seasons, but Skylar finally became someone whom the viewers loved to watch.
Unlike a lot of series, Breaking Bad ended with a near-brilliant run of episodes. Season five part one, airing in 2012, presented us with visual treats and horrors including the daring train robbery, Todd slaughtering an innocent child and Hank finally piecing together who Heisenberg really was. This is where the problems begin though. Walter had money, ample money, to see both his children through their education and allow them to live comfortably for a long time. After killing off Fring, he also had the perfect way to get out of the meth world. But does he? Of course not. He starts up his own business for some reason. Perhaps it’s because the criminal life really suits him, but it does make for complex viewing nevertheless. Like I previously said, it is really hard to believe the changes this character goes through. He could have easily gotten out – most normal people would have taken that chance with relish.
The second part of the final season saw Hank sparring with Walter, Hank gunned down, and Walter seemingly killed. ‘Ozymandias’, the 60th episode of the run, is generally accepted as one of the greatest episodes of television ever, and surprisingly, it’s an accolade worthy of the episode. It is stunning from start to finish. In it, we see a final confrontation between Hank and Walt, one in which Walt desperately tries to save Hank from Todd’s uncle. Hank is gunned down and buried, and it is here that Betsy Brandt is finally allowed to stretch her acting wings. She is simply brilliant.
And so we come to the final episode ‘Felina’. Is it an apt ending to an almost-amazing series? No. We are treated to some brilliant shots, including Walter’s slaughter of Todd and his uncle, and Walter rescues Jesse from his life of slavery. Walter seemingly dies, although this isn’t confirmed on screen. But the biggest bugbear comes from the fact that characters whom we have watched flourish for five seasons aren’t given satisfying narrative ends. Jesse, Skylar, Walt Jr., Marie and Saul are just dropped and left. Maybe Better Call Saul, with its flexible timeline, will rectify this, but don’t hold your breath.
Breaking Bad is a juxtaposition of story flaws and stunning performances. If you can escape reality and enjoy it for what it is, you’re in for a treat. It’s all worth it, even if it’s just to see ‘Ozymandias’. I can’t praise that episode enough.