It took me a while to warm up to Breaking Bad, AMC's series about a high school chemistry teacher turned methamphetamine cook. But after a while it became a guilty pleasure. Meanwhile, the critics raved. First they said it was the best written show on television. Then they said it was the best show ever written.
I was skeptical, but after five seasons, I'm a believer. As I write this, there are less than two days before the series finale, and I give my predictions at the end of this essay.
In accounting for the greatness of Breaking Bad, one can look first to its extraordinary high quality of acting and writing. To begin with, there is the main character played by Bryan Cranston. As the former chemistry teacher who transforms himself into a major player in the crime world, he has to go through more transformations and emotions than most actors show in an entire career.
The reason he's so good can be summed up by Spencer Tracy, who said, "Acting is a great art but don't let anyone catch you at it." In other words, we must never SEE the acting. And this is why Cranston is amazing. In five seasons, there is never a single instant of overacting or lack of commitment to the character. In every scene he IS Walter White, the man who gradually transforms himself into "Heisenberg," the drug lord.
Everyone else is perfect too, no-one ever hitting a false note. There is the sleazy lawyer played by Bob Odenkirk, the rival drug lord who was apparently a South American military leader in his past (Giancarlo Esposito), and a surprise appearance by the great actor Robert Forster. And I could rhapsodize about so many others.
Series creator Vince Gilligan accurately sums up the Breaking Bad concept this way:
We take Mr. Chips and transform him into Scarface.
In case these references aren't familiar, Mr. Chips was a beloved English schoolteacher in a novel by James Hilton (who also wrote the spiritually sugar-sweet Lost Horizon), and Scarface is the film written by a young Oliver Stone in which Al Pacino, playing a Cuban-immigrant-turned-American-drug-lord, says:
There's only one thing in this world that gives orders. And that's balls!
And so with this series. Walter White is a man who helped found a fictional company, Grey Matter Technologies, which is now worth billions… but somehow he got mistreated and driven out early on. Though he helped to make other people billionaires, he got nothing. Now, although he's one of the most brilliant chemists on the planet, he's been relegated to the most unappreciative audience of all: public high school.
To top it all off, he gets a terminal case of lung cancer in the first episodes. He wants despearetly to leave some serious money for his family before he dies. (His son has cerebral palsy… and is played by RJ Mitte, a young man who suffers a similar condition in real life but has turned out to be a terrific actor in his own right, quite apart from his physical condition.)
Going on a raid with his DEA brother-in-law (Dean Norris), Walter realizes he can cook a better brand of meth than anyone around. He recognizes a former student named Jesse and gets the idea of partnering up.
The success of Breaking Bad has much to do with how its hit a nerve in the current economy. Walter White is, like so many people today, a man trapped in a middle class of declining expectations. He's also a man who — as a high-school chemistry teacher — is a genius employed far below his level of ability. And he's had to watch his former partners join the top 1% — the people who get everything — while he gets next to nothing. Breaking Bad is the ultimate story for the post-George-W-Bush years, in which a baffled white middle class watches the American Dream slip away before its eyes. Walter White gets mad about it. Soceity be damned; he'll act to help his family and not concern himself with society. After all, society abandoned him.
His transformation into a life of crime, therefore, is believable from the first episode. Ultimately, it's about more than making money for his family. He is growing what Al Pacino, as Scarface, called "balls." When Walter's young partner (Aaron Paul, who is superb) asks why a conservative, clean-living man like himself would "break bad," Walter doesn't mention the cancer or the money but merely answers: "I am awake."
It's a jarring answer, and a major clue to Walter's character. The ultimate forgotten man in our economy, he's no longer going to be a victim.
Ironically, "I am awake" is the exact same answer the Buddha gave when people asked him what he was. But Walter's trajectory turns out very differently indeed from Buddha's.
Although there are important differences in the two plots, William Shakespeare told a somewhat similar story in one of his greatest plays: MacBeth. In this play, the title character starts out as a hero but evolves into the play's villain. The genius of Shakespeare is that even though we come to deplore so many of MacBeth's actions, he never completely loses our sympathy. The result is that we see how easy it is for a mostly good man to become capable of great evil if the right circumstances present themselves.
The problem, as Master Yoda says in The Empire Strikes Back, is that once you start down that dark path, it tends to dominate your destiny from then on. Put it another way, once you've committed a few murders to defend your turf or to take care of rivals who are threatening to kill your family, it can be tough to get back to a state of innocence. You keep getting in deeper.
Just as in MacBeth, the dead bodies accumulate quickly in Breaking Bad. Neither MacBeth nor Walter White ever wanted to have to kill so many people. In the beginning, Walter kills — or tries to kill — a couple of murderous criminals in self-defense. But before even half a season has elapsed, he's forced to finish the job… crossing the line into murder… lest one of the punks he'd tried to kill comes back and retaliates against his family. Obviously, he can't go to the police. Like MacBeth, Walter wishes his first foray into lawbreaking had been "the be all and end all." In other words, commit one crime but then never do another harm to anyone or suffer any repurcussions. Sadly, it doesn't work that way. You may try to get out, but they keep pulling you back in!
But Walter White has another fatal flaw, one that would be very familiar to the ancient Greeks as well as Shakespeare: pride. Mid-way through the first season, his old business partners — probably feeling guilty about their incredible wealth while Walter is teaching high school — offer him a good job. Then, upon learning that he has cancer, they offer to pay all his medical expenses on top of everything. But his pride makes it impossible for him to accept.
By refusing these offers and pushing ahead into the world of making and selling meth, Walter causes all the tragedies that follow. Large numbers of people die. The tragedy of it all is, in the gripping but shocking final season, it looks like everything has been for nothing. Walter has $11 million dollars (even after the white supremacists rip him off) but he's on the lam, alone, facing likely death from cancer in the very near future, and he can't get any money to his family. So what was it all for? This echoes MacBeth's most famous soliloquy:
Tis a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Although Breaking Bad is a tragedy (inter-laced, it must be said, with occasional moments of black comedy), the transformation is not entirely negative, no matter how catastrophic the consequences have been to others. By going back and re-watching that first episode, you can get a great deal of insight. Under-employed as a chemistry teacher, Walter White starts out as a beaten man in every way. (In this sense he recalls not MacBeth so much as Richard III.) Half the kids in his class are asleep; the other half are in the back talking to each other or making out. His pay is so low, that to support his family, he has to take a second job… a menial one… in a car wash.
One of the ironies of the series is that he ends up owning the very same car wash. Making millions from manufacturing and selling meth, he purchases the car wash to launder his money.
Walter seems only half a man when we first see him. By the second or third season, he is known on the streets as "Heisenberg," the mysterious manufacturer of the finest, most pure methamphetamine on the planet. He also gets a reputation for being the man who can and will kill anyone, rather than let harm come to him, his business, or his family. As Heisenberg, Walter has grown very big balls.
And here is why the writing is so surpassingly brilliant: In one episode after another, Walter has had to work his way out of a seemingly impossible situation. The beauty of it is, he does so using his superior intelligence, combined with the aforementioned "balls" — for he is even more determined, more ruthless, than the street punks, Mexican hit men, cartels, and rival drug lords who threaten him at one point or another. That the solutions are so well worked out — often with real chemistry and other science — is part of what makes the writing exceptional.
Even the selection of the pseudonym is perfect. Werner Heisenberg was one of the great scientists of the twentieth century but — in the name of science — he worked for Hitler. Had he been more successful, Hitler might have gotten the Bomb. So, Heisenberg was a great scientist with a morally questionable side. Furthermore, his father was a schoolteacher who, just like Walter White, suffered from cancer.
Although Breaking Bad does not show any racial bias that I can see, it's worth noting that Walter White is, among other things, the forgotten middle-aged, middle-class white man. That he can go up against, and beat, the worst that Mexican cartels can throw at him, as well as a former member of a South American junta, is extraordinary. There is a theme here of a timid white male getting his mojo back. Although at a great price.
It's worth noting that the brother-in-law Hank, a savvy Drug Enforcement Agency officer, is a white man who already has that mojo. As played by Dean Norris, Hank is swaggering, cocky, boastful, and probably a little too fond of his gun, which he shows off at family gatherings. And yet the beauty is that Hank, for all his flaws, is a fundamentally good man. That we're shown a character who is flawed but essentially noble is a sign of how beautifully complex and nuanced the writing is.
BUT… the most evil characters in the entire series turn out not to be the Mexican Mafia but rather a group of neo-Nazis — white supremacists — who in the final season take over Walt's business and kill anyone who gets in their way with no more thought than they'd kill a fly. (Walter at least agonized over the people he had to kill.) These Nazis also have no aversion to torturing people; Walter never did that. For reasons that are too complex to go into here, these white supremacists are the people Walter has to have a showdown with in the last episode.
And so — a day and a half before the final show — here are my predictions. Read no further if you don't want spoilers….
Walt, who's regrown his hair only because he's away from his much-needed chemotherapy, has to die, that's clear. The drama will stem from the question, as in Scarface: How many people is he going to take out? Who else, among those he cares for, will die?
I think, given the genius he's shown through the whole series, he's not going to let us down in this final confrontation. Walter is going to take out all or most of the neo-Nazis. He's going to "rip them a new one." There's a good chance he may partner up with his old associate Jesse. Despite Walter's many crimes, Jesse by now will have decided the Nazis are even worse; they shot Andrea, his girlfriend, before his eyes. Now they have to pay.
Somehow, Walt's wife, Skylar, has to get out of this. She complied with Walt by helping to launder money, but she had never wanted to be a part of this life. The recovery of six barrels of cash worth $70 million, all turned over to the Feds, may help keep her out of prison, at least. Then there's that $10 or $11 million still sitting in New Hampshire. I think Walter tells the location to Marie (Hank's wife) with his last dying beath. As she's a grieving widow, it's somehow right that it should go to her; Marie will of course split it with Skylar and Walt Jr. They're still family.
And those are my predictions. But we'll see… on Sunday night.