TV Series Review
Let us, for the moment, look past all the critical love AMC's Breaking Bad has garnered over the last few seasons. Let's set aside the boatload of Emmys and the Peabody Award it has won. When we trim away all that red-carpet tangle, we're left with a very simple story—one that plays out, at times, like a parable. It's a tale of a reasonably decent man who, for a noble purpose, "breaks bad"—and how that bad, in turn, breaks everything it touches.
Bryan Cranston's Walter H. White stands at the center of this story—its tragic hero, its comic villain. He begins his journey as a high school chemistry teacher who lives a quiet, suburban life with his lovely wife, Skyler, his disabled son and (after a few seasons) newborn baby Holly. It's clearly not the life he would've chosen, but he pushes through day by day … until he learns he has incurable lung cancer. Walt's dying. And if he dies, there'll be no one to support his family.
So Walt signs away his soul. He teams up with Jesse, a former student and current petty criminal, and the two begin to cook methamphetamine—all with the object of funding Walt's experimental cancer treatment and provide for his fam.
Walt cooks. Walt deals. Walt cheats. Walt kills. And even when his cancer goes into remission, we still see Walt die a little bit every day, his humanity slipping from him like blood from a wound. He becomes inured to the horrors that surround him, accepting of the monsters he deals with—and the monster he's becoming. Breaking Bad is a study in brokenness, an illustration of evil. It is, in some ways, a brilliant rumination on humankind's depravity—the wrong we'll excuse if the end is "right," the lies we'll tell ourselves to forgive our own sins and stubbornly move down our own blighted paths.
"Breaking Bad, more than any other drama currently on television, is set in a moral universe," writes Scott Meslow of The Atlantic. "There's always been a kind of fatalism to Breaking Bad, from the plane crash over the White household that Walter inadvertently caused by letting Jane die, to the drug deal that Walter chose, both literally and metaphorically, over the birth of his daughter. Breaking Bad operates by the rules of science; every action causes an equal and opposite reaction, and at this point in the series, Walter is a man of very extreme action."
But while Walt's tale can be taken as that powerful parable, the path which we must take to get to the moral at the end is as dark and depraved as any we see on television. The violence and the murders and the sheer horror of this world is categorically oppressive, absolutely harrowing in its brutality and realism. Certain episodes explore sexual subplots. Viewers hear both s- and f-words (the former uncensored, the latter bleeped, at least when the show airs on television).
"If Walt and Jesse are horrible human beings, then what does that make us, the loyal viewers?" writes Matt Zoller Seitz for salon.com. "Complicit. They're our stand-ins. They are capable of almost anything, and there is almost nothing we won't watch them do. It's the line about how to cook a frog in a pan of water; the show's writers turned up the heat so gradually that it isn't until season two or three that you looked down at your arm and thought, 'Hey, are those blisters?'"
Breaking Bad tells us that we can't excuse evil for an uncertain future good. And by its own measure, we can't excuse Breaking Bad either.
Crude or Profane Language
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Bryan Cranston as Walter H. White; Anna Gunn as Skyler White; Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman; Dean Norris as Hank Schrader; Betsy Brandt as Marie Schrader; RJ Mitte as Walter White Jr.; Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman; Jonathan Banks as Mike
Paul Asay Paul Asay