The usual reasons don’t cut it.
BREAKING BAD wasn’t great because of brilliant cinematography, writing and acting, though Bryan Cranston deserves an Oscar or three instead of an Emmy.
It wasn’t great because of the gritty subject matter. In fact, it was successful in spite of the topic of meth dealers, which made many people not even give the show a chance.
Let’s dive deep, and dig hard, into what really made this show so different and so flipping good.
5) A complete story
In the normal world, 99.9 percent of TV shows cling to life from week to week. The creators and actors are happy if the pilot gets funded and made, then nibble on a diet of fingernails to see if a network picks up the first season.
Then they live in fear of not getting a second season. If they get a second season, they stay up all night worrying about some network executive moving their show to a night and time that guarantees doom, or keeping their show in the same slot only to have it slayed in the rating by some hot new thing from CBS or HBO.
Successful shows have different problems. Lead actors who were nobodies can suddenly do no wrong and start demanding the GDP of Spain per episode, or bail from the silly little show that turned them into a star to make a go at movies.
The ending of a series is often sudden. There’s no time to wrap up the series with a true finale.
Even when a series has time for a planned ending, you often get something muddled and maudlin, like a retrospective. Or the writers do something artistic and ambiguous (SOPRANOS facepalm) or go all the way and pull a LOST, causing us to curse their names for eternity.
4) Real character arcs
If you look at the pilot and the last episode of most TV shows, the characters are broadly painted archetypes who have barely changed, if at all. Unless they left the show.
Think of the average sitcom. There’s some kind of goofy situation involving (a) your average suburban family or (b) some institution the sitcom pokes fun at, whether it’s military hospitals during the Korean war, a hospital in Seattle full of dreamy surgeons, a hospital in Chicago or a hospital somewhere else. There are antics and jokes and some kind of moral lesson. Then everything gets fixed.
Same thing with dramas, which don’t always involve hospital ER’s. No. They also feature police, prosecutors and FBI profilers. With your average drama series, there’s a formula: bad guys do something bad, good guys arrive at the crime scene, bad guys lead them on a chase, good guys catch them.
Events change. Things happen. But characters don’t really change. You could watch these shows in any order.
BREAKING BAD is quite different. It let us see how different characters suffered and changed in reaction to the deepest adversity.
Gus, Hank, Mike, Jesse, Skylar, every major character suffers and changes. Gus alone would be worth his own spinoff prequel, as would Mike.
3) Chekhov’s gun
The way Vince Gilligan and his writing room use setups and payoffs is beyond beautiful. And here’s the kicker: they didn’t sit down and make a master plan.
Not once or twice at key moments. All the time.
Gilligan and his writers are true believers in Chekhov’s gun, the storytelling law that if you show your audience a gun in Act 1, that gun better go off before curtains fall on Act 3.
When they showed us a bearded Walt with a machine gun in his trunk in a flash forward at the beginning of Season 5, they didn’t know what Walt would do with that machine gun in the finale, only that it would get used.
They also improvised entire characters, such as walk-ons like Gus, who turned into keystones for the series. That wasn’t planned.
Uncle Jack and the Nazi’s? Not planned.
They improvised like crazy, and often used flash-backs and flash-forwards to do it. Which is the opposite of most shows, movies and books, which use flask-backs and flash-forwards for boring exposition.
2) The Hero
Walt is an interesting hero because he’s different and flawed.
Most heroes are too perfect. They’re untouchable tough guys who never lose a fight, brilliant scientists who can catch serial killers with a scrap of DNA off a cigarette butt or charming goofs with hearts of gold.
Sure, you get some anti-heroes, but are you really surprised by a cynical lone-wolf hero with an allergy to razors, a haunted past and trouble with the bottle?
Walt started out as an average dad in the suburbs, middle-aged and beaten-down. He’s not a hero, not even to his wife and kids. He’s nobody.
What made people root for Walt was his drive to change. He could’ve taken the easy way out, gone to hospice and died. Fighting inoperable lung cancer was a brave choice, regardless of how he got the money.
Unlike typical heroes, Walt couldn’t win fights with his fists. He had to use his brains.
1) The Villain
Who’s the villain of BREAKING BAD?
Because that’s the real secret, the number one reason this show was so great.
There’s no shortage of suspects.
Mike, Tuco, Skylar, Jesse, Todd, Lydia, Uncle Jack–there’s a case to be made for all of those characters being the ultimate villain of the show.
The top two might be Gus and Hank.
Gus was an incredible adversary. He seemed invincible right up to the point Hector made his crazy eyebrow face and started dinging that bell.
Hank was an antagonist from the other end, betrayed by his own brother-in-law. Walt chose to break the law, and while Hank made bad jokes, he was a pretty pure force for good on a show filled with people wearing black hats.
Gus and Hank, though, aren’t the real villain.
Walt is. He was the danger, the one who knocks.
He’s the hero and villain, which is why this was such a great show. BREAKING BAD is a tragedy, with hubris bringing the downfall of Walt, who admitted as much in his last conversation with Skylar.
“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really–I was alive.”
Can you think of another TV show, movie or series of books that took a tragedy this far, this long? I can’t. There’s a possible case for all six STAR WARS movies depicting the rise, fall and redemption of Darth Vader, but that angle of the story is thrown together and sloppy, like something bolted onto a pile of droid parts by drunken Ewoks.
Other shows, movies and books suffer for lack of a single villain. Instead, they give audiences stories about (a) Villains of the Week who you know are doomed, (b) a multitude of villains, especially if this is a series of movies based on comic books, with one villain in the first movie, two in the second and three villains in the third movie before the reboot or (c) no real villain at all, with the show–usually a sitcom–about the crazy antics of a family, group of friends or office.
BREAKING BAD is about the struggle for Walt’s soul, the pull of good and evil, love and revenge, going out fully alive no matter how many dead bodies pile up versus fading away with a whimper.
That struggle happens right up until the end. There are no easy outs, no simple answers. And that’s why this show will be remembered and cherished.
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Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller (FREEDOM, ALASKA) that won some award (PNWA 2013).