A pair of trousers fly through the air, landing on a dusty road which an RV speeds through with panicked abandon. So begins a series that was pitched by its creator as ‘Mr Chips becomes Scarface’.
Television series can naturally morph and change as they continue for several years, and yet Breaking Bad very much stayed the course with that pitch becoming a story that took a character with a background in science teaching and a humble middle-classed background and turned him into not only the main antagonist of his own series, but one of the definitive takes on that popular character archetype that littered television throughout much of the early 21st Century; the anti-hero.
While the series has the feel and vibe of something that was planned out from beginning to end, in truth the series was, with the exception of its second season, very much one that creator Vince Gilligan and his writers’ room much made up as they went along. Unlike other television showrunners that frequently play the ‘we have a grand plan’ line that increasingly looks like a big giant lie the more a series continues, everyone involved in the series talked at length about how they would fashion ‘snake pit’ scenarios for Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and frequent collaborator Jesse (Aaron Paul) and then try and figure their way out of such grimly engrossing storytelling beats.
There was perhaps no other series like it in terms of ratcheting up suspense and a cavalcade of moral and ethical terror during the period it was on the air. Where The Sopranos, which stands alongside Breaking Bad as the definitive anti-hero series and contender for the greatest television series of all time, increasingly became ponderous (wonderfully so in places, somewhat pretentious in others) in Breaking Bad’s final stretch, the story of Walter and those around him never lost sight of its pulpy origins, managing to always stay the right side of intelligent when it came to telling its story, but also revelling in playing in its crime story milieu.
You know the story; high school teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston, then most famous for playing the dad in Malcolm in the Middle) is diagnosed with lung cancer and, wanting to leave substantial money behind for his family- wife, son and a third child on the way- decides to start cooking crystal meth with an old student of his, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) in order to make ends meet.
On the one hand, the series is a darkly comical character study that explores what happens when someone like Walt does exactly what the series’ title implies, and yet Breaking Bad was never some small-time drama. The more it went on, and the more it took Walter and Jesse further into the pits of the organised crime world that they fell into (and which has been explored to brilliant effect in the prequel series Better Call Saul), the more it became something of a televisual epic, one that very much catered to an audience that was becoming used to a large number of anti-heroes drenched in moral ambiguities, criminal backgrounds and complex familial dynamics.
The first season plays out in a way that feels reminiscent of the films of the Coen Brothers in terms of its combination of dark humour and frequently shocking violence. If there is a lesson to be learned from the first season it’s that one should make sure they don’t use hydrochloric acid in a bathtub when disposing of dead bodies.
Yet, from the beginning, the series had a flavour all of its own. An entire episode is devoted to Walter wrestling with a decision to murder a hostage that he and Jesse have taken. Admittedly, the hostage is a criminal who will most likely kill Walt if he lets him go, and the manner in which the episode goes about it, from Walt making a list of reasons why and why not to kill to the revelation involving a missing piece of a broken plate, indicated right away that this was a series that was going to be something very special. As a crime story, it was exceptional, as a character piece even more so.
The manner in which the series factored in such queasy character moments such as Walt listing reasons to kill or not to kill, the suspense in the first two seasons as he tries to keep his criminal life secret from his wife Skylar (Anna Gunn) who is excellent in the role and yet had to contend with a toxic fanbase who took against her character) and yet played these smaller moments against a larger criminal epic involving an unknowing DEA, drug cartels from the other side of the border and the expansive operation being run by Gus (a charismatically terrifying Giancarlo Espositio) all contributed to making it the best series on television.
Where other crime epics with an anti-hero theme such as The Sopranos and The Shield began with their corrupt characters already firmly established within their criminal milieu in the first episode, Breaking Bad took the option of exploring the path that took Walter White from being consumed with fear of a lung cancer diagnosis and haunted by the disappointment at how his life had turned out, all the way to him iconically declaring himself as ‘the danger’ and an alter-ego known infamously as Heisenberg (‘you’re Goddamned right’).
If you were familiar with Gilligan’s work prior to Breaking Bad on iconic sci-fi horror series The X-Files, then Gilligan’s ability to go to town with a series whose main theme was in constructing an all too human character and a descent into grandiose villainy with a high body count, not to mention a wickedly dark sense of humour, wasn’t exactly a big surprise.
Gilligan very much cornered the market on The X-Files famed monster-of-the-week format, the self-contained episodes that saw Chris Carter’s series amongst some of the most imaginative, scariest and funniest hour-long series of its generation. While many of its biggest fans might have found themselves becoming increasingly confused and agitated by its convoluted mythology and ongoing story arcs, the stand-alone episodes of which Gilligan was a frequent contributor remained brilliant all the way to the even more contentious (and Gilligan-free) revival seasons.
Before the arrival of Gilligan, X-Files monsters were of an elusive type frequently populated by the horror genre and emotionally kept at arm’s length in favour of staying put with Mulder and Scully’s investigations. However, when Gilligan arrived at the tail end of season two with Soft Light, his scripts would see the antagonists he created for Mulder and Scully become somewhat more human, still capable of doing terrible things but with greater screen time for them that really got into the emotional psychology of their actions.
Pusher, Unruhe, Paper Hearts, Drive (the one with Bryan Cranston) and underrated season six masterpiece Tithonus boasted not only fantastic guest actors going up against David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, but in stories where the supernatural element was almost an additional element to the complex psychology at play. Sure, there might have been psychic abilities, the powers of controlling people’s minds or even predicting death going on in many of Gilligan’s stories, but he made the monsters of those episodes filled with humanity in a way that was equal parts enthralling and disturbing.
This type of storytelling reached a zenith of sorts with season seven’s Hungry, a story mandated by being the first produced of that season but which only had limited availability to David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson because of film work they were in the process of completing during the summer hiatus.
So, Gilligan in his fantastic wisdom opted to tell a story from the point of view of the episode’s antagonist, a brain-eating monster who we spend the entire episode with as he goes about his life; his job at a fast-food restaurant, visits with his therapist, the small talk he makes with his landlord, all the while Mulder and Scully become villains in their own series as we witness a monster-of-the-week wrestle with wanting to be a better person while being unable to fight their monstrous nature which makes them an X-Files guest character, the latter bringing Mulder and Scully to his attention with increasing Columbo-like annoyance as the body count ratchets up throughout the episode.
That ability to humanise monsters, even of a more heightened genre variety, was brought into even sharper focus with Breaking Bad where Gilligan took the approach he had brought to those characters and filtered it through an archetype and story that was very much a part of the furniture in the cable television landscape at that time.
The idea came from a conversation Gilligan had with former X-Files writer and Breaking Bad writer and producer Thomas Schnauz. Both out of work when The X-Files ended, the pair proposed what to do next. The conversation took an interesting turn when Schnauz said, “I think I’ll just get an RV and cook meth!” It was a throw-away comment but one Gilligan couldn’t get out of his head as he started to trying to figure out what could go wrong that someone like him would consider taking such a step.
Amazingly, Gilligan struggled to get anyone interested in his idea. It was famously pitching it to a disinterested HBO in what might be the television equivalent of not signing The Beatles. The series eventually found its home on AMC, the same burgeoning cable channel that had only recently premiered Mad Men to critical acclaim and that would score a major commercial success with the massively popular The Walking Dead a few years later.
Gilligan may have envisioned Walter White becoming essentially New Mexico’s version of Scarface, living in the suburbs with a wife and child and making his famous blue-coloured crystal meth in an RV, but that journey was fraught with violent possibilities right from the very beginning and would eventually build to near epic proportions in its fourth and fifth seasons.
Walter’s journey from cancer diagnosis to fully-fledged crime lord in the final season, right through to his final showdown in series finale Felina, feels natural and never for one second does the series ever slip up or put a foot wrong. Even the scenes of Walt with his family, including brother-in-law and DEA agent Hank (Dean Norris), might at times feel superfluous during those earlier seasons, but even that pays off beautifully in the final eight episodes when both his criminal world and that of his family collide together in an increasingly brutal and angry fashion, the series then not only pitching Walt against Hank, but also placing a schism on Walt’s family after having spent four and a half seasons building them up as a cohesive and loving unit even if Walt is hiding a large portion of his life from most of them.
Gilligan and a truly talented group of writers, some of which included Gennifer Hutchison, Peter Gould and even former X-Files writers and directors such as John Shiban, Thomas Schnauz and Michelle McClaren, delivered a narrative that was not only seemingly cleanly structured, but which also remained at its heart brilliantly televisual.
In a day and age of streaming where a large number of serialised shows frequently feel like a two-hour film stretched out beyond the limits of what it should be, Breaking Bad twisted and turned in various directions in the way that makes television one of the greatest mediums for serialised storytelling. Gilligan and his team were able to move their bigger story whilst remembering the importance of episodic storytelling. Season 3’s ‘Fly‘ which divides fans, is a brilliant ‘bottle episode’ that sees Walt obsess when a Fly gets into their sterile lab. The whole episode centres around Walt and Jesse trying to find and kill the unwelcome intruder whilst also having wider conversations that propel the plot forward.
Each season feels different and yet one of a piece, with a differing set of concerns, but which have the effect of being naturally part of the lives of its main players and which make for a greater whole. The slight deviations that the series could take in its approach can be seen to a devastating degree in the second season which saw Gilligan and the writers map out the season in advance, something they have since said was more difficult in comparison to making it up as they went along.
Haunting black and white flash forwards set in the backyard of the White family home hint at something truly horrifying on the horizon; has there been a crime? Has someone died? Is it a massacre? The surrounding story is used to nerve-shredding effect throughout the season, culminating in a truly shocking final episode where the eventual revelation is amongst the very darkest things ever depicted on television, more so because it’s not inherently a violent altercation lying in wait but a Rube Goldberg-style swing of circumstance, fate and bad decisions leading to tragedy that in lesser hands might have been a ‘jump the shark’ moment but which just leads credos to the series’ unpredictable nature.
Walter isn’t just playing fire with those in the immediate vicinity around him. Even others that appear to be outside of his orbit are affected by his decisions. The death of Krysten Ritter’s character Jane would have lasting repercussions over the rest of the series’ run, a spectre of potential revelation lying in wait for an unknowing Jesse and which only a responsible Walter knew the truth.
Jane’s death is one of the most disturbing and distressingly real in any television series. Where Tony Soprano or Vic Mackey of The Shield are more than similarly capable of killing and hurting those around them, there is something coldly professional in the way they go about doing it. When Jane dies in front of Walt, we’re more than aware that Walt knows how to save her as shown earlier when he’s looking after his newborn daughter. We lay witness not to a criminal mastermind yet, but to a character who reacts in horror at letting someone die because it will be beneficial to them.
It goes without saying that the episode where Walt’s involvement in that death is finally revealed happens in what might very well be the single greatest hour of television of the twenty-first century, and there are still two episodes to go after it. Amazingly, the series doesn’t even lose traction after, but even with two hours left, Breaking Bad opts to risk the final season, and perhaps the entire series, by taking the biggest revelatory swings while there are two hours left to go. Ozymandias is a textbook example of how to write a television episode, piling revelation, plot twist and devastating character moments into one complete brilliant package. It could almost have been the end, such is the all-encompassing feel of it as being the episode the series has been building to for years.
That the series still manages to not only stick the course, but has since gone on to deliver a brilliant coda/epilogue to the series in the shape of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie which charts the story of Jesse in the immediate aftermath of the finale, and Better Call Saul, a prequel devoted to Bob Odenkirk’s character Saul and his own backstory (with occasional hints of his future), is nothing short of magnificent. It says something of the world created by Breaking Bad that Better Call Saul has been able to incorporate so many characters from the original series without them feeling like cheap cameos or fan service.
While The Sopranos waited fourteen years before delivering another chapter, albeit in prequel form, and many a follow-up/revival/prequel can sometimes be tainted with disappointment, Gilligan and those shepherding the Breaking Bad story have managed to make everything connect, flow and coalesce on each other to stunning effect. It is one of the all time greatest works in television.
Not bad for a series rejected by HBO and pitched as Mr Chips meets Scarface.