Tonight I finished Breaking Bad. Yes, gruesome and graphic, I know--and though I cannot recommend it widely, I do have to post a few thoughts on the series' significance. So nearly a year after it's finale, here's my take.
In Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan and his team have given us the tragedy of our time par excellence. Being deemed the crown jewel of the 2nd golden age of TV, it has created such a high standard of literary television that I expect it will be a primary text to study for many years to come. From its always meaningful production values to inventive cinematography usually reserved for film, this show leaves nothing to carelessness.
And oh the performances! Bryan Cranston's Walter White is a tragic hero with the enormous fatal flaw of hubris. When soliloquizes about when the perfect moment to die would have been, he embodies Lear; when expecting gratitude and respect for his "triumphs," Agamemnon; and when growing desperate to retain control, Macbeth. The audience watches Walter weaving, ever so slowly, the tapestry of a self-fulfilled prophecy. But the only performance to outshine Cranston is Aaron Paul's Jesse Pinkman. All I can say is that throughout these 5 seasons, my #1 recurring thought was, "I love Jesse and just want to give him a hug." Other performances support these two brilliantly, but I don't have space to do them justice.
Yet in the midst of meteoric performances and writing that made my hair stand on end, the show remained grounded in the midst of the every day. In the first season, a character made me cry by setting the table. This is where the Breaking Bad tragedy meets morality play. Just before the English renaissance, the most popular form of play was the morality play, a story with a main character commonly referred to as "Everyman" who would face a variety of temptations. Though Walt becomes "Heisenberg," he can't escape his mundane "Everyman" qualities. Which is what makes the show so compelling because it's easy to see how you, I, anyone could succumb to darkness. No, maybe not high-school-chemistry-teacher-turns-meth-kingpin darkness... but giving ourselves over to pride, fear, hatred, and manipulative control? Yes, to those, "Everyman" is susceptible.
For me, the real take-away from the show's success lies in it's ability to ratchet up the incredibly high stakes while keeping the scope as limited as possible. There's been a tendency in film & TV lately to set the stakes by making the scope wide, but I think that rarely works well. For example, it seems like each summer blockbuster (think Marvel and DC) and now even other TV shows (one of Doctor Who's weaknesses) have to threaten at least a major city, if not a whole planet, in order to convey the gravity of the conflict our heroes must resolve. I would argue a far superior story can be found in a film with a narrower scope that can still bring the stakes to boil. Take the Bourne Identity, for instance, where there's no threat that the world itself is ending, just the life of one man - but which is so significant and compelling, that it might as well be the end of the world. And that is what Breaking Bad is able to convey. Yes, the body count rises with successive seasons, but the central conflict is always "how will this family survive?"
I'm not arguing that this is a "good show" - if you want one of those, check out Sherlock or Firefly. But it is a great one. In studies on narrative, the critics discuss character, plot, and style. This one excels at all three. So for all it's questionable content, I have to marvel at it's impeccable form. It deserved every Emmy and accolade bestowed on it, but more than that, I hope it taught film and show makers alike that we expect more from our stories. The bar has been set very high; good luck "breaking" that.