TV Review: Breaking Bad: The Complete Series (2008-2013)

"It's over, when I say it's over"




***The second part of this article, indicated by the break, contains heavy SPOILERS from the show and the final episodes. The first part does not.***

The antihero has been around in the cinema for many many years. From as far back as James Cagney as Tom Powers in 1931's The Public Enemy, to The Godfather's Michael Corleone, Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, Fight Club's Tyler Durden. Hell, even Hannibal Lector, insane cannibal serial killer, somehow garnered the affections of moviegoers despite his horrific crimes. 
Antiheros in television have been less common. It wasn't really until James Gandolfini ignited the small screen with his portrayal of Tony Soprano that this whole new wave of television gold came stamped and sealed with antiheroes in every shape and size. 
Suddenly it was ok to root for people who did horrible things. It was kind of fun actually. 
We were now getting the same voyeuristic adrenaline shot in 45 minute doses that we used to be able to score solely at the movies. We were being challenged by TV, forced to pay close attention if we wanted to keep up, rather than to flick on a sitcom for a half hour of brainless vegetation. Even episodic dramas and thrillers pre-Sopranos like NYPD Blue and X-Files were shows you only had to pay half attention to and still not miss a beat. Not anymore. Now our most difficult obstacle in relation to the boob tube isn't that there's nothing to watch, but that there's too much. There just isn't time for it all. That's a good problem to have. I still haven't seen an episode of Dexter. Or Mad Men. I'm way behind on The Walking Dead and Treme and I have the entire third season of Homeland on my PVR I haven't even cracked into yet. 
But I have seen Breaking Bad. I've seen the hell out of it. 

Truth be told, I purposely didn't start watching Breaking Bad until the final eight episodes were in full swing. I did this not because I wasn't interested. Actually, I was at times tortured by the glowing recommendations I would receive of the show. No, I did it because I'm spoiled. I'm spoiled by DVD and Blu-Ray, even more so lately by Netflix. 
The whole watch an episode and wait a week on tender hooks for the next one doesn't appeal to me anymore. I don't want to wait a week to find out what happens. I want to see it right now. Tonight. Screw sleep. Sleep can wait. What's going to happen to Jesse? 
And this mindset is nowhere more relevant than with Breaking Bad. The evil writers of that blessed show know just when to cut the lights and drop the curtain to inflict maximum frustration. To the point where it became a ritual to gasp a frustrated 'come on' when (often at a point where someone is pointing a gun at someone else's head, literally or figuratively) that 'Executive Producer: Vince Gilligan' title card pops up and you think to yourself 'really? That was an hour already?' 
So I waited. And when it was announced the final episodes would begin broadcasting this past fall, I grabbed my wife and said 'it's time.' And she said 'let go of me.' And I did. And she said 'time for what?' And I said 'Breaking Bad.' And she shrugged her shoulders and said 'ok' and walked off. The enthusiasm was wanting on her end a bit. But she got into it pretty damn quick. And how could you not? Unlike many HBO shows, which often take a few episodes to get the hook in you, Breaking Bad wastes no time. From the very first shot of the pilot, the first sequence, you're hooked. Addicted. Pulled into this world which is (hopefully) so far from your own and on this sordid journey with these maniacs and innocents all caught up in this swirling cyclone of disaster. This is not a show that takes time building context or character. There's time for all that after the hook is in your flesh and you're sitting, staring at your TV salivating like a hungry dog for more, more, MORE.

A cornerstone of every successful TV show, no matter the genre, is casting. Think back on every TV show that you would consider one of the best ever, and try and imagine anyone in any of the major roles of that show, other than the actor cast. You can't. Think about Seinfeld without Jason Alexander or Michael Richards. Think about Roseanne without John Goodman. Cheers without George Wendt. The Muppet Show without Gonzo. 
I cannot for the life of me separate Breaking Bad's characters from the actors who portrayed them. Obviously the lynchpin is Bryan Cranston as Walter White, a performance which is one of the greatest in the entire history of entertainment. But the whole cast is on fire every single episode of that show's run and as an ensemble, they bring the quality of the writing up, the quality of the show up. Even the supporting cast that pops in and out throughout the five season run are phenomenal. The fantastic and hilarious Bob Odenkirk as Saul? Whoever genius'd that piece of casting up should get an Emmy just for that. Jonathan Banks as everyone's favourite fixer Mike; Giancarlo Esposito as the chilling Gus Fring; Albuquerque native Steven Michael Quezada as Gomey. Raymond Cruz as Tuco. 
The list goes on.

One thing I admired about Breaking Bad was its absolute refusal to pull punches. This is a show that starts off pretty dark and violent, but balances that with healthy doses of humour. As the series progresses though, the story arc goes from pretty dark, to dark, to very dark, to pitch black. With the humour, so evident in the first couple seasons, dissipating as a result. Sure there's some comic relief here and there to be found right up until the final few episodes, mostly in the form of Odenkirk's Saul, but like a fat man on Jenny Craig (the diet, not the actual person), it thins out. 
This particular atmospheric transformation can actually be traced by following the arc of Walt's brother in law DEA agent Hank Schrader. The character of Hank starts off as more of  a jester than anything else. A man who's good at what he does, but otherwise comes across as a macho knucklehead. Kind of annoying actually. Until a posting in Santa Fe ends with an incident that has a pronounced effect on the road his character was on, and will continue on from that point forward. Hank's character and his story become one of the most intense, interesting and important in the entire show. I've no doubt the writers were planning this arc for his character all along, but it's an intriguing one regardless. 

Breaking Bad is one of the most acclaimed television series of all time. In fact, if you look on IMDB.com at the top rated TV shows, Breaking Bad is number one. Beating everything from The Sopranos, to Seinfeld, The Simpsons, The Cosby Show, Cheers, Game of Thrones, The Wire, etc. That's insane but not totally surprising. And one of the things that makes it such an incredible series is that it's not a perfect show. 
Occasionally in TV and in movies, you'll get these annoying things called narrative coincidences. Narrative coincidences are usually the result of weak writing. They occur, for example, when a character is on their journey and in order to keep the story moving, they are blessed with some ridiculous coincidence that just happens to be exactly what they need at that very moment and now they can go on and enter the next phase of their arc. In other words, the writers couldn't think of anything better. Every season of Breaking Bad is peppered with these coincidental twists of fortune. Occasionally they can be distracting, but here's where the brilliance of the show shines through. When they do happen, you don't care. The show's just too damned entertaining. You're so invested in what's going on that if you find yourself rolling your eyes at something, you've forgotten about it almost as soon as you notice it.

Breaking Bad is probably the most stylistically inventive and exciting series of all time. Whether it's point of view shots from some crack or crevice's vantage, extreme long shots of barren desert floors, kinetic handheld action. Or, something which became a kind of signature of the show in every season, a pop song infused montage of meth cookery, this show has style like Sinatra had style. And it was never boring to look at. It could leave you exhausted. Bang off a few Breaking Bad episodes in one night and you'll feel drained afterwards, but drained in a good way. Like the morning's first pee. 


















Part 2: SPOILER WARNING

The final episode of Breaking Bad gives us as many questions as it provides answers for. In fact, I don't think it was the intention of the writers to tie everything up with a pretty bow and leave us with that turkey dinner satisfaction feeling in our bellies. More so like the feeling you get with an appetizer and a pint of beer. Those wings and that beer were good, but a sandwich and another beer would be even better. You don't get that sandwich and second pint with 'Felina': 
What's going to happen to Skyler? If things go bad for her, what will happen to the kids? Walter Jr. (I refuse to call him Flynn) might be alright on his own, but what about the baby? Will Marie look after her? 
Will Walter Jr. get that money when he turns 18? Or when news of Walt's death hits the airwaves, will the Grey Matter douche bags turns the cash in to the cops?
Did Saul make it out alright? 
Where the hell are the other six barrels of Walter's cash? 
And Jesse. Did Jesse get away? Did he get to Alaska? Did he at least make it out of the city? Did those Nazi's destroy his confessional tape? The most probable outcome for him that I see is life behind bars. But is that too cynical? 
Not all stories ended with threads hanging though. Hank's was buttoned up pretty tight, unless his character makes a cameo appearance in the next season of The Walking Dead. 
But at the end of the day, Breaking Bad was never really about The White's or The Schrader's or even Walter and Jesse, the odd couple. Something I think people forget when I hear complaints of Jesse's character getting a shaft in screen time in the final run. 
It's about Walter White. It started with Walter, it's always been about Walter, it's fitting his is the only story the show should end with a tight lid on. 
But does he redeem himself? 
Of all of third wave television's many antiheroes, Walter White was perhaps the most pronounced in the 'anti' area. A man of such dishonesty, such egotism, such depraved and heartless acts, it's as if the writer's were rooting for us to hate him, thereby making his death not only acceptable, but appropriate. A kind of capital punishment mentality. The man deserves to die, so kill him. 
But there's also an about-face that occurs in the final episodes whereby Walt kidnaps his own infant daughter, but then places a call home, the intent of which seems to be absolving Skyler in front of the police of her part in his crimes. 
He also takes out the nazi's, and who doesn't love seeing nazi's annihilated on screen. 
And then, most significantly, he saves Jesse's life. 
But does that absolve him of his insanity and cruelty in the past? Certainly not in the eyes of the people he's affected, not in Jesse's eyes. Not in Walter Jr.'s. Something tells me not in Marie's either. But in the eyes of the viewer? Maybe. 
Let's not forget, Breaking Bad is the result of a man trying to provide for his family before his death and getting sucked in to something that is so evil and so much bigger than himself, he underestimated the power of. 
In Breaking Bad, Albuquerque is Middle Earth, and blue meth is The Ring. 

I haven't heard a lot of bad press regarding the last episodes, from critics or fans. 
There's the obvious nitpicking quibbles like where the hell are Gretchen and Elliot supposed to keep all that cash until Walt Jr. turns 18? In their sock drawer?
But I personally loved the final run. My wife and I attacked the last four in one night. Which is really the only way to do it when you know how close you are to the end and you just want to find out what happens. 
I liked that Saul got out. Felt sick to my stomach when Hank died. Breathed a sigh of relief when Walt left the baby at the fire station. Chuckled a little when Walt informed Lydia of the special ingredient he snuck into her drink (which is kind of sick when you think about it). 
I didn't know what to expect but I knew Walt was going to die. Partly because someone had accidentally spoiled it for me and partly because of that poster the moronic advertising team for the show devised. Obviously when you see a poster for Breaking Bad with nothing but Walt and in big letters REMEMBER MY NAME on it, you know right then and there he dies. Way to keep the marketing cryptic.  
But I didn't know how he'd die and I didn't know how he'd get there. 
And now that I do, I'm not sad. Breaking Bad is one of the greatest shows of all time and I doubt its style, intensity, brilliance or excitement will be matched, possibly ever. It could have gone on a few more seasons, but why gild the lily? Go out on top and in charge and leave the entertainment world on a high note. 

Which brings me to my final note on the series and the single greatest thing about it: 
The replay value. 
Breaking Bad is most impressive because it is a show that demands to be watched (at least) twice. And rewards the viewer a different (but no less satisfying) experience the second time around. 
The first time you watch the show, you're watching to see what will happen. 
The second time, you're watching to see how it all fits together, how things tie in to each other and admiring the brilliance of the writing at just how tightly plotted everything is. 
This isn't a television series, it's a 62(ish) hour long movie. 
It's a phenomenon. And I've no doubt it will deliver a richly rewarding experience whether it's your second time, or your tenth. Yes, even the Fly episode. Which was weird, but served its narrative purpose. 


Now I can catch up on some sleep before I start losing it again to the next must watch television show to get its hooks into me like some pure as glass, blue grade Heisenberg meth. Bitch. 

Rating: *****

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