*contains mild spoilers of already-aired content*
When Breaking Bad premiered on AMC in early 2008, there was little reason for expectations for the show to be more than minimal. Only a few months earlier, the first season of Mad Men had significantly raised the channel’s profile, and it seemed unlikely that their second original drama would be as successful, or resonate with audiences in the same way.Over the course of its five seasons, Breaking Bad has delivered more genuinely jaw-dropping moments than any other show I’ve ever watched.The first season had only seven episodes due to a writers’ strike, but those were enough to establish it as a dark and compelling drama. Season two, which aired in the spring of 2009, received even more acclaim and cemented its reputation for great storytelling with unexpected twists. Over the course of its five seasons, Breaking Bad has delivered more genuinely jaw-dropping, holy-shit moments than any other show I’ve ever watched.
At this vantage point, as the series is about to begin its final eight-episode run (Sunday, August 11 at 9 pm), it is clear that Breaking Bad has secured its place as not merely one of the best shows of the past decade, but in all of television’s history.
The idea of an antihero as the central character in a TV drama reached full fruition with James Gandolfini’s singular and unforgettable portrayal of mob boss Tony Soprano in The Sopranos, but the transformation of Walter White from “Mr. Chips to Scarface” (as described by show creator Vince Gilligan) is equally brilliant and perhaps more unexpected.The more ruthless Walt becomes, his moral decay is accompanied by a willingness to remove any obstacle in his path.Many TV series have achieved some measures of success, notoriety, and critical praise. What elevates Breaking Bad is its willingness to follow Walt deeper and deeper into his descent while unblinkingly showing us the damage caused by his behavior, to his own family as well as innocent strangers. And the further Walt goes, the more ruthless he becomes, his moral decay is accompanied by a willingness to remove any obstacle in his path.
As later seasons unfolded, Walt’s wife Skyler went from ignorance of her husband’s actions to full knowledge of them. She becomes complicit in his drug activities and ultimately assumes a role as a silent partner of sorts, convincing Walt that they need a legitimate business they can use to launder the meth money. But at the same time she remains in fear of her husband, and knows she cannot trust him.
As Walt became more overtly evil, his partner in crime Jesse Pinkman tried to leave behind his past behavior and achieve some sort of redemption. He found a girlfriend, went to rehab, and turned his back on the meth enterprise they shared. But their history binds them, and Jesse has found that he can’t escape Walt’s grasp, and that the longer he’s remained in Walt’s orbit, the worse his life has become.The show’s black humor serves as a kind of relief valve, a counterweight to the heavy stuff the show has relentlessly thrown at viewers.The show also contains a vein of black humor thoroughly in concert with its overall tone, deployed in scenes that as a viewer you feel you shouldn’t be laughing at, but you can’t help yourself. The bathtub incident from the series’s second episode, Walt and Jesse’s attempts to rid their lab of a fly, and the various observations of crooked attorney Saul Goodman all serve as a kind of relief valve, a counterweight to the heavy stuff the show has relentlessly thrown at viewers.
At the beginning of season five last summer, a flash-forward showed Walt with a changed appearance and a false ID, buying a large machine gun while having breakfast at a Denny’s. Now we’re about to find out why Walt needs that weapon, and how Walt’s DEA agent brother-in-law Hank is going to use his newly acquired information about Walt. There’s no question that Walt will have to be accountable for everything he’s done; what remains to be seen is whether or not those close to him can avoid becoming part of the collateral damage.