Liz Tells Frank What Happened In “Breaking Bad”

Dear Frank,

breaking_bad_ver9At this moment, I currently have at least a half-dozen articles saved to Instapaper about the Breaking Bad series finale. Maybe more. Breaking Bad is a fascinating show on a number of levels, but one of those levels I appreciate most is the way in which it holds up under INTENSE scrutiny; the AMC drama is arguably one of the most-discussed shows ever online, and an event like this Sunday’s series finale has created a relative storm of critical analysis and debate.

So honestly, Frank, I feel a little silly writing this, especially as this post will go live over 24 hours after its last episode aired — an eternity, in Internet time. What could I possibly say about Breaking Bad that hasn’t already been said by the unwashed blogging masses? I am genuinely not sure.

I guess I could tell you what actually happens in the damn show. I guess I could do that.

Breaking Bad, Frank, is the story of a man named Walter White, who we meet on his 50th birthday. Life sucks for Walt! He teaches high school chemistry, and clearly loves chemistry, despite the fact that his students don’t really give a shit about it. His wife is pregnant, his son has cerebral palsy, and he’s so broke that after school he works at a car wash. Life sucks for Walt, and then he gets diagnosed with lung cancer, and that ends up kicking his ass into a whole new lifestyle. The exciting and fun lifestyle of cooking meth!

…Oh god, you know all this already, don’t you Frank? Of course you do. You’re a living being with Internet access in the year 2013. Of course you know this shit. Let’s fast-forward a bit, shall we?

What Breaking Bad really is, Frank, is the story of how making bad choices can lead you down even worse paths. Characters are constantly trying to dig themselves out of holes and only sinking deeper into the sand. This does not just apply to Walter White. This applies to pretty much everyone.

Maybe the easiest way to tell you what happens in Breaking Bad is to tell you what happens to the main characters, when they try to take control over their lives and ultimately fail miserably…

Walt: Goes through cancer treatment, gets kicked out of house because Skyler figures out that he’s up to something, eventually manipulates his way back home, ruins lives, murders a bunch of people, poisons at least two others, suffers ANGST, learns that you shouldn’t make deals with neo-Nazis, loses family entirely, has to spend a few months in New Hampshire during the winter, comes back home to murder neo-Nazis, gets shot in gut and presumably dies on the floor of a meth lab. Sucks to be Walt!

Jesse: Walt’s partner from the very first episode, and SERIOUSLY SO FUCKED. Just the tip of the iceberg: Estranged from family because of drug dealing, gets beat to hell a whole bunch of times, falls in love with girl who gets him addicted to heroin, girl he loves dies from heroin/Walt deciding not to save her from heroin overdose, goes to rehab, shoots guy in the face to save Walt, falls in love with girl at NA meetings, girl’s son nearly dies because of his association with Walt, loses girl and descends into deep depression, gets abducted by neo-Nazis and forced to cook meth for them, ex-girlfriend shot to death in front of him because he didn’t want to cook meth for neo-Nazis anymore, held prisoner for what was probably months, eventually escapes. Sucks to be Jesse! (Except for the part where, you know, he lived.)

Skyler: Walt’s wife starts off pregnant, has Walt’s baby — but then figures out that he’s lying to her about something. Maybe a lot of somethings. Anyhoo, she kicks him out of the house for a while, but he’s a controlling asshole so that doesn’t really take, and eventually (after finding out about the whole meth thing) she gets roped into laundering his money for him.

They buy the car wash that Walt used to work at, start racking up crazy amounts of money after Walt hooks up with a Eastern Europe distributor, but she’s basically an unhappy hostage. Eventually, when things catch up with Walt, she loses her house, her business, and nearly everything else; at the end of the series, she’s struggling to stay afloat — happily freed of Walt’s influence, but forever crippled by her association with him. Sucks to be Skylar!

Hank: Walt’s brother-in-law is all macho bluster, befitting his status as a DEA agent, and not half-bad police. But then he gets shot the fuck up by crazy Mexican twins who work for a syndicate, and spends about an entire season on his back obsessed with rocks — “JESUS CHRIST, MARIE, MINERALS” — because Breaking Bad is not afraid to deal with the realities of gunshot wounds. (When you consider that Vince Gilligan cut his teeth on The X-Files, a show where getting shot at worst gives you a fever, this attention to real medical detail is impressive.)

Hank gets his mojo back, really starts investigating all these drug crimes — and eventually figures out that his brother-in-law (who he always has seen as a pussy geek) is the drug kingpin he’s been chasing this whole time. Unfortunately, Hank shows his cards a little early and tries to corner Walt — who called his neo-Nazi friends for back-up. Neo-Nazis, it turns out, don’t really care if you start saying “hey! I take it back!”; they shoot Hank in the head and bury him in the desert. Sucks to be Hank!

Marie: Hank’s wife and Skylar’s sister has some issues with shoplifting in early seasons, but in the last few episodes her major drama revolves around the fact that her beloved husband “disappears” mysteriously and is likely dead. Sucks to be Marie!

Walt Jr.: So desperate to escape his father’s identity that he thinks making people call him “Flynn” is a good idea. Will receive a few million dollars upon turning 18 years old, though. Sucks less than others to be Walt Jr.!

Baby Holly: Is baby. Stuck with Walt as father. Gets kidnapped by Walt briefly, does not enjoy it. Sucks to be Holly!

Gus, Mike, Gomez, Gale, Krazy-8, Hector Salamanca, Victor…: Killed, either directly or indirectly, because Walt is a jerk. Sucks to be them!

Really, Breaking Bad leaves behind no shortage of (fictional) broken hearts and dreams and bones, and yet remained to the very end compelling television. How’d it pull that off? Largely thanks to the details.

Shows like Game of Thrones derive their power from a sense of epic-ness — they glory in a vast cast of characters who stretch across continents. But Breaking Bad, focused as it was on one man and the lives he ruined, was able to get intimate with those characters on a level rarely achieved on television, cable or otherwise.

A friend started watching the show recently, and admitted to having a bit of a hard time getting into it. Which I understand: My feeling is that Breaking Bad doesn’t win you over until you fall in love with either Jesse or Hank, who might be supporting characters but are often the heart of the show.

Jesse especially proves to be a key figure, which is a huge surprise in retrospect, especially when you consider that this is a character whose primary catchphrase is a loud, joyful “BITCH!” But he’s also a sweet young man who loves kids and is haunted by his terrible decisions; he’s given enough layers of depth over the show’s five seasons to make him the most sympathetic character to ever wear an Ed Hardy t-shirt on television.

That was the show’s greatest achievement in the end — making men into monsters and monsters into men, all thanks to the little moments that creator Vince Gilligan and the amazing cast sprinkled throughout the series. After five seasons of drugs and deals and dead children, the show came to an end that felt as inevitable as the setting of the sun, but in the best of ways; it was one of the best shows on television, and what made it the best is nearly impossible to capture in a silly little blog entry.

Not that that’ll stop us filthy unwashed bloggers. Not now, and not for a long time to come.


About Liz Shannon Miller

Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She is currently Senior TV Editor at Collider, and her work has also been published by the New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of "X-Files" trivia.

Posted on October 1, 2013, in All the Spoilers, TV and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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