Liz Tells Frank What Happened In “Breaking Bad”
Once upon a time, a long time ago, there was just simply too much television out there for one human being to watch. Specifically, it was the year 2005, and there were easily dozens of new shows airing weekly on broadcast and cable channels! Not only that, but thanks to Blockbuster Video and DVD subscription services like Netflix, you could catch up with DVDs of older shows you might have missed! Man, it was a wild and crazy time.
And that’s when you and I hung out one night and watched the pilot episode of a new Fox procedural called “Bones,” and while we both liked it, you weren’t sure you’d be able to keep up with each new episode. So, you said, “Liz, if you keep watching, can you just tell me what happens each week?”
I said sure, and that was the beginning of me telling you about things, a hobby that I have thoroughly enjoyed ever since. However, in recent years I had to stop doing so on a formal basis, because since then, um, the media landscape (and my involvement in it) changed to a degree.
But Frank, while this blog being dormant has not kept our friendship from being a lively vibrant thing, I have missed getting to tell you about stuff a great deal. And also FRANK what the fuck you mean you haven’t seen “Breaking Bad” FRANK WHAT THE FUCK???
So let’s get into it. As I write this, I have yet to figure out how much I’m going to spoil you for what actually happens over the course of Vince Gilligan’s game-changing drama. The honest truth is that I know what kind of world we live in right now, and how daunting it can be, to take on five seasons of a dense drama like this. I know there’s a reason why you have yet to dig into it.
At the same time, here is the thing about “Breaking Bad”: It’s a difficult feat, trying to capture in words just what makes this show so special, because so much of what makes it special lies in the execution. Anyone who isn’t Vince Gilligan, trying to make this show, would have totally blown it — and there’s evidence of this, because in “Breaking Bad’s” wake, so many white male anti-hero dramas flared out after a brief run. (One of the worst things about great TV is how it can help get shitty TV greenlit.)
This is because one of the worst things about “Breaking Bad” is that a lot of dudes (dudes in this case meaning men, yes, let’s be clear, I’m gendering this) never really understood the point of the show. Though I suppose at this point I should probably get around to telling you what actually happens in it…
Creator Vince Gilligan’s initial pitch for the series was simple: “Mr. Chips becomes Scarface.” The more involved version: Walter White, a seemingly meek high school chemistry teacher turns 50 with a wife, a disabled son, a baby on the way, and a lot of debt. He seems relatively content with his life, though — until a fatal lung cancer diagnosis turns his life completely upside down.
Two facts lead to what ultimately becomes a very tragic series of events: Walt’s not just a chemistry teacher, but a pretty skilled scientist, and his brother-in-law is a DEA agent who exposes him to the fact that being a crystal meth manufacturer in Albuquerque can be pretty lucrative.
Thus, Walt is like, cool, my life might be over but I can make a little meth and sell it to make money to leave to my family once I’m dead (STEALTH COMMENTARY ON OUR GARBAGE SOCIETY ESPECIALLY ITS HEALTH CARE SYSTEM). But really, that initial Vince Gilligan pitch manifests as the story of a guy whose decades of repressed anger get unleashed in the face of death — cathartic for some viewers, horrifying to others.
My first exposure to “Breaking Bad” came courtesy of my dad, whose taste in pop culture has always been exemplary; during a visit home at some point when Season 2 was airing, he asked me if I was watching, and I said no. He thus proceeded to fire up his DVR and show me the following clips:
I didn’t immediately hop on the “Breaking Bad” train after that, but this clip is, in fact, a pretty good pitch for the series, based on what it captures — the mundane and the criminal, blended together for one of the most nuanced character dramas of all time. And that’s without getting into the side characters, most especially our sweet baby boy Jesse.
Really, Frank, the best way to understand “Breaking Bad” is to approach it as the world’s most fucked-up love story — albeit a love story that’s always platonic, because Walter and Jesse’s bond exists on another plane of existence. It’s a trope I’d honestly love to see happen more in pop culture: unlikely friendships are fun! Especially the relationship that ends up developing between Walt and his former student, now operating as a low-grade meth cook despite flunking Walt’s class.
The first season throws an ever-building series of awful, insane events at Walt and Jesse as their entry into the world of drug-dealing does not go smoothly. By the end of those episodes, though, they’ve formulated an intense bond — one which will push them to acts of great evil.
Here, out of context, is just some of the fucked-up shit that happens because one day, a guy decided to cook some meth with his former student:
- Ruined marriages
- The mass manufacture and distribution of a life-destroying drug (seriously, doing meth does not seem like a fun time in the long run)
- Seriously, a lot of murder
- Including the attempted murder of a kid
- Multiple building-destroying explosions
- Danny Trejo’s severed head on the top of a tortoise
- White supremacists
- A perfectly good pizza wasted on a rooftop
- Seriously, a lot of murder
It’s worth noting that “Breaking Bad” wasn’t the most violent TV show ever — it was just that when it did choose to dish out violence, it did so in ways so unconventional yet also so grounded that the memories are haunting.
This is the sort of show where, in Season 1, they make sure you know that a drug dealer likes the crusts cut off his sandwiches before he gets brutally killed. And one time, Walt didn’t technically murder a girl, but he did let her die, and her grief-stricken father, it turns out, was an air traffic controller who didn’t prevent a massive mid-air plane collision and SO MANY people died as a result.
And that was just Season 2! Walt had only really just begun the process of ruining his family’s lives and the lives of everyone associated with him! It’s a semi-constant theme of the entire series, though the most important aspect of it wasn’t necessarily the destruction he caused: It was the point at which Walt shifted from being a seemingly passive instigator to the man who became infamous in the Albuquerque drug scene as Heisenberg.
Heisenberg was such a good choice of nickname for Walt, not just because it drew directly on his science geek roots, but because of everything represented by the popular understanding of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (the popular understanding, Wikipedia now tells me, is largely incorrect, but fuck off Wikipedia, a point is here to be made).
It’s just fascinating, how Walt’s story falls into the category of “wow, things change so fast with just the right sort of nudge.” The Uncertainty Principle is about how observation changes the path of a molecule; that doesn’t explicitly apply to his descent into becoming a violent force, but it does speak to the ways in which he felt like he was driven towards this path, because of his circumstances.
I feel like I’m beating up a lot on Walter White here, perhaps unnecessarily so. He definitely makes some terrible choices and causes a lot of pain over the course of the series, but is he a fundamentally bad person? The answer might honestly be no, which is perhaps the truly chilling part of the show; that he did all these things for so many different motivations — pride, greed, fear, anger — and all of them were so very much understandable, to a wide audience.
Frank, “Breaking Bad” is a show worthy of your attention, if only because of how brilliantly it serves as a mirror for its audience. Creator Vince Gilligan served up a universe of fascinating characters, and who you end up sympathizing with most can end up saying a lot about you.
Beyond that, it was a ride that changed the world of TV, and revealed how much a focus on details and nuance could create world-building on a level that Syfy series strive for. “Breaking Bad” felt like a real place, one that was terrifying to live in. But also one that you’ll sink into, with legitimate pleasure.
Which is why, you may have noticed, I didn’t really spoil all that much. Frank, this is one where you really will want to discover what’s in store. Just get ready for the ride.