Breaking Bad (2008-2013): Created by Vince Gilligan. Starring: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, RJ Mitte, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Giancarlo Esposito, Laura Fraser, and Jesse Plemons.
(Fear not…this brief recap is spoiler free!)
First of all, let’s address the elephant in the room…yes, it took me until this year to even watch a single episode of this hallowed series. What can I say? I’m usually late to the game when it comes to television. Even as I was vaguely aware of Breaking Bad becoming a phenomenon in the 2010s, I was awestruck that a show starring the dad from Malcolm in the Middle was posting some of the highest ratings in television history.
Luckily I had learned well from shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender (namely that my initial conceptions of any show are usually ill-founded). Sometimes you just need to believe the hype. So I went in knowing I would at least like the show. What’s more, I’d since seen Bryan Cranston own the silver screen even in bit parts, so I relished seeing an actor of his range transform from mild-mannered chemistry teacher to drug czar.
That’s a huge theme of the show, isn’t it? Transformation. Change. Creator Vince Gilligan originally pitched the show as “taking Mr. Chips and turning him into Scarface”. But that description doesn’t quite do justice to the nuance of Walter White’s transformation over five seasons. Just when you think you’ve got him figured, he surprises you, either with good deeds or ill.
I can’t say how my outlook would have changed if I had not watched straight through, as many viewers of the show from 2008-2013 were unable to do. It’s a credit to the writers that the change feels so natural, even with several moments emphasizing the point of no return. We’re not watching a man go from hero to villain. We’re watching him become the man he was always destined to be.
What makes Breaking Bad so great? While I could never point to one thing, I will say that the show is fully conscious of every aspect of production. From its purposely yellow-green cinematography, to the impeccable casting, to the choice dialogue stemming from character first and foremost, Gilligan and his team aimed for not just great TV, but a narrative that can stand alongside the best of cinema.
And yet everything about the show feels unique to it. Nothing else looks or sounds or behaves like Breaking Bad. Consequences come back to haunt characters long after they disappear. What’s more, the show never feels tied to violent actions as centerpieces for drama (unlike some HBO dramas I can name…). Unlike many procedurals or serial stories, it feels content to play its cards close to the vest, waiting for the opportune moment to strike.
I haven’t attempted to describe this show in detail so as to avoid spoilers, but I hope I’ve given some approximation about why this show has gone down as one of TV’s best. Very soon I’ll be posting a Top 10 Best Scenes from the series, where I can feel free to give away some important plot reveals. In the meantime…