Disclaimer 1: This will be long. So long I am splitting it into two articles.
Disclaimer 2: I am not a troll. I am not a hipster. I am not someone who feels the need to either disagree with others to make myself feel joy nor someone who considers something with mass appeal inherently flawed. The lowest level of criticism is deciding not to like something everyone else does.
Disclaimer 3: Don’t read if you’re not caught up with all of “Breaking Bad.” Spoilers galore.
Disclaimer 4: I’m terrified to write this.
“Breaking Bad” is vastly overrated. Vastly.
Notice, I didn’t say it wasn’t good. It is. Sometimes it was very good. Once or twice, it played footsie with greatness but it never fully consummated the marriage. And yet people have hailed this as “The Greatest TV Drama of All Time.” People mourned the show so much they ran an obituary for Walter White in the actual paper. Anthony Hopkins wrote a f**king fan letter. My friends told me the show was, and I directly quote here, “perfect.”
Most people who know me assumed I wouldn’t like the show because I have a hard time with glamorizing/sensationalizing/rooting for douchebags, murderers, and generally evil individuals. Flawed characters? Sign me up! People who look the other way when children are murdered? Go to hell. That being said, when I decided to watch “Breaking Bad,” I made peace with that part of me. I told it to go play by itself in the other room with happy shows like “Doctor Who.” I braced myself for a show I knew would take me into the deepest, darkest recesses of humanity. Why? Because it was supposed to be “perfect.” Because as a critic and writer myself, turning my back on a show universally considered to be one of the greatest of its era (if not all time) just because it didn’t fit my taste profile is stupid. So I worked up the courage, told myself I was going to push through every episode no matter what, and tried to deaden the inner moralist in me who so desperately wishes to believe in innate human goodness that he even wants to see it reflected in our dreams and art.
Part two of this essay will explain the title and deal with the dark aspects of the show and what I think they say about us. But like I did when I chose to watch the show, I’m giving that side of me some “shush shush” juice so we can talk strictly about what the show was supposed to provide.
You guys, it’s not that well written.
Oh, it’s AMAZINGLY acted. Bryan Cranston does a crazy good job flipping from homicidal megalomaniac to desperate father to helpless cancer victim to dorky chemist. He absolutely and completely decimated the role. What’s more, and I know I’m going to be in the minority here, Aaron Paul actually did a better job. Like Ginger Rogers dancing backwards, Paul’s Jesse Pinkman was forced to do what Cranston’s Walter White did, but in reverse. He had to go from pathetic loser to a sinner in search of redemption. And he had to do it without the big moments that were a bit easier for Cranston, given the character’s arc. It’s easy to break down and emote when you confess your crimes to your wife. It’s a bit harder to demonstrate a life completely unraveling through facial expressions during a drug-abusing montage. The performances were absolutely and completely beyond reproach. From Anna Gunn’s Skyler to Dean Norris’ Hank, hell Giancarlo Esposito was FASCINATING as Gus Fring.
The writing sometimes totally failed.
Before I show you how, I have to say that I know every show has ups and downs. My favorites have had whole seasons I could do without (cough, “Lost” season two, cough). I’m not holding “Breaking Bad” to some special or unreasonable standard, even if it’s tempting because of the seemingly universal praise it receives for writing that, to me, feels downright amateur at times. I’m simply doing what I do for every piece of popular culture I encounter: I’m critically engaging it. And here’s what I found.
The characters are not consistent
No one character embodies this more than Skyler, who shifts from complacent accomplice to moralizing mother to strong warrior to weak sheep in the span of a single episode with no external influence. Yes, she’s a complex character, which I loved. No, that’s not why she acts that way. Skyler’s behavior was written differently based on what the staff decided they wanted to emphasize in Walt. When they wanted him to look evil, she grew a conscience. When they wanted you to sympathize with him, she lowered her guard. She was an inconsistently written, sadly misused plot contrivance who deserved better.
And then there’s Hank. Oh, Lord, how this guy was abused by the writing staff. The first few years, in an attempt to make things less “black and white,” Hank was racist and sexist. He talked about boobs and butts and used the word “beaner” a lot. He was a cartoon. He was “big guy married to hot girl” stereotype; a malformed Archie Bunker. Can anyone remember him so much as saying one slightly rude or racist thing the last 2-3 seasons? You know why not? Because the staff realized they needed him to be more heroic to both offset Walt’s growing evil and to give the show a final narrative conclusion: Good V. Evil for all the marbles.
But that’s not my biggest problem with that character. No, no. My biggest problem: He’s a genius idiot. Here’s a guy who gets promotions left and right, who is highly competent at his job until he totally screws it up sometimes. Understand: He ruined Gus’s decades-long criminal enterprise that was meticulously crafted and spanned the entire world because he saw a napkin. He’s Batman. Then he can’t figure out Walt is Heisenberg? So he’s Batman from Batman and Robin? The defense I have heard over and over again is that Hank experienced some kind of mental block because he knew Walt so well. And I get that. That worked for me. For ONE season. Here’s just what I remember that Hank had to overlook in order to not suspect Walt.
1.) The missing chemical equipment used specifically for meth taken directly from Walt’s classroom.
2.) Walt’s association with Jesse Pinkman, who he knew was involved with the blue meth.
3.) Walt’s disappearance and claim of “amnesia” or whatever.
4.) The “gambling addiction” story.
5.) That any human could win that much money at blackjack.
6.) That Walt’s series of excuses for every tiny little thing didn’t add up to something more major.
7.) That Walt met the exact profile of the person he was so pathologically obsessed with investigating.
8.) And I saved this for last because I had to. THE DRAWING OF HEISENBERG.
I can suspend disbelief. I’m good at it. But you can’t have it both ways. Either Hank is unobservant enough to notice Walt is Heisenberg and can’t topple Gus or vice versa. The character was clueless about Walt as long as he needed to be before the end of the series was at hand and then they took his blinders off (after making him no longer racist or sexist). That isn’t good writing, let alone “perfect writing.”
The side stories universally sucked
No character, not a single one, had a side story worth a shit. Not one. From Skyler’s boring affair with boring car guy and subsequent THRILLING TAX AUDIT to Marie’s cleptomania, no one can convince me there was a supporting character’s independent arc that interested them for real. Are there any fans of Hank’s mineral rock collecting? What about Walt Jr.’s car obsession? In a show populated with good actors they gave decent storylines to two and threw the rest some trash to eat.
Gus, an awesome villain, came the closest. But his backstory was told in such a messy, complicated, and unfinished way that it wasn’t fully satisfying. The episode where the elder Salamanca kills his partner was really good. But that was as close as the series got to giving anyone but Walt and Jesse something interesting to do.
I’m actually terribly glad that Saul (Bob Odenkirk) is getting a spinoff. He was always a character that belonged on a different show. He was too optimistic for this bleak, drab world. His eternal belief that things would be okay was refreshing, and I always wanted more of him. Sadly, the best the show could do for him side-story wise was have him be obsessed with weird massages. More on Saul in the next subhead…
Addicted to shock
In this half of the essay, I’m not going to talk about the dark nature of the show in terms of anything other than writing prowess. The second half will all be about the icky nature, but we’ll get there. That said, the “shocking” nature of the show grew insanely contrived.
When Jesse liquifies a body and flushes it down the toilet in the first season, it was legitimately shocking and well-motivated. When the planes crashed, it was jarring but had been well-foreshadowed and was my favorite payoff moment. When Jane dies as Walt looks on, it was horrifying but showed you his humanity was totally gone, so it served a purpose. When a child dies after the meeting where Gus says “no more kids,” it was crippling but motivated Jesse’s next actions and reminded us of the innocent victims in the drug trade.
Everything past those was just shock for shock’s sake.
Why kill a second child? The train robbery episode was so legitimately good until the show decides to mercilessly kill another child for no reason. In the show, I acknowledge they do a good job of shaming all involved. But why was it narratively necessary? It was redundant. It was shock for shock’s sake. And unlike the first death, it wasn’t needed to motivate Jesse. If the writers needed Jesse to break with Walt they could have used Jane’s death or Brock’s poisoning. No, the second kid getting shot moment was just to satiate those who had become addicted to the show’s dark twists. It was contrived surprise that didn’t work.
I mean, it was better than Andrea’s disgusting, completely unneeded death, but that’s not saying much.
From baby kidnapping to up-close shooting, the show became less of a roller-coaster ride of motivated payoffs and more of a “we gotta do something crazy soon” pattern. Even though the last 8 episodes, after Hank is no longer stupid, represent my favorite stretch, the “stop and shock” didn’t feel narratively honest.
What’s more, there’s Saul: the deus ex machina machine. He’s a walking, talking “solve a plot twist” guy. He can do literally anything, from hiding and laundering money to getting people “disappeared” into new lives. You knew at a certain point when Walt had been written into too deep of a corner to extract from rationally, Saul would show up and fix it somehow. It’s not good writing or good storytelling to have a character who is a living “get out of jail free” card. It’s cheating.
I liked the show. I didn’t love it. I was troubled by watching it, which I’ll talk about in the second half here, but I was struck by confusion on how people could consider this show so completely flawless. Hell, I didn’t even see anything particularly revolutionary about it. “The Sopranos” got to the “made bad people interesting” cable series first. And there’s no shortage of shows that kill characters off willy nilly. Vince Gilligan has some great ideas, and the show had some very good moments. But if I’m being honest, which I’m trying very hard to do, I’ll tell you that I thought the show graded out at a B. Not an A or the A++ that everyone is screaming about. A B, and that’s a little generous. I didn’t hate it. I didn’t react this way because I was determined to find flaws. I think that people who like the show were so invested they overlooked some elements a bit or just didn’t care about them. It’s a matter of taste whether or not a series’ flaws derail a show for you. I love “Lost” to this day and will fight like hell against people who criticize it, but I know there’s merit to the arguments against it. I just ultimately loved it enough to look beyond the blemishes.
I don’t want you to hate “Breaking Bad” if you love it. I don’t want it to be criticized just because it went out on top. I’m just sharing a rare opinion: one that isn’t a rave review but just a “nice job.”