As the final run of the acclaimed US drama begins on Netflix, could Breaking Bad teach Hollywood a lesson?
For some time now, the British viewing public has essentially been divided into those who have and those who haven’t yet seen the US television show Breaking Bad. The people who haven’t seen it may be dimly aware that it is an enormously successful series in America. They might even know the bones of the plot: that it is about a middle-aged Albuquerque high-school chemistry teacher, Walter White, who discovers that he has terminal cancer and turns to the illegal manufacture of “crystal meth” in order to make enough money to provide comfortably for his family after his death. Perhaps they will make a small mental note to catch it sometime, if it ever comes to mainstream British television.
The people who have seen it – mainly by means of box set, which delivers the episodes in tantalisingly finite batches – have quite often become obsessed. They seem a little feverish about it, asking other friends: “Have you seen Breaking Bad yet?” with a particular urgency which, to be honest, can be a bit off-putting to the uninitiated.
Still, I stumbled on Breaking Bad by accident one night, when my husband was watching it, and pretty soon I was hooked too. Some nights we inhaled two episodes. On New Year’s Eve last year, we cheerfully waved our friends and family off to parties, put the children to bed, and polished off three in a row: a bit of a binge, but worth it, the television equivalent of an excess of vintage champagne. As you travel through the series, the sense of danger sporadically thickens, tightens and relaxes again, but the inexorable direction is towards the heart of darkness. The creator of the show, Vince Gilligan, describes Walter White’s dramatic trajectory as “from Mr Chips to Scarface”.
Yet since the first eight episodes of Series Five finished, fans have been suspended in a state of high anticipation, awaiting the eight and final episodes to come. The burning question of how the saga of Walter White’s expanding drug empire will end has been tormenting aficionados. He’s now definitely getting very close to Scarface, or perhaps something even harder and darker, more precisely focused in his ruthlessness. Unlike Al Pacino’s cocaine-addled character, Walter doesn’t sample his own merchandise: his high comes from winning the criminal game. Tomorrow, the first of the final episodes is aired in the UK on Netflix. It is the beginning of the end.
We’ve had box set fever before, of course, with series such as The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men, but Breaking Bad – which has won multiple Emmys – has triggered perhaps its most extreme outbreak yet. Like The Sopranos – and its lead character of Tony Soprano, played by the late James Gandolfini – it features a protagonist who is also an antagonist. Ross Douthat of The New York Times eloquently summed up the difference between Tony Soprano and Walter White thus: Walter “deliberately abandons the light for the darkness” while Tony is “someone born and raised in darkness” who keeps rejecting opportunities “to claw his way upward into the light”.
The critical acclaim for Breaking Bad also represents the most recent triumph for the medium of television. As recently as 15 years ago, television was routinely considered the poor cousin of film. Cinema, it was thought, boasted the panoramic vision, the auteurs and proper actors, the big ideas, the philosophical depth: television churned out soapy schlock for loyal couch potatoes, its long-running series staffed by over-tanned B-list performers, whose fading professional dreams were massaged by their regular pay-cheques.
If that generalisation ever contained a grain of truth, the grain has long since been pulverised. Cinema, of course, still retains its power to move and mesmerise: as a film critic, it is impossible for me not to hold the sheer capacity of the medium in respect. Yet in recent years the studios have too often seemed to believe that success lies in bludgeoning audiences into awed submission with spectacle rather than enticing them with close developments in character and plot.
Superhero blockbusters might dominate the multiplexes, but – for certain audiences – their constant diet of toppling buildings and earth-shattering explosions has begun to pall: it’s like being in a room with someone who only ever speaks at the top of his or her voice.
Is Breaking Bad the best television series I have seen? Yes, if by “best” one means possessing a narrative strong enough to nail viewers to seats, while making us care about characters we might once only have despised. Spectacle is when we gawp at a tower block collapsing, and reach for more popcorn. Drama is when we are rendered breathless by the fear of what might happen to a specific individual in a single room on the 12th floor. One of the rules of Breaking Bad is that the drama is always in the driving seat: in this case, the drama of how badness can creep into a man’s character – bit by bit, choice by choice – until it has slowly consumed him from the inside, leaving only a hollow where the soul should be. Finally, it peeps out through his eyes. For all his intelligence, Walter seems oblivious to the takeover – but we can see it.
Brian Cranston, the actor who plays Walter, has a wiry body and an acute gaze; his character is a wolf in suburban lamb’s clothing. As a teacher, he might seem like a bit of a stickler; as a drugs manufacturer, he is a perfectionist. He despises sloppiness, and yet he is increasingly willing to take the most outrageous risks. Walter seethes with paradoxes: he lowers himself into the toxic criminal underworld with an apparent purity of motive – the desire to provide financially for his pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and their teenage son with cerebral palsy – yet the nature of his business places his family in enormous danger from Mexican cartels or their US-based representatives.
He displays, at times, extraordinary diligence and courage in the service of a corrupt and corrupting enterprise: all his positive qualities flow into a vast negative. Walter’s vigorous efforts to dominate the crystal-meth business are like a dark parody of the American dream of enterprise and reward. The closeness of death, in some ways, has freed him from the dull constraints of good behaviour: he has less to lose.
The characters that surround him are equally highly drawn: in particular, his former pupil and fellow-criminal Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) a feckless, drug-taking, impulsive youth, but who has more essential humanity than his former teacher. And in a twist that adds rich dollops of irony to family get-togethers, Walter’s robustly determined brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), is also a senior detective in the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Breaking Bad is certainly a violent series, unfurling as it does in a world wherein violence is the ultimate means of economic conversation. It is also a highly moral one: throughout the series, in a string of differing, extreme situations, each character reveals – sometimes surprisingly – the relative elasticity of their ethical code. Actions are taken, and rebound upon their perpetrator; killings exact their toll from both the victim and the murderer; no death is free of consequences.
There is a current, deepening conversation about violence in Hollywood films: in recent years, even comic-book inspired films have frequently become bloodier, more amoral, more explicitly complicit in and excited by death and torture.
The real debate is not about the presence of violence, but the treatment of it. Breaking Bad is a series that eschews didacticism but remembers, as so many of the finest films of the 1970s did, that moral arguments are the most exciting ones audiences can have. It doesn’t fetishise brutality, but shows the audience as much as they need to know to understand the weight of what has happened.
The gripping, complex subtlety of its drama makes directors such as Tarantino, with his pseudo-ironic flip-talk and lasciviously spurting fountains of blood, look like a stalled high-schooler playing with a ketchup kit. When Breaking Bad finally ends, it is one moment when Hollywood – not known for its humility – might usefully kneel before the small screen, and take notes.
Jenny McCartney is the film critic for the Sunday Telegraph