It’s hard to believe it’s been a full decade since we were first introduced to Breaking Bad’s tighty-whities-wearing protagonist Walter White. The series, which found Mr. White taking on the unlikely position of a crystal-meth manufacturer after discovering he has stage-three lung cancer, initially presented him as a milquetoast high school chemistry teacher whose woe and misfortune cast him as a sympathetic sap. Of course, we all know that image didn’t hold for long—as his seemingly noble mandate for entering the drug game (“I’m doing this for my family”) soon gave way to infatuation—but his long, dark trek proved to be one of the most engaging and satisfying character arcs in television history. Many would even say Breaking Bad was simply the greatest TV series of all time, and when taking it in as a whole, it’s reasonable to understand why one would say that.
What are the greatest TV dramas of all time? Well, when talking of vogue releases of the 21st century, Breaking Bad is always considered—with perhaps just as many suggestions for Mad Men, The Sopranos, and The Wire. What separates Breaking Bad from these candidates, however, is not only is it more accessible but it's also more varied. While Breaking Bad is essentially a crime drama with heavy influence from pulp fiction and Westerns, it certainly didn’t keep remain exclusive to the hardboiled set. The show definitely possessed a surreal factor to it that was captured through brilliant directing and intelligent production decisions.
Re-watching the series now, it’s easier to spot cues and colors that elicit foreshadowing (i.e., Jesse’s clothes often convey his mood/alignment), and scholarly TV watchers could certainly attest that the show’s cinematography is almost unprecedented. Even with all the out-there genre scenarios, the show always carried a human face to it with characters that were palpable and fully dynamic. Breaking Bad really did offer something for everyone, and its eclecticism never sacrificed tone or story.
Speaking of story, few could contest that Breaking Bad took serialization to the next level. While shows like Twin Peaks and The Sopranos certainly brought more novel-esque consideration to the television landscape, Breaking Bad did it in a way that truly asked for viewers to view every episode in order. Series creator Vince Gilligan has said numerous times that the basis for Breaking Bad’s trajectory was turning “Mr. Chips into Scarface,” and Walt’s descent into the irredeemable had plenty of hallmarks. Over the course of five seasons, we’d see Walt become more ruthless in his tactics, which made perfect sense, especially as the writers didn’t miss a beat when giving us unexpected plot points.
Another highly impressive aspect of the show was that so many of its big payoffs had not been envisioned by Gilligan and Co. from the beginning, rather when they came into the writers' room for the upcoming season. Watched as a whole, all of its subplots and character relations seem to flow so seamlessly together that it's difficult to imagine it wasn’t all pre-meditated. It’s nigh unbelievable to think now that deuteragonist Jesse Pinkman (the only other character besides Walt to appear in every episode) was planned to be killed at the end of the first season, as the character’s position as Breaking Bad’s moral compass was so necessary for its backbone.
Also, consider Walt’s conflicted relationship with his wife Skylar, which often saw him at his most monstrous but also gave us the semblance that Walt really had destroyed his family despite not causing them any direct physical harm. Not to mention all the buildup to the series' third-to-last episode, “Ozymandias,” which awarded viewers gargantuan payoff after five seasons worth of their devotion, elevated by a shot that I refer to as “the character death heard around the world.”
These are all powerful examples of how Breaking Bad did television narrative like no other, but one area I feel a lot of viewers overlook is the importance of the character Mike Ehrmantraut (played by the venerable Jonathan Banks). The world-weary hitman (and often begrudging partner of Walt’s) actually acted a bit as a reflection of Walt’s, perhaps even representing an alternative version of him. A version of Walt that we hadn’t lost sympathy for.
Mike was also in the drug game in an attempt to provide for his family, but not only was he good at playing the badass, there was a sense of compassion to him that made him the series’ most respectable character. His dark stories and unwavering character communicated how he truly wanted to find peace in life despite his criminal identity, as did his actions. (Did he spare Lydia’s life because he saw business potential, or was it more because he didn’t want a single mother's life on his conscience?)
Therefore, when Walt ultimately murders Mike, his death truly acted as the catalyst that would signify Walt was doomed to fail. Up to that point, we could kind of rationalize with Walt when he killed people, but there was no denial that Walt made Mike his victim purely out of ego. Not to mention, he probably had the best dying words from a fictional character in recent memory (do I even need to repost the quote here?), which in true Breaking Bad-fashion, spiked the tragedy with the show’s unique sense of humor and attitude.
Of course, the show had so many great characters to choose from, and we can be eternally grateful that so many of these fine actors set aside their schedules to work on Breaking Bad. Alternative-comedy great Bob Odenkirk was a shoe-in for Saul Goodman, the slimy yet affable attorney who was probably the best comic relief since The X-Files’ Lone Gunmen. Dean Norris’s Hank Shrader also quickly became a fan favorite, which ain’t too shabby for a character that initially came off as little more than obnoxious.
Also, Giancarlo Esposito proved to be terrifying as villain Gus Fring, even if his evil couldn’t quite match the nonchalant and disturbingly polite Todd. Lastly, what more can be said about the chemistry that Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul had as Walt and Jesse, respectively (both of whom AMC was skeptical to cast at first), as the two characters truly did morph in a way that required nuance and unhurried delivery.
Another underrated facet of Breaking Bad is that it can also be seen as a driving series towards the start of the streaming-age of television. Sure, it aired on AMC, which debuted new episodes in weekly increments, but a lot of people disregard that the show’s ratings were middling until the fourth season—the season after the previous three became available for streaming on Netflix. Netflix allowed the show to really get the audience it deserved, and from there, Gilligan and his cohorts continued to subvert expectations.
In spite of the show reaching success because of an online platform, it was still a telling example of how intuitive a medium television is with week-long gaps between episodes. There truly hasn’t been a show since that’s offered such a nerve-racking and wildly unpredictable final batch of episodes (although The Leftovers came close), and I think anyone who watched the show’s last eight episodes back in 2013 could get goosebumps just remembering the thrill of it all.
Since concluding, Breaking Bad has been a very visible influence throughout the television landscape. Its stylized sense for serialization and neo-noir has been mimicked by other series such as Mr. Robot and even Riverdale, which also uses very strategic and distinct lighting. Character development has become far more complicated in the years after Breaking Bad, as exampled in shows like Orange Is the New Black, Fargo, and Search Party (the latter of which pretty much gives us a quartet of millennial Walter Whites).
Face it, as much as we were engaged with the misdeeds of TV characters like Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey, those characters had already crossed the line; Walter White’s story was about getting there. The results were positively fruitful, and despite the frequent imitation, it’s not exactly likely that we’ll see another character study on television that was as rich and fulfilling as Breaking Bad’s (although here’s hoping that it’s excellent spin-off, Better Call Saul, comes close).
So was it the greatest TV series of all time? Well, there are some television shows that I wouldn’t hesitate to call artistic master strokes, such as Deadwood, and there are certainly shows that are more important in their social commentary, such as The Wire. In those regards, Breaking Bad is comparatively candy, in all honesty. However, if you measure a television show on its widespread appeal, distinct craft, pitch-perfect casting, and fluidly encompassing storyline, then Breaking Bad damn-well does it better than any other. Gilligan’s series is still the pinnacle of this era’s supposed “Golden Age of Television,” and 10 years later, it feels like it hasn’t aged a day.
Peter Foy is an avid reader and movie buff, constantly in need to engage his already massive pop-culture lexicon.