Breaking Bad: the best thing on the box

Incredibly, the moral descent of a drug-dealing chemistry teacher with cancer has been turned into sublime TV.

Emmet Livingstone

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To all you TV illiterates out there who have not yet seen Breaking Bad, hang your heads in shame. To the chosen few who are in the know, pause for a moment and share among yourselves a self-congratulatory chuckle. You are witnessing the acme of the golden age of television.

Criminally overlooked by the Emmys and British broadcasters alike, AMC’s drama charts the rise of the drab Walter ‘Walt’ White, a high-school chemistry teacher and study in mundane underachievement. On learning that he is suffering from an aggressive form of lung cancer, he turns to manufacturing crystal meth to secure his family’s financial future, finding his role releases him from the kind of mouldering suburban rot we all dread. In an era of easy TV thrills, a series opening with the midlife crisis of a grizzly depressive should be commended. The series’ genius lies not in the originality of its conception, however, but in the depths to which it explores the capacity for evil and its rancorous taint.

Breaking Bad is a show that breaks bad habits among the watching public. We tune in to a remarkably bad-looking cast doing ugly things for dispiriting reasons. Bizarrely, the end product is humorous and addictive. Walt’s exasperated chemistry lessons to his partner in crime and erstwhile student Jesse Pinkman provide continual guffaws, as well as the latter’s hoodrat floundering and gutter-speak (he is unable to speak without croaking an ineffectual ‘yo’ or ‘bitch’). Each episode is tuned to pitch-perfect cliff-hangers, a whole season rising to an unbearable crescendo of tension and anticipation. Neither do any of the characters fall into the lazy, stereotyped roles to which we are so accustomed. Pinkman, presumably Jewish, is an undereducated drug-world underling, and an addict. Saul Goodman, the kind of lawyer you might see plastered across a motorway billboard, invents a Jewish-sounding surname to attract more clientele.

Visually brave, not a single frame is wasted in this beautifully courageous series. Occasional, carefully placed acts of brutality are limned by the blinding harshness of the New Mexico desert, while the preamble and shop-talk happens only in gloomy, stripped-down interiors, enabling the cognitive dissonance necessary for us to root for the bad guy. It even improves on the guilty pleasures of other shows. Remember the naff forensic scenes in CSI? Think along these lines, but substitute the cheesiness for cool jazz and even cooler countenances.

Descent into evil is what interests the show’s creator Vince Gilligan, and the strength of the series is its intricate portrayal of the consequences of bad decision making. To Gilligan, people are not simply good or evil, nor are they a mixture; rather, their faculty for wickedness can be grown. Here lies the true merit of Breaking Bad: we watch Walt nurturing his most malevolent qualities as sedulously as he cooks his meth. What’s more, we are duped. Constantly kept guessing about the extent of the transformation, the audience errs towards thinking him an innocent hero. Only after a calculated infanticide is the wool wrenched from our eyes; yet we still want him to succeed.

The programme works better though as a portrayal of male angst. Walt has no reason to endanger everyone around him except to satisfy a deep-seated feeling of dissatisfaction – as couch-potato slobs, the audience empathises. His newly forged identity as drug lord gives him a new lease on life, which, though terrible, we all crave. Breaking Bad is negative escapism, the ‘what if?’ fantasy embodied.

Despite overtures from the TV commentariat, however, this is not the greatest programme of all time. Superb acting, taut plotting and lush visuals, though laudable, should not obscure what is essentially a simple message. When compared to Mad Men, impossible to ignore in these halcyon years of television, Breaking Bad comes out favourably. AMC’s other flagship drama critiques the attitudes of a bygone age, relying on sex, a glossy finish and smoker-chic to draw in viewers, but its protagonists are essentially vacuous. Breaking Bad keeps the polished matte sheen and is more substantive, but is it really saying anything that hasn’t been said before? Surely everything there is to know about the dangers of the ‘dark side’ can be learnt from Star Wars, and expressions of masculine frustration can be found aplenty in Scorsese films.

It’s the same old story, but goddamn if it isn’t repackaged in the sleekest, most compelling way it can be. Plus, we have the reassurance that we’re not really watching because of how hot so-and-so is. Watch and expect addiction levels as high as Walter White’s 99.1 per cent pure crystal meth.

Emmet Livingstone is an intern at spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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