Breaking Bad: even better than you’ve heard
As BB obsessives mourn the loss of the Best Show on TV, David Bowden urges the nay-sayers to give it a try.
Everyone can finally breathe a sigh of relief: Breaking Bad is over. For its many fans there will be no more agonising cliffhangers and heart-stopping drama over Walter White’s journey from high-school chemistry teacher to drug lord, or the week-by-week need to shield oneself from plot spoilers. For its non-fans, there should at least be some respite from the constant cajoling to watch The Best Show on Television and wondering about all the puzzling catchphrases (‘Magnets, bitch!’; ‘Better call Saul!’) being bandied about by the fans. Only some respite, of course: it’ll only last until Breaking Bad’s many fans start yearning once more for another hit and turn their attention to planned prequel Better Call Saul.
If you haven’t watched it, you really should give it a try (I will try to go light on spoilers, at least for the final series). It has certainly been the best show on television in the past few years, even compared to those other broadsheet darlings, Game of Thrones and Mad Men. It’s been jaw-droppingly tense over five series and possesses a startling narrative confidence and undeniable sense of style: from imaginative camera angles to an excellent, eclectic soundtrack. It’s often extremely funny, with its humour drifting between the silly and the bible black.
Of course, if you haven’t been watching it, it’s probably because you’ve been told it’s a piece of searing Wire-esque social commentary. Knowing the plot is about a middle-aged man turning to drug dealing to fund expensive cancer treatment, you may naturally suspect that it will be a yawn-inducing indictment of American healthcare – another oh-so-daring suggestion that the drug trade is morally ambiguous and that the really bad drugs are the legal ones like coffee, alcohol and MSG (or whatever). You’ll have heard that it’s not just merely good TV but actually art, and, considering that most of what is lauded as art today is banal vehicles for whatever passes as fashionable liberal opinion, you might think: sod this for a game of soldiers (or thrones).
Yet it would be a shame to draw that conclusion because, although Breaking Bad touches upon those questions, it is really not that bothered by them. It throws them in because, you sense, it feels it should: partly because it gets good column inches, and partly because it’s what Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett would do. It is from the best of hard-boiled noir – rather than classical tragedy or Shakespeare – which Breaking Bad draws its inspiration and its distinctly old-fashioned morality.
This is not a criticism. The fascination of Breaking Bad – like all great noir – is how obsessively moral it is. Creator Vince Gilligan (formerly of The X-Files) pitched the show as ‘Mr Chips turns into Scarface’, and it doesn’t stint on the grubbiness of what that transformation would take, both morally and practically. You may be able to make the best meth on the market, but are you willing to get your hands dirty with drug dealers to make money off of it? You may end up killing a guy in self-defence, but what do you do with the body? Once you’re in the drug trade, and its associated miseries, does killing an innocent to save yourself (or killing yourself to save an innocent) really make a difference either way? You can blow a guy’s face half off but then… no, actually, blowing a guy’s face half off is pretty definitive, isn’t it?
There’s something bracing about its Calvinist worldview which is, broadly speaking, that you’re damned either way, but if you’re smart you can at least delay the inevitable. Yet this is explored in an enthralling and enjoyable way. Breaking Bad takes a deep satisfaction in the mechanics of human ingenuity and activity. Walter is, of course, often deploying his scientific cleverness to outlandishly and often improbably outwit the bad(der) guys, but the show takes equal pleasure in its background processes: the humdrum workings of a factory production line; the transportation of ingredients for a fried chicken shop; the importance of cleaning products. Its attention to minor detail becomes even more pronounced as its violence and gangsterism grows ever more cartoonish. What it seems to distrust most of all is nature devoid of humanity: the desolation of the New Mexico desert often being the location of its most barbaric incidents, its wide open spaces often the biggest challenge posed to our heroes.
Is it art? Maybe, but certainly not of a particularly enduring kind. It contains no original insight into the human condition or the world we inhabit, it frequently prioritises aesthetic style over intellectual depth, and it is mostly driven by the demands of plot rather than believable characters. Yet, like the best of Chandler or Elmore Leonard, it is pulp fiction made with towering craft and skill, which is no mean achievement. You don’t have to love it, but you should at least give it a try.
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