Breaking Bad, the highly awarded AMC TV drama series, is among the very best in this youthful story form which came of age in the mid-to-late twentieth century. Breaking Bad is rare story art–not the usual formulaic schlock of TV series–because it is topical yet timeless, spellbinding in its strangeness, youthful and modern, dark and satiric, unflinching and regretful about core problems today in American culture. Breaking Bad is traditional narrative art, the storytelling that always eventually works: a unified journey in which the Faustian, Merlinesque hero learns about himself–here principally his historically inevitable demiurge–and dramatizes some important News of today, especially about the lost and losing disillusioned US middle class (here a stand-in for folk down the ages). Breaking Bad is neither especially ideological nor the descendant of hip 1960s art disgusted with squaredom. Its foundations are much deeper.
It is, in short, superior art.
Harold Bloom is right that important art often initially seems strange.
The storyline: A brilliant, middle-aged Albuquerque high school chemistry teacher, Walt White, believes he cannot take care of his family, to include a teen son with cerebral palsy, on $43,000 a year. Walt also accurately believes he is smarter than many, is able less and less to suffer fools, and believes he has not gotten his chance in life; and in fact the story proves him brilliant. Together with a former pupil of his, Jesse Pinkman, he begins secretly (his code name is “Heisenberg”) to cook methamphetamine, producing the best available in the US Southwest and Mexico, gets paid ever more–eventually, millions–in cash, becomes wealthy but ever more deeply entangled with ever more dangerous drug-dealers leading to the savage, primal/primate chimp battlefields of cartels, and meanwhile with great suspense sustains (i.e., securely compartmentalizes) a double life of Walmarts; Taco Bells; Saturday morning home repairs; a wife, Skyler, who is a naive New Age fundamentalist; a brother-in-law, Hank Schrader, who is a leading local DEA agent married to Skyler’s kleptomaniac sister, Marie; and a declining suburban life framed in a strictly local milieux in which distant federal/corporate/political culpability–by no means the only culpability–is left loudly unspoken. Yet Walt prevails, even triumphs, in fraught situation after fraught situation. Walt prevails through his considerable wits. Walt’s covert life not only prospers but becomes enthralling as his overt life only suffers and becomes abject crawling. Eventually, of course, Skyler, a sometime CPA, discovers Walt’s secret life, threatens divorce, becomes vindictive, and eventually, disillusioned about her New Age credo (afternoon “medical”/celeb talk shows, Three Cups of Tea, etc.), ends up wanting in on the action as an adviser in money-laundering. By now Walt has gone to full-time cooking for Gus Fring, the Satan of drug dealers in the region, a most shrewd, utterly smooth and suave solitary whose cover is running fast food franchises and becoming a charitable donor. Eventually, Walt, prevalent as ever, brings death to the punishing Fring, becomes his own independent force, loses his family, becomes increasingly criminal, becomes a killer, and reaches his end when he becomes entangled, and powerfully, with a murderous gang. Dying of a resurgent lung cancer which overmatches him–he got it cured earlier but is losing the present battle–he declares at the end that his adventure has been undertaken not as much for family and loved ones as “for me” and that he “liked it” and “felt alive” in the saga.
The sly young creator of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan, is a protean artist: deeply literary, mythopoeic, philosophical, cultural, technological, scientific and, in the end, a quietly reluctant modern secularist accepting of, if not of course ever at home in, the vast, indifferent, impersonal universe (not merely Earth) in which precarious shelter from a cold randomness is purchased temporarily only by family and by paternal and maternal instincts and where an engrossing life means taking on formidable obstacles, people and situations. Although Walt is prevalent, the American middle class pictured often in the foreground is almost secretly deteriorating–in a superb irony its criminal demise is hiding in plain sight under the bright set lights of the pop culture, notably the media and its official all’s well relentless consumer sweet-sell.
Gilligan dramatizes the dark side peopled by drop outs and the educated without prospects and disillusioned New Age types, this drama officially these days seldom seen and heard save in a here-and-there askance glance. The criminality in Gilligan’s superb dark comedy–the growing, ever-more-violent big business of the dooming drug trap baited with hopelessness in normal life (when you’re high on meth, says Pinkman, “everything becomes interesting”)–is shown for what it is in a decaying house where meth-heads are dying, a place that calls to mind the old etchings of Hell itself, worse even than the glaring emptiness in Albuquerque and the surrounding badlands accentuated by the inspired setting of forlorn big-sky New Mexico of plastic Taco Bells and skeletal Walmarts scattered like alien carcasses on the vast wastes under the coldly beautiful infinite skies.
As Gilligan will have it: Mister Mystery History, that impersonal, nonchalant giant of an idiot savant, is breathing slow fire on the American Dream and, writ more largely, evaporating lingering senses of any purpose to planet Earth in the unimaginably immense hurtling Cosmos.
Here is some fun, just a little out of the much, made by up-to-date fashionable declinist-secularist Gilligan:
–“Walt White,” embarked on an odyssey, is an allusion to Walt Whitman, that marveling wanderer from sea to shining sea. In one scene, Walt is the only one who can answer a Jeopardy question whose answer is “Yawp” in Whitman’s famous expression, “Barbaric yawp.”
–Gus Fring is diabolical (say “Fring” by dragging out a bit the “F.” Well, that bringing of the flames is what this Satanic character does to those who bargain with him, and here we are talking about much more than mere termination of employment. Memo to all Fausts: Live it up today.) Fring is splendidly, voluntarily all alone. Unlike every other character in Breaking Bad, he needs no purpose in family. Besides, all you have to do is look at his expression, his posture. He is much warned against in the Baltimore Catechism. Walt’s lost his Guardian Angel years go.
–Hence Walt is Faustian (he is offered $12,000,000 by Satan for a year’s cooking in an underground, hot lab).
–“Walt White” also alludes to “Aging White Guy.”
–Walt’s code name, adopted by him to protect his true identity from numerous murderous types, is “Heisenberg.” Given Walt’s frequent desperate attempts–he, a thwarted-but-Nobel-brilliant member of the middle class (in short, one of those necessary if perhaps somewhat tall-tale literary heroes serviceable in a grand thematic cause), is nothing less than a paragon of the demiurge–Walt clearly feels the consuming human need to do something perfect in defiance of the randomness, the uncertainty, of perverse reality, and here that defiance being to cook the perfect methamphetamine in a flawless subterranean lab Satan builds for him which is supposedly shielded from all random outside surprise and hence a sort of fiery paradise for Walt for perfect, controlled, master science and thereby an escape from Nature, so that Walt’s impulsive choice of “Heisenberg” is thematically ironic: In a remarkable episode, Walt and Jesse spend nearly the entire hour chasing a fly around the lab–who can say how it penetrated the shield and especially where exactly that Fly of The Uncertainty Principle is at any second despite its buzzing trajectory–the insect becoming the classic fly in the ointment–to kill that filthy intruder and end any risk of contamination: very nearly Samuel Beckett might have written this single-scene, two-actor play of an episode. Further, in the next episode, Gilligan creates a fly inside the screen image itself that is so real that most viewers will roll up a magazine or newspaper and, after pushing “pause,” approach the screen for a disgusted, irritatingly interrupting kill. Having no class, I report that I wasn’t fooled but amused and remained watching. During this remarkable episode, Walt rhapsodizes angrily on randomness.
–“Randomness” doesn’t gainsay causality. Jesse entices a reformed addict–a pretty young woman–to take up drugs again, and it is fatal for her. Her father, an air controller, becomes distraught over her death and distractedly fails to prevent the terrible collision of two airliners. A child’s stuffed animal falls from the sky into Walt’s swimming pool.
–Skyler protects Walt’s secret in one narrow escape from revealing it when she delivers an absolutely perfect description of Ed Thorpe’s Blackjack card-counting inspiration and system in falsely explaining that Walt has made some money at casinos through a secret gambling system to beat the house.
–Walt, bringing to mind Merlin, brilliantly hypothesizes about human memory in the operation of the brain–even Fring is impressed.
–Another sign that Walt is a Merlin: Fring conspires to replace Walt by introducing a male lab assistant, Gail, with an impressive college pedigree in chemistry, Fring’s plan being that Gail learn Walt’s recipe and cooking secrets. Gail, however, tells Fring that Walt is a master and that his secrets are beyond mimicry. In a scene in which Gail is home alone in his apartment, we find him perfectly mimicking a low-grade Cubano-bop–a vulgarization of the Dizzy Gillespie breakthrough–in which a choir sings inferior bop refrains. Mediocre Gail is even a low-brow appreciator of art! Gilligan is a most artful storyteller.
I’d most strongly recommend Breaking Bad. The story may seem strange, at least initially, against many of our experiences, but Breaking Bad is art. The real thing. And after all, we didn’t accompany Gulliver but who would want to miss Gulliver’s Travels?