I am done watching 5 Seasons of Breaking Bad back-to-back, without really giving my eyes or my rattled brain a break. But I am clearly feeling the pangs of withdrawal that no other social-crime drama has evoked. I zoned out from my surrounding world as Walter White’s existential dilemmas clouded my thoughts ever since. In a way I was glad the show ended because I couldn’t handle sleepless nights anymore, wondering what would happen next!
Sadly, I am a bit late in uncovering the Breaking Bad phenomenon. I say sadly, because I am a year too late in discovering intricately woven plots that give you the highest highs and the lowest lows; complex characters with evolving morality as if personal choices exist only in shades of grey; and a fast-paced script that gives you jitters in daylight.
Breaking Bad is possibly the MOST captivating series in American television, and also possibly the BEST one yet. There have been some brilliant and commercially successful Drama series in the past decade worthy of mention – The Sapranos, Mad Men, House Of Cards, The Wire and so on. But Breaking Bad is class apart – unpredictable, edgy and realistic. Yes, realistic!
Breaking Bad is an antithesis of the popular genre of American shows – it’s not glamorous, isn’t really staged to appease any demographic group, it’s gory and gut wrenching. Unlike Mad Men’s dramatically essayed and glamorous characters from the 60s, Breaking Bad is replete with grungy and messy sketches of otherwise unglamorous people – teachers, medical professionals, drug dealers, DEA agents etc. Unlike House Of Cards, they are no manic ambitious political nuts who are anti-heroes from day one. Characters in Breaking Bad always swing in shades of grey – they themselves don’t know when they “break bad” – morality is a mere convenience!
So, if you’re thinking of which show to watch next, invest your hard earned leisure time on Breaking Bad. You will constantly find yourself living vicariously through Walter White – a crystal-meth-making, middle-aged, cancer ridden, genial Chemistry teacher played by Bryan Cranston (of Malcolm in the Middle fame). We are hurled into Walter White’s lackluster life of a genius, with a less than handsome career as a high-school teacher and an inability to provide for his impending cancer treatment. He decides to partner with the street savvy, yet naive ex-student – Jesse Pinkman (played by Aaron Paul). The two cook up a plan to craft the purest form of meth.
The money from the deals is to provide for cancer treatments and a nest eggs for wife, Skyler (played by Anna Gunn) and his two children. Greed, shifty morality and massive egos clash as Walter White takes on drug lords, cartels and eventually his own family. The show ends with the disintegration of life, keeping in line with themes of karmic balance. “What goes around comes around” is the central idea being reinforced throughout the series, and each of the character is dealt with cards she or he deserves.
Unlike other dramas on TV, Breaking Bad is different because it’s not a story about Walter White – it’s a story about you and I, and what we would do if we were Walter White. During the entire length of the show, I embodied Walter White, Jesse Pinkman and Skyler. I was all of those characters and constantly asked myself existential questions:
Would I sell drugs to build a retirement nest egg? Obviously not. But what if I had cancer, had no savings, had to provide for my disabled child, an infant and a spouse, and in my mid-50s had no real financial means to face all the misery life hurled at me? Would I change like Walter White did?
Though the viewers may not agree with Walter’s choices, they understand him. Viewers similarly might understand why Skyler despises her husband for making meth, but may not agree with her acceptance for the blood money meth provides. Lastly, it is hard not to feel sympathetic for Jesse, a petty peddler, whose innocence and kind-heartedness makes you fall in love with diverse shades of humanity within each one of us.
In the end, the show forces us to think if people hustling drugs or selling their bodies for money a whole lot different then you and I? Or are we – “respectable citizens”, just a personal tragedy away from being derailed?
The show hits us where humans are the weakest – our insatiable greed. We are a greedy bunch, us humans, and often we do not know when to stop. For example, over the first 2 seasons Walter White had made enough money to pay for his treatment and built a decent nest egg, but he continued cooking meth at the expense of his family’s safety. Money – millions of it, became his identity. He couldn’t walk away, nor could Skyler despite knowing well that Walter even killed people to secure money for the family.
In fact, greed espouses cruelty. Further if morality becomes malleable, it is easier for humans to hurt others for personal gain. Nothing else explains the evolution of Walter White from being a compassionate family man, to a cunning, calculating murderer, who is addicted to the idea of being dangerous, bad-ass and a money-making machine. Though he keeps telling everyone including himself, he is cooking meth to provide for his family, he couldn’t unentangle the demands of his ego to make millions at the expense of innocent lives.
But the evolution of Walter White is not the crux of the show. It’s the evolution of the viewer’s perception of morality that’s at the heart of the show.
Just like Skyler, we come to understand that personal relationships are messy. Even if our significant others are making immoral choices in life, abandoning a loved one is often not that easy. Similarly, walking away from messy situations in life is easier said than done. Walking away requires immense internal courage, social support networks, financial support systems, and a clarity about how we envision our lives to be.
The show is not about the disintegration of life and humanity – it’s about the highlighting the best in all of us. For example, lessons on kindness and selflessness from Jesse are the most unexpected. Walter’s dedication to his family and blind love for his wife is endearing. Skyler’s lust for money yet her constant inner struggle is feeling we all can empathize with.
In the end, the show holds a mirror to our ideas of morality. We are all an amalgam of the good and the bad. In the end however, we are all guided by humanity that connects us all and may be only saving grace for our species.
So watch the show because it will leave you a better human at the end. It will leave you more compassionate and empathetic. We may not agree with a lot of decisions people make, but we can at least attempt to understand their life story.