This Sunday "Breaking Bad" returns for its final 8 episodes. The series is considered by many to be one of, if not THE greatest show ever created for television. Some critics have even called it a modern-day Shakespearean tragedy, with each season mirroring the five act structure.
Bryan Cranston is amazing portraying Walter White, a character who goes from being "Mr. Chips to Scarface." At the beginning of the series, he's a brilliant man stuck in a somewhat pathetic life with a lot of obligations (in the form of a pregnant wife, and a 16-year-old son with cerebral palsy). He's a high-school chemistry teacher that teaches uninterested kids, who then show up to his second job at a car wash to giggle & take pictures of him. At home, Walt's sex life with his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) consists of a birthday hand-job, which she performs while monitoring an auction on eBay. However, a change occurs when Walt finds out he has Stage 3A lung cancer.
From there, the tale of Walter White begins when he decides to cook crystal meth. There have been many analyses of the story. Some seeing subtext for various cultural issues, as well as debates about fundamental aspects of human nature.
Warning: If you aren't up to date with the show and don't want to be spoiled, you might want to stop right here.
"Verily, I have often laughed at the weaklings who thought themselves good because they had no claws."
From Chuck Klosterman at Grantland: Why AMC's "Breaking Bad" beats "Mad Men," "The Sopranos," and "The Wire"
There's one profound difference between this series and the other three, and it has to do with its handling of morality: "Breaking Bad" is the only one built on the uncomfortable premise that there's an irrefutable difference between what's right and what's wrong, and it's the only one where the characters have real control over how they choose to live.Among the many issues people have read into the series:
Certainly, all of these series grapple with morality — more than anything else, it's the reason they're better than the shows around them. But the first three examples all create realities where individual agency is detached. "Mad Men" is set in the 1960s, so every action the characters make is not really a reflection on who they are; they're mostly a commentary on the era... "The Sopranos" was compelling because we were continually watching innately bad people operate within a world not unlike our own — this, in one sentence, was the crux of the series... In "The Wire," everyone is simultaneously good and bad. Nobody is totally positive and nobody is totally negative, and our inherently flawed assessment of those qualities hinges on where we come from and what we want to believe. And this, of course, is closer to how life actually is (which is why "The Wire" felt so realistic). It's a more sophisticated way to depict the world. However — from a fictional, narrative perspective — it ends up making the message a little less meaningful. If nothing is totally false, everything is partially true; depending on the perspective and the circumstance, no action is unacceptable. The conditions matter more than the participants.
This is where "Breaking Bad" diverges from the other three entities. "Breaking Bad" is not a situation in which the characters' morality is static or contradictory or colored by the time frame; instead, it suggests that morality is continually a personal choice... So what we see in "Breaking Bad" is a person who started as one type of human and decides to become something different. And because this is television — because we were introduced to this man in a way that made him impossible to dislike, and because we experience TV through whichever character we understand the most — the audience is placed in the curious position of continuing to root for an individual who's no longer good.
► The Failure of the Social Contract
From The Nation:
There are many sources to assign blame for Walt's sorry condition. As a teacher, Walter shouldn't have had to take a second job just to provide for his family—it's even hinted that the fumes from the car wash were the catalyst for his cancer. As a citizen, he shouldn't have had to decide between cancer treatment and the well-being of his family (but privatized healthcare will do that to you). People usually deal with these obstacles legally. They do so by racking up more debt, burdening their families, placing more people in the red in states that vote deep red. But Walt resists. He uses whatever agency he has to die on his own terms. Because the stakes of drug trafficking firmly places our protagonist so far outside the status quo, because our hero is a criminal, the viewer is forced to ask: If playing by the rules only gets you so far, why bother? "Breaking Bad" dismisses the idea that your blue-collar job will provide for you, that, if needed, the State will, too, and that doing the right thing will be its own substantive reward.
Some people have also noted class distinctions in the story. One significant plot point in the Skyler storyline is her boss Ted Beneke. When she finds out, Skyler is appalled by what Walt has done. And yet, Skyler is accepting of her boss Ted in committing fraud by cooking the books at his company, which Skyler knows about & is complicit in the fraud. She also fucks Ted to get back at Walt. There's an argument that this is BB's comment on society's distinction & hypocrisy for "white collar crime." (i.e. rob a liquor store & get a couple years in prison, commit fraud that almost cripples the world economy & you get a bailout.)
► The Pursuit of the American Dream
From Rolling Stone:
The story may have started with a dying man lowering himself to do dirty deeds in order to pile up cash to protect his wife and kids. But that seems like a long time ago. By now, all Walter wants is to cook. After meth kingpin Gus (a chilling Giancarlo Esposito) kills the competition, all he says to Walter is, "Get back to work." What that means is Gus and Walter understand each other, and they both get why Walter does what he does. This guy needs the work — not the profits or the perks, but the work itself. The most shocking moments on "Breaking Bad" come from the idea that work corrupts you; getting better at your gig can turn you into a monster. The deeper Walter White gets into his criminal career, the more we can see in retrospect (even if he can't) that the problem with his teaching career was that he wasn't good enough at it. He knows being the best is the only thing that makes him unkillable — and he takes a sick pride in that.
The longer you watch "Breaking Bad," the more terrifying Walter looks — not because you might share his vices, but because you might share his virtues. The idea that you can be utterly destroyed, in both body and soul, by a mixture of hard work and intelligence — that's the most disturbing part of Walter's story. It feels un-American and yet somehow all-American at the same time. You can relate to how fulfilled Walter is when he hears the magic words "Get back to work," even though he's covered in another man's gore. But you also know the horrifying truth that the harder he works, the more blood he will see.
► The Things We Do For Family
The series begins with Walter White making the decision that he needs to become a "drug manufacturer" to provide for his family. It is also what makes Walt a likable character and puts the audience on his side. The relationship between Walt and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) is also akin to a father-son relationship, with both coming to each other's aid & performing horrible acts to defend the other. Almost every conflict in the show has been motivated by family. For example, "The Cousins" want to avenge Tuco's death, Jesse's defense of his girlfriends' young family members have been pivotal plot points, and Gus' (Giancarlo Esposito) vendetta against the Mexican Cartel comes from the murder of his partner.
One of the key questions the series puts in front of the audience is whether the justification of "family" is real or bullshit for the characters? And how you answer that question will color how sympathetic you are to them. On some level, Walter White truly did believe he was entering this world for his family. But it wasn't the entire story. Walt enjoyed becoming "Heisenberg." Skyler has resisted going to the police citing the damage it will do to the family. But she enjoyed getting the car wash with Walt's drug money.
From the New York Times:
Anna Gunn wasn’t sure what she thought about Skyler White after reading the pilot script for “Breaking Bad,” so she asked Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, to elaborate. He couldn’t tell her much, he said, but what he could was enough. “He said, ‘She’s going to be Carmela Soprano, but she’ll be in on the crime,’” Ms. Gunn recalled recently. “And I said, ‘O.K., sold.’”
► Male Pride
There have been lengthy arguments about the audience's reaction to Skyler (i.e. their hate for her) and whether the dislike for the character is based in part on misogyny. The flip side of that argument is that Walter White's turn to Heisenberg is the alpha male fantasy that everyone who's ever been talked down to by some asshole with a clipboard or cuckolded by their wife wishes to experience.
This is a show in which a man who feels like life has never been fair to him says "fuck it" and takes control of his own destiny.
From a comment over at the A.V. Club:
Walt says fuck all this and makes a conscious decision to own. And own he does. He owns out of a sense of masculine pride and out of love for his family. He crushes the competition and wipes out threats to his well-being and he makes a fuckload of money. He takes care of his family with the proceeds. He takes pride in this shit and doesn't feel the need to explain himself or justify his decisions or answer to anybody about it. And all this shit is anti-fucking-thetical to everything and I mean everything the effete, condescending, feminized assholes on this site stand for. You can not own. You can not define your destiny. Masculine pride is taboo.On the other hand... If there is one overarching theme to much of the show, it's pride. Pride consumes. Pride changes people & clouds their judgment.
Is he a criminal? Sure, but that's not what pisses you off about him. I mean Christ, this whole fucking site jacked off to "The Wire" when they finally got around to watching it in 2009 and that whole fucking show is about how drugs should be decriminalized. So that's not what bugs you about Walt. Is he a killer? Sure, but that's not what pisses you off either. Walt kills... which is what everybody from Audie Murphy to John Fucking McClane does.
No what bugs you is that Walt absolutely fucking owns. He made a conscious decision to own. He went from a beaten down husk of a man to meth kingpin of the American Southwest. A man accountable to no one.
And as the Good Book says, pride destroys.
From Empire Magazine:
Vince Gilligan: One of our finest moments was not necessarily one of our most dramatic. But in the writers’ room during the first season, we did an episode – only our fifth episode – where we offered a Deus Ex Machina moment to Walter White. We basically had a savior, a white knight, come to Walter White in the form of Elliott Schwartz, his former friend and lab partner who is now a millionaire, running an enormous scientific research company.
And Elliott comes to Walt and says, 'I’ve heard about your cancer, I’m going to pay for your medical treatment, I’m going to pay the full freight on it, and I’m going to give you a job, anything you want – I just want to do right by you and help you and help your family…' And instead of taking this life preserver that’s been thrown to him, Walt decides to go back to cooking crystal meth, and that’s one of my favorite moments and one of the most important moments in the life of the show, because prior to that I don't think the writers and I truly understood Walter White.
We didn’t understand that he was a creature of such pride and such damaged ego that he would rather be his own man and endanger his family’s life than take a handout like that. He’s that kind of a guy. Prior to that Walter White was basically a good but mislead guy with bad decision-making skills. He was going to make money, and then what was going to happen to keep him cooking meth? The money was going to get stolen, so he’d have to cook more meth… we came to realize truly what we had in that fifth episode.