Breaking Bad getting better all the time

Before you say: “but Domenic! I, like many, have not yet experienced AMC’s groundbreaking tour-de-force. I can’t start watching now.” Let me tell you that the first four seasons of the show are on Instant Watch of Netflix. So why not check it out?

Well, the summer used to be home to trashy reality television and a plethora of Law and Order reruns. And it still is. But if you look closely, between all of the housewives that may or may not be “real,” you’ll find some quality television. If you turn on AMC, you’ll find two of the best shows of all time (this, and Mad Men). Not just currently running. Ever.

Who would have thought a meth-lab teacher would be a hit? (AMC Photos)

For those unaware of the premise: Breaking Bad is about a guy who sells meth. That’s not too interesting. But a high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with cancer and then begins to cook meth so that his family will be taken care of after he’s gone? Fascinating. And that’s only the beginning.

For four straight seasons, Walter White has been the most sympathetic, despicable, admirable, and shocking character on TV. All at once. He’s gone from being a reluctant anti-hero looking out for his family to being a full-on supervillain. The change is slow and realistic.

That’s the background and I’m about to start reviewing. So SPOILERS AHEAD for those not caught up.

Like all great television, Breaking Bad warrants a lot of debate. Are we even rooting for Walter White anymore? In the season 5 premiere his own wife is terrified of him. And so is sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman, a man with quite a bit of pull in the criminal underworld.

So are we on Walt’s side? Many of my friends say no. They want everything to blow up in his face. On the other hand …

I want Walter White to rule the world.

He won’t, I’m quite sure. Because the rules of television dictate that no matter how redeemable the villain or how dark the show that in the end he has to turn over a new leaf or be suitably punished for his crimes.

But I love Walt.

Because at his core he’s a nerd looking to make a name for himself. A man who never had power now has immense control and influence over his life. In the pilot of the TV show Walt was pushed around by everyone, even his own students. His wife was bored with him. As we find out a few episodes later, his former collaborator has taken many of his chemistry ideas and made millions with it. No one respects Walter White.

Jump ahead to now. Saul wants to leave the business. Walt (now with a goatee and a shaved head, looking quite terrifying) tells him, “We’re done when I say we’re done.” And Saul goes along with him. After Walt has shot, poisoned, and (most memorably) blown up all of his enemies … Saul figures it’s best not to cross him.

Old Joe (Larry Hankin), Walter White (Bryan Cranston), Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and Mike (Jonathan Banks) in Season 5.

One of the reasons I’m such a big fan of villains is that they’re very empowering. Heroes have to hold back because they’re governed by rules. Villains take control. They call the shots.

Walt’s big turning point moment where his wife first sees him as the villain he’s become was simultaneously the show’s most disturbing and exciting scene. In it, she expresses worry for his life. That he might be in danger. That he might open his door and get killed.

Walt responds: “Who are you talking to right now? Who is it you think you see? Let me clue you in: I am not in danger, Skylar. I AM the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No. I am the one who KNOCKS!”

Cue thousands of Internet memes quoting his badass-ery. This was when a lot of people jumped off of the Walt fan bandwagon (fandwagon?) and started hating him. But I was energized in my fandom. Because here was a man who had left behind a life of being pushed around. Now he’s the one who knocks. So morality aside (of course) that has to be admired on some level.

This idea of the “revenge of the nerd” if you will, is highlighted by his relationship with his partner-in-crime – Jesse Pinkman. Jesse is a former student of his who happened to already have connections to other drug dealers (because he is one). And thus their unlikely partnership was born.

But Jesse is a jock. Walt is a nerd. So at the end of the day – even though Walt views Jesse as a son in many ways (and even goes out of his way to protect him as such) – he also hates him. People like Jesse are the reason he’s been tortured all of his life. Either as a fellow student when he was in school or as a poor/disruptive student when he was a teacher.

This leads a smart guy like Walt to make a lot of really dumb decisions. Last season, he could’ve let his brother-in-law (who works for the DEA, of course) remain off the scent of “Heisenberg” (Walt’s meth-cooking nom de guerre). Instead, he lets his ego get the best of him and gives his brother-in-law some possibly dangerous information by helping him with the case. When crafting a character for TV, it’s important that they make bad decisions sometimes. Otherwise it’s just not real. It’s also important that every decision is understandable, at least from that character’s particular perspective.

This show just gets better every season. Watch it. You won’t be disappointed.

And this show has done an excellent job of making all of Walt’s decisions understandable. Not necessarily defendable, but understandable. His darkest actions often take place when he has a split second to decide how much sin he can live with (as Boardwalk Empire’s Nucky Thompson would say). He spends most of his time backed into a corner with enemies on all sides. Survival is the mission, not morality.

So where has this path led him?

Season 4’s final line was Walt saying, “I won” after spectacularly sending his most dangerous enemy, Gus Fring, to Hell with only half of a face.  So what now? There’s no moral, logical, or even monetary reason for Walt to still be cooking meth. Now he just likes it. He’s addicted to the power. And even meth’s addictive qualities pale in comparison to power.

Season 5 begins with Walt in a diner by himself. He tears apart his bacon and makes a 52, just before telling the waitress it’s his birthday. This places him a little over a year after the season 4 finale. His hair is back but he looks disheveled. He’s as paranoid as Tony Soprano before the fade to black. He notices a man walking toward the restroom and he follows.

The man is a gun dealer from an earlier episode. He hands him a set of keys. When Walt goes to the corresponding car, the trunk has a massive machine gun in it. We’re talking about some serious Iwo Jima heavy metal here. What sort of threat requires this? And why did he say he was from New Hampshire? These are the sorts of fascinating questions that this show dangles in front of its audience every season. And it’s become a master of following through.

Name a better show on the air? Can you?

It’s likely that Walt’s journey will not end well. All we get are eight episodes this summer and eight next summer and that’s it. We might have to wait for the final scene of the final season to find out why he needed that massive machine gun. But we’ll enjoy every step of the journey up until that point.

If the show keeps going the way it’s been going, it will become possibly the only show in history that has started out good and improved with every season. Mad Men season 5 was still better than 99.9% of television, but it was sub-par when compared to the other seasons. Breaking Bad just keeps topping itself. I’m addicted in the best way possible, and it’s never too late for you to start watching too.

So how about you, current fans? Are you still cheering for Walt? Were you ever? And do you want him to end up like Michael Corleone (dying peacefully after ruling an empire) or Scarface (dying violently in a blaze of fiery melodrama)?

2 thoughts on “Breaking Bad getting better all the time

  • July 19, 2012 at 9:01 AM

    Thanks for not spoiling too much of this. My addiction to the series has caused me to become an illegal downloader of same and I have just been sent a link for the season premiere. Love the journey of Walter White to such an extent I’ve been watching re-runs of Malcolm in The Middle as a placebo. How he’s changed.

    • Domenic Mezzanotte
      July 20, 2012 at 8:55 AM

      Yeah I try not to catch people unawares with spoilers, because I often don’t get to see things until a few days later. I’ve never actually seen Malcolm in the Middle, I don’t think I could watch it now haha. I’d be waiting for the father to grumble “this is not meth” and blow up the kitchen. And also: I may or may not know someone who might possibly have stayed up until 3am waiting for a certain website to have the season 4 finale of Breaking Bad.

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