When I first started watching Breaking Bad during season two, it was virtually unknown. Those who were watching it knew already that this was something special – a series with the potential to rival the two “greats” of TV crime drama, The Sopranos and The Wire. Now, as it enters its fifth season, the show has attained a level of critical acclaim equal to if not greater than the best that HBO has to offer.
Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad follows the progression of Walter White (a stunning, multi-award winning performance from Bryan Cranston) from high school chemistry teacher to methamphetamine kingpin. Walt is struggling to provide for his family, and after discovering he has lung cancer (adding the phenomenal cost of treatment to his financial woes) he goes on a ride-along to a meth lab bust with his DEA brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris). As the armed police swoop in, he spots a former student Jesse Pinkman sneaking out a back window and tracks him down, delivering an ultimatum: either team up and cook meth or get turned in to the police.
The basic set-up tells you all you need to know about where Breaking Bad goes from there. Walt – a brilliant chemist who once worked on a Nobel Prize-winning team – makes the best product, and it isn’t long before he and Jesse get the attention of the criminal fraternity. The deeper Walt gets into this murky underworld, the more hair-raising the predicaments he faces and the more complex the moral ambiguities of his character become.
Herein lies the genius (or at least, one of them) of Breaking Bad. Gilligan said the goal with Walter White was to transform him from Mr. Chips to Scarface, and it is the darkly evolving nature of the character, from protagonist to antagonist, which makes the show so compelling. Railing against the common practice in television of creating characters who exist in stasis (allowing shows to run on season after season), Walt’s inexorable slide from considerate, meek husband and teacher to fearsome and ruthless drug baron is without a doubt one of the most memorable television experiences of all time – few other characters come as close to Walt in sheer complexity.
Watching Walt’s transformation isn’t the only thing that makes Breaking Bad so good – while the show stands out for its effortless ability to ratchet up the tension (just when you think it couldn’t possibly put you any close to the edge of your seat it frequently ups the ante another two notches) it is also sprinkled with a delightful wit, often wrong-footing the audience with a tonal curve ball. A scene from the first season captures the essence of this perfectly: increasingly concerned with Walt’s erratic behavior since learning of his cancer, the family decide to have an “intervention”. As we go from one family member to another the tone shifts from comedy to melodrama to deeply felt contemplations on death and the choices we make. It displays a level of emotional nuance and maturity – perfectly performed by the cast – crafted as skilfully as the nail-biting encounters with psychopathic cartel leaders.
If the opening episode of the fifth season is anything to go by, Walt’s evolution (or is that devolution?) to “Scarface” is soon to be fully realized – the opening flash forward hinting at something very big to come without giving much at all away (Breaking Bad often serves up tantalizing morsels of things to come). And if the finale of season four is an indication of the caliber of finale the writers are capable of, we should be in store for a stunning conclusion of the kind rarely seen before.