While car pooling home one evening, my buddy asked me why I liked Breaking Bad. It’s a fair question. I probably bring up the show at least once a week in conversation, and while it’s received massive accolades, if you haven’t seen it, you probably don’t naturally “get it”. I was by no means obsessed with the show, though maybe overly intrigued by it.
I have this meta-vault of shows which I have watched every episode. I’m not a massive TV guy, so this list, over the past 20 years, is on the short side: Friends, Seinfeld, The Office, Community, and Mad Men (to be). House M.D. also gets an honorable mention (skipped a season or two once the original gang broke up, but then got back in later). Breaking Bad is the latest to be inducted.
Here are three brief, interconnected reasons why I stuck with the show.
- Character Development—The series starts with Walt in his class, talking chemistry and how chemistry is about change and how life is about change. One of the main themes of the show its creator wanted to play out was taking a character and transforming him from the protagonist into the antagonist. The process was anything but cut and dry. You’d be rooting for Walt then all of a sudden realize the way he was succeeding was by doing unlawful and violent things.
- Doing it Well—You know the phrase, Whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your might? Well, Walt took the whatever and ran with it. He was a smart, academic dude, with a good/complex family, who was under utilized in his job, had missed opportunities in his past, struggling with money and now cancer found him. He took his skills and built an empire on cooking meth, and did damn good at being bad and thinking his way out of situations. He wasn’t a young guy either and many of us Millennials could easily connect to him as a father figure in both being proud of him while also thinking he was a tool. You know, a normal dad… well, minus the drug kingdom part.
- Tension—The ethics in Breaking Bad were crazy because by blurring lines it begged to ask: What would you, as a normal person and not some fictional character, have done in the situation? How far down the rabbit hole would you have gone? You put yourself in a place selling meth to provide for your family… do you now kill that guy over there who will either rat you out or come after your loved ones? The funny thing is, about halfway through the show you start to get used to the violence, but you still tense up at the relational pressure, the passive aggressiveness and lies between significant relationships. It almost feels worse than death because it’s something everyone has felt before, though increased exponentially in the context.
As a final tribute to Breaking Bad, I compiled a video tribute with some specific focuses. It all came together when I heard “My Father’s Children” by the most excellent Son Lux. This track is from the Transgressive North compilation entitled “Boats” which benefits destitute children in South East India (so go buy the whole album). After about the third or forth time listening to the redemptive glory of the song, a different avenue opened up as Walter White popped in my head (don’t worry, he was wearing more than whitey-not-so-tighties and an apron). A more melancholy sadness (it wasn’t infinite) occurred within me, thinking about what we fathers devote our attention to and what we leave behind (for better or worse). Mad Men is a much better parable on generational sin and the blessing/curse of inheritance, but the whole family dynamic, twisted and sincere, played a huge point of the Breaking Bad narrative.
So I imagined Walt dying, breathing in and out of a visual eulogy, a recollection of the brokenness experienced over the past few years of his life. I gave attention to his kids, whether biological or protege or his pride and joy of meth and money. There is also a focus, of course, on death—Walt’s own mortality and the brutal violence he associated himself with, willingly or not.
Ozymandias was a poem about a “fallen empire and the ego that once ruled it.” It was the title of one of the final episodes of Breaking Bad, a fitting parallel. Check out this link for a great tribute video that uses the poem as its intro.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Did Walter White rest in peace at the end? Did he really realize the carnage of his pride and turn? Or were cold car prayers and confessions to his Eve just lip service to make sure he retained final control of it all, even his death?
Without further ado, here’s the video link (click the picture to go to YouTube).