It’s been quite a while since I updated the “Current Obsession” feature. One post really isn’t much of a recurring feature, so I figured I would update it with the first true article on this site about Breaking Bad. Seeing as how the anticipation has never been higher for this show, which I think is the best drama on television, it seems appropriate.
Truthfully, I got into Breaking Bad pretty late in the game. I think I caught the first episode when it originally aired, but then I kind of forgot about it. I seem to do that a lot, as I caught the first seasons of Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy in similar fashions. Early last summer, probably around June, I was looking for something to watch during my lunch breaks at work. I don’t usually like to watch dramas while at work; I prefer to digest 22-minute comedies that I can just have on in the background as I eat and surf the Internet. One day, I decided to give Vince Gilligan’s series a chance and since then, I can’t shut up about it.
I’m not going to say that if you aren’t watching Breaking Bad right now that you should (But really… you should), but I will tell you that you are missing out on the single greatest character arc in the history of television. If you don’t know what the show is about, we probably are not going to be good friends. Bryan Cranston plays Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher that gets struck down by the cancer. With little to no way to pay for his treatment, Walter enlists the aide of chronic fuckup, former student Jesse Pinkman to help him cook up some of that Crystal Blue Persuasion (otherwise known as crystal methamphetamine) in order to pay for his treatment. Walt shows a knack for the meth-cooking business and finds that this endeavor has awoken something in him that lay dormant all those years as a chemistry teacher and secret genius. The game becomes too lucrative to quit, the power even more so.
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” – John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton
This idiom has almost become cliché. We’ve seen this play out in everything from Citizen Kane to There Will Be Blood to Rocko’s Modern Life, but nowhere has the quote been enacted so powerfully as in the four-plus seasons of Breaking Bad. Walter White’s transformation from meek bitchboy to everyone in his life to the most powerful drug kingpin in, at least, the Southwest United States is one of the most fascinating story arcs in the history of the medium. He first created Heisenberg in order to become a legend akin to Keyser Soze or Rolo Tomassi. Now, he holds onto Walter White in order to keep himself with one foot in the real world. But does Walter White even exist anymore? It’s hard to tell, but much like Tony Soprano, we can’t help but root for him. We know, deep down, that we should not be complicit in the actions of this borderline psychopath, but because of the gradual descent to the dark side and the charisma of lead actor Bryan Cranston, it’s impossible to not get swept up in Heisenberg’s machinations.
Jesse, on the other hand, is easily the most empathetic character at this point of the series and his trajectory seems to be the inverse of Walt’s. It’s been a long few seasons for the kid we first saw climbing out a window in his underwear. He’s matured, done a lot, and has been through a lot. He’s lost a girlfriend, kicked habits, and has had enough with the game, but the game isn’t so easy to quit. Jesse would otherwise be on a path to redemption if not for his loyalty to Walt and my high school English teacher would be mad if I didn’t mention this as his tragic flaw.
The shift in these characters has also altered their role in the story. Walter started off as the protagonist of the story, but can he still be considered that when he is no doubt the strongest example of an antagonist that the show has left? Jesse, on the other hand, seems destined to stand on one side of a gun while Walt stands on the other; who’s holding that particular gun remains to be seen. But Jesse’s path is one of righteousness: a reformed screw-up that can’t seem to read the writing on the wall when everyone else can. He keeps getting sucked into Walt’s next scheme and the only way that it’s going to end is tragically.
One of the impressive things about the show is how Gilligan and the writers have been able to change the formula of the show from time to time and yet, the changes makes the show fresher and usually better. Case in point: the first couple of seasons, the show was solid. The dynamic between Walter and Jesse as they cooked meth in their jalopy RV was almost like the most fucked-up pseudo father-son relationship this side of Tony Soprano and Christopher Moltisanti. The show worked and, arguably, didn’t need fixing. Enter Gustavo Fring: chicken slinger and the gatekeeper to an empire. The addition of Gus and the events that unfolded between his first appearance and his last is what turned the show into the greatest drama in the history of television.
As we are a mere days from the premiere of the last few episodes, you can’t help but wonder how it’s all going to end up. If Vince Gilligan is the mad genius he seems to be, you can probably follow a trail of breadcrumbs that he’s left throughout the series to arrive at the answer, but personally, I want to be surprised. I’ll allow each of these next few moments of the show play out as they are intended and not overanalyze anything. And if it ends in an abrupt cut to black, then so be it.