Why you should skip Friday classes to watch Breaking Bad
Breaking Bad is the best show on television. And I mean that in the most unqualified, 100% sincere,
no-doubts-in-my-mind way. It’s the winner of 10 Emmys (including both Outstanding Drama Series
and Best Supporting Actress in a Drama for 2013) and will come crashing to an end when its series
finale airs this Sunday (AMC, 9 p.m.).
You should be there when it does. It’ll create more buzz than the cut-to-black finale of the Sopranos.
It’ll be more heartbreaking than the end of Friends. And in the future – when TV has fully replaced
mainstream Hollywood movies as the dominant form of artistic cinematic expression – you’ll want to
tell your grandkids that you saw the show that ushered the era in.
Breaking Bad focuses on Walter White, a 50-year-old high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed
with cancer and decides to make meth as a way to cover his medical bills and provide for his family. At
least, that’s how the show starts out. Each season chronicles his slow ascent to power as a drug
kingpin and the destructive moral consequences that accompany this transformation.
Perhaps one reason that Breaking Bad has risen to such preeminence is its believable depictions of
real people. By juxtaposing the dramatic aspects of the show (burying bodies, manufacturing drugs,
and dodging certain death) with everyday activities (sitting on the toilet, arguing with family and
friends), Breaking Bad allows us to really understand what highly life-or-death situations feel like. It
demands that we ask ourselves, “What would I do in this situation?” And it frightens us by showing
that our own responses may not be so different from Walter’s.
In this way, it’s a world apart from the ham-handed, vice-ridden dramas on ABC or the CW. It even
manages to make The Walking Dead look dull; on a dark night, I would rather face the Governor and a
horde of zombies than Gustavo Fring.
But perhaps the quality that most sets Breaking Bad apart from other shows of its kind is that it
depicts innate human dispositions as the primary source of conflict. People are not – as we are
constantly reminded – merely products of their environment. People are vessels of vices and virtue in
tumultuous conflict; they are beings of immense power. And it’s not poverty or injustice or inequality
that drives the conflict of the show. It’s greed. And ego. And fear. And each of these is tied up in the
pretty packages of rationalization and self-deception. Compared to this psychological complexity,
even the morally ambiguous characters of Game of Thrones look like cardboard cutouts.
We’ve been living in the era of the anti-hero, where even Superman kills. The “good guys wear white”
mentality of the 1950s seems quaint and naïve and very far away. But Breaking Bad, in its depiction of
Walter White’s terrible descent into cruelty, upends the tradition of the anti-hero. It shows that anti-
heroes are neither cool nor desirable – they are merely sad. And as we watch the final episode this
coming Sunday, one truth will remain perfectly clear: Breaking Bad has already concluded the
contemporary anti-hero craze; everyone else is still catching up.