So Breaking Bad just ended, and you’re relieved beyond all comprehension at the prospect of your twitter and facebook feeds losing their Breaking Bad wallpapers. All those thinkpieces predicting what will come of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman will disappear. All your friends trying not to spoil anything will move on to other shows (but probably not Low Winter Sun) and start this process all over again.
You know the basic plot of the show. You even know some of those spoilery things your friends tried so hard to leave out of conversation. Yes, Walter White is an anti-hero. Yes, Jesse Pinkman calls everybody a bitch. Yes, it’s about a teacher who turns into a drug kingpin. But why has it captured the imaginations of so many people? What’s so great about it?
For the uninitiated, it’s hard to understand exactly why the show is so beloved.
Here’s a few reasons you may not have thought of.
5. It’s Not About Meth
One of the biggest misconceptions about Breaking Bad is that it’s a show about meth. I know when I first started watching it, I was afraid it would just be a “drug culture” show. Where we look at addicts struggling and we learn about the racial politics surrounding meth. I was afraid the show would try to ape The Wire with a broad-reaching understanding of America’s drug problem.
Boy was I wrong. Breaking Bad is a show about the world’s best meth cook, yes, but it’s not a show about the meth he’s making. Nor is it really a show about meth culture. It’s about a man who has found his calling, but that calling just happens to be a dangerous, highly illegal substance. From the outset, the show is very meth-centered, but once you start watching, you realize that very little time is really spent on the actual meth part. In fact, it’s not until the third season of the show that Walt begins cooking consistently, and even then, the episodes rarely treat the actual cooking process as anything other than a day job.
Breaking Bad is about a man’s soul becoming calloused, not about a man making a batch of meth. And that’s infinitely more compelling.
4. Jesse Pinkman Is As Awesome As They Say
One of the big draws for people new to Breaking Bad is Aaron Paul’s devastating performance as Jesse Pinkman. Paul famously became so popular, so fast, that Vince Gilligan decided to completely change the trajectory of the show by not killing Jesse at the end of the first season.
And it’s not because he’s comic relief.
Walter White begins the show as an intentionally dull character. He’s wispy, meek, and a little boring. Jesse was put there to spice things up and keep us laughing.
However, as Walt changes, Jesse changes. The happy-go-lucky, take-nothing-seriously Jesse is replaced by the guilt and regret that Walt accumulates over time. As Walt’s soul disappears, Jesse’s soul emerges. Walter White may be celebrated as being one of the most dynamic characters in television history, but that’s to say nothing of Jesse, who, in my opinion, is the real hero of the story. He matures, finds his confidence, discovers the brilliance inside of himself, and comes out the other side as one of the most nuanced and three dimensional characters I’ve ever encountered.
He may, from the outside looking in, seem like nothing more than comic relief, but Aaron Paul turned Jesse Pinkman into one of the most compelling television characters in history.
3. Each Episode Has a Beginning, Middle, and End
This may seem like a no-brainer, but hear me out.
Think back to popular serials over the last decade or so. You know, over the course of this new Golden Age of television. How many of these serials have complete episodes?
Dexter relies on season-long arcs, as do The Shield and Weeds and House of Cards. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this style of television. Each episode absolutely depends on the others, which is common of Breaking Bad as well, but these other shows have a distinct lack of internal act breaks.
In House of Cards, there will be an entire episode centered about Frank going back to his alma mater. The episode itself stays in the first act, but the episode is also in the middle of the second act of the season’s plotline.
Breaking Bad understands story structure so well, that each episode is four acts. You can break them down like you would a feature film or a novel. Each episode is its own little short film, with the fully formed structure of an independent narrative work.
Look at an episode like “Crawl Space” or “Ozymandius.” These are not just pieces of a larger narrative. They are compelling in their own right as perfectly structured pieces of storytelling.
Each episode is satisfying because it tells its own four-act story that, by itself, can be contained as an independent narrative within a larger context.
It’s a difficult balance that Vince Gilligan consistently hits throughout the run of the show, faltering only in the third season. Your friends are talking about Breaking Bad because the overarcing story is so great, yes, but also because each individual episode feels complete, unlike Lost.
2. Expectations Are Consistently Thwarted
Few narratives are able to surprise us anymore. Not just because we’ve got thousands of years of narrative behind us, but because, more than ever, studios have to make sure audiences feel good watching their content. With Netflix/Amazon/iTunes/Cable/Network Television, it’s a wonder anybody watches anything. With all this competition, studios feel like they need to offer the comfort of a dependable narrative to soothe viewers into consistent viewership.
Look at the success of Law and Order: SVU and CSI. These are wrapped-up story lines that follow a very predictable pattern. They make people feel smart for getting the right answer.
Breaking Bad takes the opposite approach. Gilligan will spend half of an episode building up to something (evidenced in “Rabid Dog”), only to deliver a completely different pay-off from what we expected. He will put a gun on a mantle, only to kill a person with an ATM machine.
This may seem counter-intuitive to those who love their Law and Order (and I stress that there’s nothing wrong with that), but consistently thwarting expectation means that the future is always uncertain. The suspense surrounding the final episodes wasn’t the kind of suspense you feel with Detective Benson finds her man at the end of the episode. Breaking Bad’s final hours contain the suspense you feel when you drive closer and closer to a car accident. You have no idea what to expect, but you know for certain that the wreckage will surprise you.
Breaking Bad always gives you a vague look at the future, only to remove the curtain and show you something completely different. Remember those flash-forwards in season two? How’s that for thwarted expectations?
1. The Show Doesn’t Tell You How To Feel
This may seem like another no-brainer, but compared to nearly every other popular show in recent (or any) memory, Breaking Bad lets you make up your own mind about basically everything. Is Walt a bad guy? Do we want him to succeed? Is Skylar right or wrong? Is Jesse really a danger to himself? Should we be okay with what’s happening? Am I sad, happy, angry, vindicated?
Vince Gilligan doesn’t know either. From the wild tonal shifts to the constantly changing status quo of the characters’ lives, Breaking Bad is a difficult show for those looking for an emotional compass. When exactly do we stop following Walt? Is this a power fantasy, or a story about a man who trades in his soul for power? Is it both?
Are these people making good decisions? Are we pulling for Hank or Walt? Is it both?
The near-constant moral ambiguity of the show works as a clear advantage over almost every other show in television history. It’s got the moral center of an Ingmar Bergman film and the kinetic energy of Mean Streets. The characters act like human beings. They make mistakes, they have regrets, they have major flaws, they have enormous egos and desperate fears. And Vince Gilligan never once tells us what to make of any of it.
Your friends can’t stop talking about the show because they’re trying to understand their own emotions regarding it. It’s a warped circus mirror aimed directly at us, and that makes it one of the most important pieces of pop culture. Period.