On Sunday 29 September, “Felina,” the final episode of Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, aired in America. The show which began five years ago with a minor cult following now commands a greater level of popular success and acclamation than anything on television except, perhaps, Game of Thrones. The story of Walter White (Bryan Cranstone), who begins cooking crystal meth in order to save up money for his family when he is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, has riveted millions of viewers to their televisions across a nail-biting sixty-two episodes of peerless TV drama. The tortuous moral ambiguities of Walt’s story, and his equally tortuous relationship with his ex-student and sometime distributor, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), will be debated and discussed for a long time to come. Here I can only note a few of the reasons why I believe Breaking Bad is seminal, era-making television.
Breaking Bad is a tragedy on a classic American theme: the man who pursues success, security, or power, only to find that the more he achieves, the less he can connect with the values or the loves that were the reasons he began. Forced to make more and more compromises, each one accepted more willingly than the last, he is at last driven not by the honest motives that first spurred him on, but by the pure momentum of his enterprise itself. It’s the fearful underside to the American Dream: what if by seeking to achieve greatness, you end up sacrificing your humanity? This is the question posed so strikingly in Citizen Kane. This is the story told in that other greatest of American films, The Godfather, in which Michael Corleone takes over his father’s business in order to protect his family, only to find that the demands of running a criminal empire draw him deeper and deeper into a web of muder and deceit. In the second Godfather film, Michael asks his mother, in a rare moment of tender desperation, whether it is possible for a man to win everything and yet lose his family. That question’s relevance to Breaking Bad does not need explanation.
Gilligan’s show is one of the strongest works of American storytelling since The Godfather. It is also, incidentally, perhaps the best exploitation yet of the possibilities of television as a storytelling medium. The two Godfather films (the third is very much a separate tale) run for about seven hours together. The five seasons of Breaking Bad last forty-seven hours. For most TV shows, such a comparison would mean little, because most TV shows maintain a status quo that only rarely gets permanently disrupted, while each episode is to a greater or lesser degree self-contained. This is true even of first-rate dramas like The West Wing. But in Breaking Bad there is never a status quo, and no episode is self-contained. We follow a constantly evolving epic narrative that is only broken into distinct episodes because the format requires it. You could say the same of Game of Thrones, but Game of Thrones struggles to maintain cohesion as it cuts between so many different locations and characters. Breaking Bad is focused, unswerving, on Jesse and Walt; and their long story has a complexity and scope ideally suited to the potential of the television serial. Yes, The Sopranos and The Wire are key precedents. But the phenomenal success of Breaking Bad has normalised it: in the second decade of the 21st century, we are coming to expect that television will be the format of choice for our most ambitious storytellers.
None of this, however, matters half as much as the content of the show itself. Walt and Jesse are two of the most interesting and complex characters ever to show up on television – and the supporting cast is fantastic too. Grim, tense, constantly unpredictable, harrowingly tragic and yet frequently very, very funny (despite the seriousness of their interactions, Paul and Cranstone have great chemistry as a comic double-act), Breaking Bad is quite simply excellent drama. And that, above all, is why it will endure.