COMMENTARY | There have been many great TV shows and movies such as “ER” and “The Godfather.” But as great as these were, none ascended to the stratospheric artistic heights of “Breaking Bad,” the hit TV series I have been devouring the past several weeks. This artistic wonder is the single greatest TV or movie creation I have ever seen.
The show features an astoundingly unique main character, Walter White. He makes Macbeth and Hamlet, two of Shakespeare’s most famous tragic heroes, seem one-dimensional, boring and uncomplicated. Think about what I have just written. White’s character is much more fascinating and powerfully memorable than two of the most written about, studied and psychologically torn characters of all time.
Breaking Bad tackles Walter’s battle with terminal lung cancer, greed, ambition, ruthlessness, manipulation, pathological lying, compassion, insecurity, narcissism, conniving, guile, and brilliance. A storyline that journeys far beyond traditional plots, settings, the TV series makes virtually all other TV dramas look simple-minded, mundane and uninspired. It makes “The Godfather” seem formulaic and just another crime movie. Breaking Bad sits alone at the top of the creative mountain. And it’s not even close. Just writing the plot so everything that happens fits must have taken several years to map out with surgical precision. It’s scientific, technical, mechanical, logical, and intellectual — and yet understandable, gripping and deeply human. This is tough to pull off.
Who thought up such a story?
Who thinks up a story about a 51-year-old, underpaid, overqualified high school chemistry teacher in New Mexico who gets diagnosed with lung cancer, then decides that before he dies he will provide for his family financially by becoming the most technically proficient and prominent cooker of crystal methamphetamine (“crystal meth”) the American Southwest has ever known? Who comes up with the novel idea of choosing the person who helps him build the business and make millions of dollars to be one of his former underachieving high school chemistry students, Jesse Pinkman, a low-life, going-nowhere drug addict?
You realize early in the show’s plot twists that this is not going to be anything close to a conventional ride. In the first episode, Walter and Jesse get ready to start cooking the drugs in a trailer parked in an obscure, unpopulated location in New Mexico’s desert. This alone is bizarre. In that scene, however, Walter slips into his tighty whitey underpants. No show in the history of TV has such a wild set of circumstances to kick things off, so stunning and rogue. A chemistry teacher works with former student to make illicit drugs wearing underpants. This is wickedly wild stuff.
“No way this will work”
Yet that unforgettable underwear scene amounts to merely a curious and provocative sideshow compared with how the rest of the drug business and Walter’s life unfolds and unravels over five seasons. I wish I had been at the decision table when directors sat around discussing the script and premise for a TV series, when all the doubts and skeptics come out to trash the idea.
“This is totally nuts,” I bet at least one director said.
“There is no way this will work,” another probably said. “It’s preposterous. No viewer will buy into this farce. It’s ridiculous. No successful TV show has ever had a premise as outlandish as this. And there’s a good reason for it: because no one will believe it. It may be original but there’s no way it can be pulled off. It’s totally implausible.”
Having already watched four full seasons and half of the fifth and final one, I know there has never been a TV show more riveting, creative, intelligent, moving, and offbeat than this one. Yes. I am serious. This show belongs in a class by itself. There will never be anything like it ever again. There was never anything like it before. Breaking Bad stands alone as creative genius.
It’s high art, a work of intelligent creativity from start to finish in every way imaginable from plot development, to character studies, to dramatic tension, to musical selections, to foreshadowing, to immaculate dialogue, to thrilling action. After watching one and a half seasons, I said to myself: This show has already prompted me to ask more important life questions than any show I have ever seen in my 51 years. It’s not even close.
Raises so many important questions
Among those questions: If you were 50 years old and diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and told by a doctor you would probably die within two years, what would you do with that time? What should you do? Would you be willing to commit crimes, including multiple cold-blooded murders, and make narcotic drugs to provide money for your wife and two children so they could live comfortably for the rest of their lives after you were gone? Would you lie pathologically to your wife and children to commit these crimes and would that be justified if you did this to provide their financial security? Is it acceptable to kill other people who are not in your family as long as you are taking care of and protecting your family? Is striving to take charge of your destiny, when you have been told you don’t have control of it, an admirable quality? And how much control should you be allowed to assert? Is killing other people to avoid being killed acceptable behavior?
Without watching this show, you cannot fathom the countless profound, chilling and haunting questions it raises. While watching four episodes one night this past weekend – it’s hard to stop — I felt chills run up my arms and back twice. The show grips with visceral emotional intensity and mentally riveting movement. How often does this happen when you watch a TV show? The story keeps stunning you. Time after time it makes sudden breaks from what you would reasonably expect to happen. It’s masterful at turning you in one direction, leading you to deduce one thing will happen next, and then reversing course so something else happens. Just thinking up all the misdirection in plot is rarified storytelling. Yet it fits together and makes sense.
In just one of numerous examples, the drug boss Walter cooks the drugs for named Gus seems as if he is about to kill Walter. But, horrifyingly, Gus kills his own co-worker instead by slicing his throat and decapitating him as Walter watches from three feet away. All along you think Gus will do this to Walter. Instead, he freaks out Walter to intimidate him and send a chilling message that he, Gus, and not Walter, is in charge of the drug operation. Blood splatters everywhere. The scene was worse to endure than any horror movie I have watched. Gus’s act was a terrifying head game scene where I had to cover my eyes. It was gross. It seemed real, as if Gus was cutting off my head. I will never forget that scene the rest of my life. I could cite countless other unforgettable scenes. There are so many I don’t know where to begin. Several are novel, raw, and disgusting. The worst was the secretive burning to ashes of a 10-year-old boy by Walter’s team who killed the boy unnecessarily and brutally. Walters’ group shot an innocent boy and burned him to ashes so they could make more drug money.
World class acting
I shared all these superlatives about the show but still haven’t referred to one of the most amazing and unforgettable attributes: world class acting across the board. As I watch the show, I wonder how many people auditioned to play the part of Walter White before they decided on Bryan Cranston. Selecting him turned out to be one of the best decisions in cinematic history. No matter what other acting roles he takes on Cranston is, forevermore, Walter White. If I saw Cranston on the street today or anytime the rest of my life, I would move away from him in fear. Cranston and Walter have become the same people to me, terrifying men.
Yet White could often be plain-spoken and a normal middle-class father in so many other ways, a smooth talker and excuse maker extraordinaire, an ordinary family man and coherent teacher of chemistry concepts. Of all his acting skills, what takes him to untouchable heights are his eye movements, from side to side, and up and down. The eyes gush evil, confusion, anger, and a dark human spirit. He makes bad guys seem like good guys. His personality contradictions, conflicts and controversies permeate every episode.
I’m not overstating his greatness playing this character. Ask anyone who has watched the show and they will concur. For his acting in this series he has won several awards. There will be more. I don’t care who else was nominated; no one had a chance to beat Cranston. It’s an all-time performance of a lifetime and generation that will one day put him in the Hall of Fame for actors. Future generations of actors will be studying his performances for decades. The character of Walter White will go down as one of the most superlative examples of acting skill ever. He took acting into another realm, soared into rarified air. He mesmerizes, allures, intrigues, endears, dazzles, angers, and terrifies. Sometimes I liked him. But I have grown to hate him. I can’t wait to see him die, hopefully, in the few final episodes. Die, Walter. You deserve to burn in Hell, you unscrupulous liar, you self-centered monster, you phony freak.
It may sound hyperbolic to assert that the rest of the cast turned in stellar acting performances. But it’s simply the truth. It’s as if when they chose the actors for this show, cinematic magic was in the air. For once the theatrical gods became perfectly aligned. All the decisions were perfect, all the actors exactly suited for their characters. No TV show has had more skilled actors. As a group, they will go down as the best of all time. Write it down in pen. It’s not even close.
Rarity of superlative art
The show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, has launched himself onto the Mount Rushmore of TV’s immortal giants. He is to TV what Michael Jordan is to basketball: the greatest.
It’s rare when superlative art gets created. Above average art is scarce. Most art is pedestrian at best. Why? Because creating superlative art is wickedly difficult and endlessly elusive. It requires extraordinary intellect, ceaseless determination, exquisite timing, and so many more elusive things. This is a mysterious collection of special talents that can’t be taught.
It’s nearly impossible to create something so original and perfectly executed on every level. But somehow “Breaking Bad” pulled this off brilliantly.