Breaking Bad is a crime drama series that originally broadcasted on AMC on January 20th, 2008. Created and produced by Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad is the bold and cold story of Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston, an overly qualified high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, and delves into the world of meth-making to try and earn some money for his family before he checks out of the world of the living. With the aid of former student Jesse Pinkman, Walter works to build his business, sell his product, and make his money, all while keeping it a secret from his doting wife and son.
Recently earning the Guinness World Record of the Most Critically Acclaimed Television Show of All Time, Breaking Bad is a dynamic series full of mind-boggling plots and highly developed characters.
One of the things that makes Breaking Bad the recipient of such high praise is connections of different storylines, and the tightness of its plot.
The central premise for Breaking Bad is this; “A mild-mannered high-school chemistry teacher is suddenly diagnosed with lung cancer, and decides to go into the meth business in order to secure the financial future of his family before he dies.” The plot is what drives the entire show towards its final destination. Walter White’s decision to go into the meth business is a decision that not only changes his own world; it creates a chain reaction and changes the world of his family, his friends, his colleagues, his community, communities in other countries, and so on.
One of the greatest examples of the depth of the plot can be shown in an episode titled “ABQ.” In the season two finale, it is revealed that the catastrophic midair collision of two large aircrafts was the indirect result of Walter’s criminal negligence in letting Jesse’s girlfriend, Jane Margolis, choke to death on her own vomit while overdosing on heroin. After finding out about the death of his daughter, Donald Margolis, an air-traffic-controller, was traumatized and nearly inconsolable. Her father was so grief-stricken her overdose that he was unable to focus on his job. While working, Donald makes a fatal directing error and causes a commercial airliner to collide into another plane, resulting in an enormous explosion over the skies of Albuquerque. Butchered human remains and large debris from the aircraft’s cascaded down over the entire area. Most significantly, a pink teddy bear from one of the planes lands in Walter’s backyard pool, and that single image is the framework for the entire season. Something that seems so small, like a teddy bear falling into a pool, was caused by something much greater and much more sinister. Almost everything that happens in the series, every explosion, every shootout, every death, is an indirect result of Walter White and his crystal meth empire.
Character progression is another main staple of Breaking Bad. Each main character has their own storylines, struggles with various hardships, and grows in different ways. Jesse Pinkman, played by the mesmerizing Aaron Paul, manages to hit all these criteria and simultaneously strike a chord with nearly everyone that watches the series. Gilligan once revealed that in the original scripts, Jesse was never meant to be anything more than a squirrely little meth dealer; a one-dimensional blip in the story of Walter White, and he was originally supposed to be killed off at the end of season one. However, by the end of the first season, Aaron Paul proved himself to be an imperative key to the success of the series. To the surprise of Gilligan, audiences not only took an immediate interest and liking to Jesse Pinkman; but they truly empathized with the character. Coming from a prim and proper upper-middle class family, Jesse really seemed to just be a nice kid who got mixed up in the wrong crowd, and his own insecurities seemed to reflect onto many fans of the series.
Throughout the progression of the show, we start to get a glimpse of who Jesse Pinkman really is. He’s not just a scroungy meth dealer with dreamy blue eyes. The inner substance within his cunning one-liners and saggy pants zips past his own stereotype of a lowlife punk who’s only good for selling crank. So much in fact, one could possibly argue that before Walter became Jesse’s dictating puppet master, most of the series is about Walter mentoring Jesse, and Walter’s inner obligations to make his former failure of a student realize his full potential, beyond the world of drugs. Audiences wanted Jesse to be successful, past the expectations of Walter and even Jesse’s limitations for himself. That sort of progression was emotionally and physically woven into Jesse throughout the different seasons of the show, and his evolution ran deeper as we saw him slowly outgrow the habits of his old junkie friends, Skinny Pete and Badger, everyone’s favorite meth mouths. Jesse finding himself in his first real adult relationship with next-door neighbor Jane Margolis, and his caring for of a young boy he finds in the home of a junkie couple, proves to be an inner glimpse of his loving heart and his empathy towards others. Although he will always somewhat be a sigh of comic relief in an otherwise darkly dramatic show, perhaps Jesse Pinkman is the humanistic connection audiences needed to be sucked into the ruthless undertow of Walter White.
Why is Breaking Bad so highly praised? There’s the obvious; every character on the show has their own individual story and growth, each backed by a powerhouse actor or actress. Vince Gilligan’s direction, powered by a super team of writers, is beyond phenomenal. Watching how Walter White slowly destroys the lives of everyone around him makes for a cast of characters that is unparalleled by anything else on television today, and a seemingly unusual plot premise about a cancer-stricken teacher selling drugs is bumped up with the way he is transformed from a meek protagonist to a coldblooded antagonist. Combined with the soundtrack, the cinematography, the iconic catchphrases, and all of the other little details that puts Breaking Bad so high in the television stratosphere, it is perfectly reasonable to see why the show is such a pop culture phenomenon. However, when you strip it down to the core, maybe what makes Breaking Bad so popular is that it somehow manages to maintain a sense of normal family life, and makes us wonder what we would do if we were in the situation of Walter, Skylar, Jesse, or Hank.
We all think we’re good people, right? We pay our bills, we hold the door open for strangers, and we don’t cut other people off in traffic. But maybe, that one time, you got a $20 instead of a $10 at the cash register and you didn’t give it back. Maybe your best friend’s favorite sweater sits untouched in your closet, but you’ve found a way to justify the fact that you haven’t returned it yet. Maybe you tell your parents you’re going to the movies with your friends, when you’re really going out to a party. We all find ways to explain away the things we do that we know, on some level, aren’t right. But when do we actually cross that pencil-thin line between right and wrong? Is it simply when we break the law? Or is it when we violate codes of morality that have been implanted in us by our families, our communities, our culture, and our own self? If we’re seemingly doing something for the good of our own families, should it ever really be viewed as wrong or evil?
In the beginning, Walter White was just a simpleton like us, trying to get by and not break too many rules. But then, after a lifetime of sitting on the bottom rung, he started breaking the rules, and he became addicted to the rush, the feeling of being superior and being on the top. Even though he was finally in control, it was his unwavering pride and his addiction to being the best that were always sitting in the driver’s seat. Any way you slice it, Walter White was a bad person, and he was far from providing for his family like he once intended. His sociopathic tendencies spread like a virus and endangered everyone surrounding him. As we are shown the inner workings of Walter’s dark heart, we can never really escape the feeling that, not too long ago, he wasn’t all that different from the rest of us. Even though he was once a normal guy, Walt had the seeds of wrongdoing deep inside of him before he ever killed someone, cooked meth, or even got cancer. It was always there, and the cancer gave him a way to finally act on it. The show really isn’t all that interested in making audiences see Walter White as an atypical villain. Breaking Bad wants us to wonder, do seeds of evil lurk within us?