Breaking Bad – everything is connected
I just finished the second season of AMC’s amazing series Breaking Bad. 26 more episodes and I will be caught up with the rest of everyone who appreciates good television, but I had to comment on the series as soon as I could. I’m also going to put out there that AMC seems to rarely misstep with their series. How can Mad Men, The Walking Dead, and Breaking Bad all exist under one roof? How can other networks compete, and why aren’t they trying harder to compete?
For the uninitiated, Breaking Bad is the story of Walter White, a man diagnosed with lung cancer years after his work as a chemist. In the first episode, he watches a drug bust and finds that one of his former students (Walt begins the show as a high school chemistry teacher) is a methamphetamine cook. Walt tracks down his former student, Jesse Pinkman, to teach him the art of cooking meth. Why? Walt does not want to leave this world without providing as much as he can for his wife and impaired teenaged son. Despite his pure intention, he is traveling down a dark path that seems to slowly corrupt him. As the show progresses, audiences start to wonder if Mr. White is a protagonist, an anti-hero, or even a villain protagonist. It is really hard to say. In just two seasons, he has made some truly dark and questionable decisions.
This could not be accomplished without amazing writing and performances. My favorite aspect of the show is the tension. It isn’t so much what the characters say that make the show effective. The show would be nothing if not for silence and the weight of a character’s thoughts being worn right on his or her face. This gives the show a level of realism that is incomparable to anything else on television. Real life doesn’t often have rapid-fire dialog. Real life hits you with dead silence and leaves you with your thoughts. Real life is indecision and ambiguity.
To be fair, though, the show is often very much like a soap opera. Pregnant pauses, tragedy, and one bad turn after another. I realize this, but that doesn’t stop me from watching such a well made show. As much as the customers are junkies for the meth, I am a junkie for the tension.
I am also a junkie for this world that explores are emphasizes our interconnectivity. At one point in the series, Walt says, “Jesse, your actions have consequences that affect other people.” This is an ironic statement coming from Walter, the primary individual performing actions that affect everyone even tangentially involved in his life. By deciding to cook meth and get it out on the streets, individuals come into his life who ultimately have to die. By finding a distributor for his product, he winds up in a situation that causes Jesse great harm and even puts his brother-in-law in danger. The most extreme example of this (so far…) happens in the finale of season two, and it is obviously exaggerated to push its point – to save Jesse from being influenced by his recovering (yet failing) heroin-abusing girlfriend, Walt refuses to save her from gagging on her own vomit while she is completely strung out, which leads to her father’s being distracted for days but still going into work as a traffic controller, where he fails to stop two airplanes from colliding. While Walt is incapable of seeing the extreme damage he causes with every dark decision he makes, the viewer sees it clearly when part of the wreckage lands in Walt’s pool. The wreckage includes a child’s stuffed animal.
Gross exaggerations to prove a point often hit a sore spot with me, but I like the lesson here. Your actions have consequences. Everyone is connected. Don’t just look out for yourself. It is important to be a good person. You can very easily hurt so many people. Consider the series a long-winded morality tale about doing right by other people. Although I guess people could rightly dismiss that aspect of it by simply saying, “Well, can’t it all be summed up by his first choice? C’mon, don’t make/deal/do drugs!” The sooner you can admit you don’t watch television/read stories because of how prudent characters can be, the sooner you can consume fiction without shame.
But there is absolutely no shame in watching Breaking Bad. I honestly believe this to be a work of televised literature that will be saved and shared with future generations and used as an example of great storytelling by universities. Of course, Mad Men is up there as well. Maybe AMC now stands for “American Modern Classics”.