Ten years after the premiere of ‘Breaking Bad,’ it feels like we met Walter White yesterday.
Ten years ago a down-on-his-luck high school chemistry teacher donning tighty-whities and a raggedy button-down put a gun to his head in the middle of the desert and pulled the trigger. At that time in his life, nothing was going as planned, so of course he’d forgotten to turn the safety off. In retrospect, that broken man seems almost unrecognizable. Perhaps that’s fitting, though, since in the end Walter White barely recognized himself.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, chances are the name Walter White means something to you. The lead character in Breaking Bad, arguably the greatest television drama of all time, maintained the always exciting identity of the antihero — a protagonist who does a mixture of good and bad things for both dubious and noble reasons. Whether you loathe or love him, if you spent 2008-2013 tuning into AMC’s hit show, it’s a good bet you still think about Walter White and the fictional world he inhabited. I know I do.
The Vince Gilligan–created show came out of nowhere and no one could have predicted its massive success. When told about Breaking Bad, then–Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton said, “That is the craziest and worst idea for a television show I have ever heard.” The show reached a small audience in its first season, but critical acclaim and awards garnered viewer attention for its second season. Before long, Breaking Bad became a phenomenon.
While Walter White’s gradual transformation may very well be the biggest reason the show captivated millions of viewers, Breaking Bad entered the pantheon of TV excellence for a great many reasons. For its 10th anniversary, let’s celebrate the aspects of Breaking Bad that made the series a modern classic.
If you haven’t watched the show, please do so before reading any further — spoilers and such, and also what are you doing with your life?
1. From Walter White to Heisenberg
The entire five-season, 62-episode series essentially boiled down to a character study. How does a middle-aged family man — a high school chemistry teacher and part-time car wash attendant — become a methamphetamine kingpin? Terminal cancer and the need for money served as the initial catalyst, but as we learn throughout Walter’s descent into the dangerous world of drug trafficking, something inside him woke when the exit door on life began to creep open unexpectedly.
Walter White, whether we want to admit it or not, enjoyed his newfound power under the moniker Heisenberg. As bizarre as it may sound, Walter’s meth-cooking talents made him feel like someone of importance.
In that respect, Walter became more relatable. Everyone wants to feel important. But his profession of choice — and he had a choice not to cook meth in the first place — combined with his actions throughout the series made him a complicated character to root for. This is a man who killed 15 people firsthand and had the blood of another 186 people on his hands, including his brother-in-law Hank Schrader. Not to mention, he poisoned a little boy to manipulate Jesse.
Mind you, many of these people also tried to kill him, but the show constantly asked viewers to reevaluate their view of Walter White.
When he succumbed to death in the series’ final moments, it was hard not to be hit with a wave of sadness. For a time, his nefarious deeds were done to look out for his family. But even Walter admitted that eventually it became about himself. He loved his family — that much was undeniable. But he chose ego over family, and at a certain point, turning back and making real amends became a losing battle. That’s where the sadness stems from. As the camera panned away from Walter’s body, his glossed eyes no longer peering into this world, it was apparent that he served as both the hero and the villain in his own story. And heroes and villains inevitably fight to the death.
Bryan Cranston’s sterling portrayal of Walter produced a layered depiction of a man worthy of both admiration and scorn, often in the span of a single scene.
2. Jesse and Skyler
Great TV shows have more than one standout character, and Breaking Bad certainly wasn’t short on memorable characters.
Aaron Paul stepped into the shoes of Jesse Pinkman admirably, so much so that Vince Gilligan had to abandon his original plans of killing off Walt’s cooking partner early in the series. The dynamic between Walt and Jesse made for thrilling TV. They worked together and were allies, but their relationship was often strained in a way that always kept viewers on their toes.
One of the greatest performances on Breaking Bad, Anna Gunn’s role as Skyler White, often goes underappreciated. She’s in the dark about Walt’s illegal activities for much of the show, but when she finally learns of his betrayal, she reluctantly goes along with the plan in order to protect her family.
Both Skyler and Jesse did bad things throughout the series, but in the end, it’s clear they were simply swept up in the cyclone of Walt’s destruction.
3. The Greatest TV Villain of All Time
From season two to season four, Giancarlo Esposito, who played Gus Fring, the Los Pollos Hermanos fast food owner, stole almost every scene he entered. Gus had a quiet, menacing demeanor that struck fear and commanded respect from those who looked him in the eye. His sociopathic personality and deep desire for power made it even more possible for us to view Walter as the good guy.
Gus’ killing of one of his henchman, Victor, by way of slashing his throat in front of Walt and Jesse, provided one of the most chilling moments in television history.
Has any TV villain sent a shiver down your spine as often as Gus Fring did?
4. The Writing
A modern Shakespearian tragedy, Breaking Bad’s gradual descent in terms of both material and tone could have only worked if it maintained its top-notch writing throughout.
As opposed to most TV dramas, Breaking Bad’s plot remained unpredictable. Yes, the overarching story of Walter’s turn of face became clear as the seasons waned, but the gory details, the twists and turns that made the shift plausible, were never easily guessed — a hallmark of great writing.
Breaking Bad’s characters frequently found themselves in dead-end situations, or so it seemed. Details remained hidden from viewers, information that let characters work their way out of impossible scenarios.
Much of the show’s brilliance came from its meticulous pacing, which boldly moved at a crawl, trusting its moment-to-moment action — its brilliant dialogue and deliberate push and pull of key characters — to retain the attention of viewers long enough for a payoff.
For that, Breaking Bad became a show more about quiet, unsettling beats than over-the-top chaos at breakneck speed — a rarity among TV dramas. To call the writing smart would be an understatement. Vince Gilligan and his team of writers crafted an engrossing story with expert plotting that gave each payoff a staggering degree of impact.
And come on, Walter White uttered two of the most famous and amazing lines in modern television: “I am the one who knocks” and “If you don’t know who I am, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.”
5. The Cinematography
Going hand in hand with the writing, Breaking Bad’s cinematography told a story in and of itself. Shot with handheld cameras throughout, the angles, lighting, and the point of emphasis in each scene elevated not only the writing but the acting.
If you watched closely, you noticed that as the seasons progressed, the focal colors shifted from light to dark to match Walter’s shift.
Cinematography may not be what most viewers consider when judging a show’s merit, but Breaking Bad’s clever use of the camera served a vital purpose throughout the narrative.
6. Went out on Top
Understandable disappointment washed over fans with the revelation that Breaking Bad’s fifth season would be its last. A show at the height of its success voluntarily choosing to end? That’s almost unheard of in TV, as networks strive to milk every last ounce of fan interest before calling it quits.
But that’s part of what made Breaking Bad so special, and a core reason for its immaculate reputation. The show never fell off. Not a single episode missed the mark. And it ended exactly where it began: as the most intriguing, thought-provoking television drama of its day.
Breaking Bad was as close to a perfect television series as we may ever see.
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