When Walter White, a New Mexico chemistry teacher, is diagnosed with Stage III cancer and given a prognosis of only two years left to live. He becomes filled with a sense of fearlessness and an unrelenting desire to secure his family’s financial future at any cost as he enters the dangerous world of drugs and crime.
Breaking Bad took a long time to break big in the UK. The first season aired on the US cable channel AMC in January 2008, before being broadcast in the UK later that year on Sky’s FX channel. UK freeview channel 5USA showed season 2 in 2011, but never picked up subsequent seasons, which only gradually trickled out on DVD over here (season 3 took two years to reach these shores after its US transmission in 2010).
With the feature-film spin-off El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie now coming to Netflix, we revisit this feature from our September 2013 issue, published when the final eight-episode season was about to close out the series.
As word of mouth spread, Breaking Bad started to gain a reputation as a ‘writer’s show’, namechecked in TV pitch meetings. But it was only with the UK launch of Netflix in 2012 that it really found a substantial British audience. By now there were four-and-a-half seasons available, and if you were really focused you could watch all 54 of the episodes so far during your month’s free Netflix trial. Earlier this year Breaking Bad achieved a unique twin peak of critical and popular recognition: an adulatory essay in the London Review of Books and a pastiche on The Simpsons. With the final eight episodes due to be broadcast in the US from 11 August, addicts are counting down the days.
At the start of episode 1, Walter White is not yet a criminal: he’s a down-trodden high-school chemistry teacher who has just turned 50 and is about to discover he has cancer. If that isn’t enough to make us feel sorry for him, his teenage son has cerebral palsy, his wife is pregnant with an unplanned baby, he’s patronised by his asshole cop brother-in-law and – we will learn – while he once had a stake in a technology start-up, he sold out years ago for $5,000; his former partner is now a billionaire, while Walt has to do a second job at a car-wash to make ends meet.
So what is it about Breaking Bad that has proved so potent? When James Gandolfini died in June 2013, Bryan Cranston – who plays BB’s protagonist Walter White – tweeted: “I owe him. Quite simply, without Tony Soprano there is no Walter White.” Both shows focus on a middle-aged man balancing family issues and midlife crisis with the running of a major criminal enterprise. Both juxtapose violent acts with everyday domestic concerns, to variously comic or shocking effect. The difference is that whereas The Sopranos showed us the ordinariness at the heart of an evil man, BB shows us something potentially far more challenging: the evil at the heart of an ordinary man.
It’s not idle to quote Macbeth, because BB is indeed a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, spread out not over five acts but over 62 (or arguably, since each episode could be said to have three acts, over 186). The definition of tragedy in Christopher Booker’s 2004 compendium of story structure, The Seven Basic Plots, could have been written with BB in mind.
It might seem that writer/creator Vince Gilligan is stacking the sympathy odds in Walt’s favour. But it’s necessary, because over the ensuing 53 episodes (and, no doubt, the eight still to come), we follow this decent, intelligent family man’s utter – and entirely self-willed – corruption, one tiny, incremental step at a time, as his initial dabblings in cooking crystal meth eventually put him at the centre of a murderous drugs empire. Little by little, Mr White goes dark, until – in Macbeth’s words – he is “in blood/Stepp’d in so far, that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”