Put ‘Em On the Glass
It’s been over a year since Breaking Bad went off the air with a breathless finale that had the whole world — or at least that noisy part of it that has opinions about television shows — watching. There’s no question at this point that, for better or for worse, the story of chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin Walter White has become an intractable part of our culture; all the hallmarks are there, from a Simpsons parody to a fan-made Lego kit to the inevitable dumb commercial where the star of the show makes hay of his reputation while the sun still shines. It’s even got a successful and (so far) enjoyable spin-off in Better Call Saul; if the show did nothing else, it’s provided a solid retirement plan for all-around comic genius Bob Odenkirk.
But Breaking Bad wasn’t like most shows; it was a zeitgeist-capturing bit of lightning in a bottle, a show that seemed to encapsulate a uniquely American moment. And it did so in a way that was stylish, memorable, and attention-getting, which led more than a handful of on-line opinionwallahs to anoint it with the dreadful burden of being named The Best Television Show of All Time. So, the question before us tonight: does it deserve such high praise?
Well, frankly, no. I’d go as far as to say that it doesn’t even belong in the same conversation as shows that might deserve such high praise. Now, I’m not here to bury Vince Gilligan, but to praise him. After a long and careful re-watch, I found a tremendous amount to like in Breaking Bad; I have no desire to put myself in the company of the tedious Monday-of-next-year quarterbacks who shit all over a popular TV show just because it’s off the air and they want to generate a lot of traffic by being contrary. My primary defense will be this: I didn’t think Breaking Bad was in best-ever contention when it was on the air to begin with, and having torn through all five seasons this past week, I not only noticed a lot of problems that I didn’t spot the first time, but most importantly, it showed me no new virtues — that is to say, the things I loved about it this time were mostly the same things I loved about it in the first place, while the things I didn’t love about it were just as glaring, and now they’ve got a lot more company.
A lot of the complaints leveled at Breaking Bad in the past don’t strike me as particularly true. The whole kerfuffle over whether we should or should not despise Skyler White was always asinine and inconsequential, and it only festered to gummy prominence because of the prolific nature of a particular breed of toxic internet dudes. Conversely, the accusation that it was merely another iteration of the difficult-man drama pioneered by The Sopranos has a certain degree of validity, but like most similar complaints, that’s a criticism of the television industry and what they will or will not take a risk on producing, not a criticism of Breaking Bad itself. And, to be fair, one of my own major complaints — that the show wore out its welcome, padded out its final season into the noxious two-half-season model that’s all the rage these days, and crammed itself with filler — isn’t precisely a knock on the show either, but on the fact that it was a victim of its own success. To cite a show I genuinely believe should be in best-ever contention, Deadwood didn’t end tidily after three seasons because that’s how David Milch planned it; it ended messily after three seasons because it had crummy ratings. Had it been a hit on the level of Breaking Bad, it might have dragged itself out through three more and I might have hated it by the end.
But while Breaking Bad‘s virtues are many — terrific cinematography, generally excellent acting, a sense of visual composition that’s rare in television even in the ‘quality’ era, and a perhaps unparalleled gift for cliffhangers — its vices were always hard for me to ignore, and got more so with age. Those brilliant visuals too often did the work of pointing out the obvious, and for all its storytelling complexity, Breaking Bad never wanted us to miss anything to the extent that it would often belabor a plot detail. The good acting was not in service of great characterization: the nature of its most central relationship, between Walter and Jesse, was always murky; Skyler was easy for people to project their prejudices on because she wasn’t starkly drawn; Hank and Marie’s relationship never made any sense; and with a few exceptions, the villains were never quite believable, always either too unhinged and psychotic or too cool and bloodless. The cliffhangers never stopped being thrilling, but the plots started to take a very long time to get us from one to the next; “Fly” was the most egregiously pointless man vs. symbolically overburdened beast plot since Lost did it (twice), and the manic cycle the writers kept putting Jesse through started making me depressed after a while.
In a show that was, for the most part, beautifully filmed, strongly conceived, and well-acted, it’s the writers, indeed, that have to bear most of the blame. The show’s central conceit wore thin so quickly that they abandoned it with unseemly haste; the last time Walt’s health is mentioned is late in season 3, and that’s just as a dodge by Gus. For a show with such a rich and broad visual palate, its story universe was ridiculously small, and the degrees of separation between characters and their plot-contriving pasts became comically few. The longer the show went on, the more its characters (especially, but not exclusively, Walt) would utter overwrought dialogue like the infamous “I am the one who knocks” speech that was designed not to further the plot, make the story more compelling, or deepen the character’s personality, but to get watched a lot on YouTube and discussed around the virtual water cooler. Season 2 is a real wonder — one of the tightest-plotted seasons of television I’ve ever seen — but tellingly, it’s the only one where Gilligan and his staff sat down and worked it out in advance. They’d never be so careful and deliberate again, and it shows.
So does it deserve the lofty heights to which it was raised by critics drunk on what it did well? No. But man, did it do those things well! For all its clear flaws, every single season had at least a handful of moments so hypnotic you couldn’t take your eyes off them, and that stand out vividly in the memory long after you’ve forgotten that they bookended something a lot less stunning. Not many shows can say that, and I don’t mean to imply that Breaking Bad is a failure because it doesn’t deserve to be elevated from Great to Greatest Ever. In many ways, it resembles most not its HBO inspiration or its creator’s antecedents, its network companion Mad Men (which, it is somewhat shocking to consider, went on the air a year earlier and still isn’t over): a show stock full of so many surprising treats that it was expert at disguising its flaws, until, forced by its own achievement to drag itself on too long, it couldn’t hide them any more.