The story of the brilliant chemistry teacher Walter White, who, after being diagnosed with cancer, decides to make meth and build a nest egg for his family, captured the imagination of America. If you think that the show glorified drugs or violence, you probably haven’t watched it. I have yet to encounter a person, however anti-drug or anti-violence, who, after watching the show, did not love it.
Arriving in the wake of stellar TV programs like The Wire and The Sopranos, Breaking Bad finally broke the cinema barrier. What I mean is that people preferred to watch it over the best of movies. Because people realized that TV at its best has more to offer than cinema ever can. Television allows characters to grow and change. It permits stories to be told in depth and writing to flourish in a way that a movie, with its limitation of two or three hours, cannot. The joy of watching a good series is that it stays with us over weeks and months and years, becoming a part of our lives. And when that show is as suspenseful as Breaking Bad, it gives us the kind of thrill that only Hitchcock movies can provide. Watching Breaking Bad was like watching a Hitchcock movie every week, only better. It was Hitchcock mixed in with a touch of film noir. The evil web of blood and deceit that Walt and his young protégé Jesse Pinkman unwittingly wove was frightening yet riveting.
But the unlikely story could not have come alive without artistic cinematography, masterful acting, and directing par-excellence. Most of all, the amazing writing made what could have been a gory action thriller into an intriguing, heart-breaking family drama.
Like all good art, Breaking Bad wove reality and imagination so seamlessly that we could not tell one from the other. Now that I am making documentary films myself, I have been watching Breaking Bad with a new, critical eye; evaluating camera angles, lighting, sets, outdoor shots, dialogue. What is mesmerizing is the effort at perfection, the attention to detail, the lack of any ennui or smugness even after hours and months and years of production. What distinguishes Breaking Bad from other shows is that over the course of 62 hours, not one minute sags, not one moment is wasted, not one scene is dull.
But that is not the only reason why millions tuned in. The struggles of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman encapsulated the essence of our lives. The question of how to live nags at each one of us. Who among us has not faced the ethical dilemma of whom we should choose, whom we should give our loyalty to? Which one of us has not been guilty of making the wrong choice? Which one of us has not from time to time engaged in immoral or unethical acts and felt guilty afterwards?
And there is a broader societal dimension to Breaking Bad. In an era when Bernie Madoff watches his son commit suicide, yet expresses no remorse or sadness, when members of the model minority, like Raj Rajaratnam and Rajat Gupta, are exposed as anything but model, ending up in prison for financial fraud and malfeasance, when businessmen like the Ambani and Reddy brothers exploit the land and the rights of India’s poor to rake in profits, yet feel righteous, the moral questions Breaking Bad raises are anything but academic. It is not accidental that shows with antiheros have flourished in recent decades; after all, we only see antiheroes around us.
At every decision point, Breaking Bad illustrates the fork in the road, and makes the choice seem inevitable for the character and the viewer. Even though highly dramatized, the show ultimately boils down to the struggle between good and evil. Does the evil win? Or does the good conquer in the end? You will have to see and decide for yourself. But as each character struggles with his or her conscience, as each player evaluates his or her motives, as each person grasps at redemption, the viewer realizes that he or she is in the same boat.
Ultimately, the show demonstrates the moral slippery slope down which many today slide, only to bring the rest of humanity down with them.
The purpose of art is to suspend disbelief. Breaking Bad makes you not only suspend disbelief but actually love the flawed characters. The sleazy lawyer, Saul, who throws parting shots like, “Don’t drink and drive, but if you do, call me,” the security fixer Mike, who remains loyal to his crew and his family till the end, the DEA agent Hank, who is obsessed with catching Heisenberg, yet is constantly hampered by bureaucracy, are so believable, we expect to see them around the corner.
From the very first episode, I personally was taken in by Jesse Pinkman, Walt’s ex-student. Exactly the same age as my sons, Jesse evoked something tender in me from the start.
Walt, I lost sympathy for long ago; he was a grown man, an educated man; he should have known better. But Jesse was a victim of his circumstances. In the very first episode, he admits that he learned nothing from Walt’s chemistry class. He is the quintessential kid who, shunned by his strict parents and humiliated by his teachers, seeks love and friendship, but always finds it in the wrong places. Yet he manages to save something good and gentle at his core, loving his girlfriend’s son and trying to protect the people he cares for. Jesse to me symbolized so many youths in our country today, who, lost without education or prospects, are trying to make a living through the wrong means, because the right means are simply not available to them.
The writing was what brought the show to life in the end. Breaking Bad showed us how important writing is, period. It proved that words can make any scenario convincing. Actors are the ones who are hailed as idols in Hollywood while writers are severely under-rated. People forget that without the fine writing, no actor could make a role seem real. Television writing, in particular, has been marginalized into a niche of its own, never entering the mainstream. Breaking Bad was the first show whose writers were even interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air. I wait for the day when writers will have real credibility and recognition in the entertainment industry. I wonder if someday, someone will win the Nobel Prize for television writing. I can only hope.
Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.