As contrarian and cynical as I sometimes am about politics, I’m pretty much banal when it comes to television shows. I like the same “good” TV that everyone else does—you know, The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, etc. Which is to say, I watch and enjoy a lot of shows about “difficult men,” as writer Brett Martin has named them in his new book, many of whom are often doing terrible and/or violent things.
When Breaking Bad first came on the air, I was in the middle of moving and didn’t have cable. Then the writer’s strike meant there wasn’t a reason to get cable, and then there was so much other TV—and football—to watch that I just never got around to the show.
After a couple of years of hearing my friends rave about it, I started season one in 2011. I did not get through it. But after years of even more commentary praising the genius of the show—by critics I trust, by friends whose opinions I value and respect—I decided to give Breaking Bad another chance.
So, over the past couple of months, I have watched every single episode of the series, seriously trying to understand what everyone else sees in the show. And I am here to tell you that I think show creator Vince Gilligan must have slipped something into the water supply, because Breaking Bad is not the best show on television. In fact, it’s not actually a very good show at all, pretty cinematography aside. Quite frankly, Breaking Bad is the most overrated show of all time.
In case you’ve missed it, the five seasons (spun out over six years) of Breaking Bad cover a two-year period (or so) in the life of Walter White, a high-school chemistry teacher who starts making crystal meth to provide for his family after he is diagnosed with lung cancer. Along the way, after killing or arranging for the killing of a number of people, he becomes the head of a massive criminal enterprise, which collapses after his DEA-agent brother-in-law, Hank, finds him out. As the show heads into its series finale on Sunday night, Hank is dead, Walt is hiding in New Hampshire, his accomplice (and former student) Jesse Pinkman is in captivity being forced to make meth by neo-Nazi thugs (who also stole almost all of Walt’s money), and Walt’s wife and son hate him and are facing pressure from the DEA to turn on him.
Sure, it’s ridiculous, but so are most shows on television. The problem I have with Breaking Bad is not that it’s an unrealistic depiction of cancer (at least, until the penultimate episode) or that, when most people have hospital bills they can’t pay—which happens every day in the United States—they file for bankruptcy. If I can willingly suspend disbelief to watch White Walkers, I can buy that a chain of fried-chicken restaurants are serving as a meth-distribution hub.
Here’s what I can’t buy into, however: that Walter White is a complex and compelling antihero whose struggles with morality are in any way significant, because Walter White is the most annoying character on television since Steve Urkel.
Putting aside all of the horrible things he does or is a party to, I am not interested in White’s fate because of his grating presence. Even though I knew he would manage to find a way out of every scrape he got himself into, I still found myself—as I was watching episodes in seasons two and three and four—praying that this time Gus or Mike or whoever really would kill him, that the show would continue on and explore the lives of its other characters.
It’s the depictions of these other characters that throw Walt into such sharp relief and make him even more irritating, I think. That is to say, with the exception of Jesse and Hank (at times), we don’t see these characters fully developed in the way that the supporting cast of, say, The Sopranos were. We never know what motivates Gus, or Mike, or sweet, sociopathic Todd. We never find out why Marie has a shoplifting problem. We have no idea what goes on in the head of Walt Jr. Even Skyler, who was, unlike Carmela Soprano, allowed to have an affair, seems to exist only as a foil to Walt. Much like Hank, she’s there as a plot device more than a person. (And perhaps this lack of complexity in her character has something to do with the legion of fans who virulently hate her in a way they never did Carmela.)
But if there’s one show that Breaking Bad reminds me of more than any other, despite the obvious parallels, it’s not The Sopranos. It’s 24. Like Special Agent Jack Bauer, Walt is constantly finding himself racing the clock to get out of this or that precarious situation. Can he use his chemistry skills to get the broken-down RV started again before he and Jesse die in the desert? Can he manipulate Jesse into killing someone before he himself gets killed? Can he blow up Gus before Gus finds him? Can he pull off the great train heist? Can he escape federal agents? Breaking Bad isn’t a morality play, it’s an action movie.
There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. Action movies can be great. But critics who argue that the heart of the show is about Walt’s transformation from good guy to bad guy are just wrong. Go back and watch season one again—Walt’s an asshole even then. He kills someone in the first episode.
Gilligan’s pitch for the show was reportedly Mr. Chips turns into Scarface. There are a lot of ways this isn’t borne out in the series—Walt was never the beloved teacher that Chips was, for one—but we can assume at this point that Breaking Bad will end like Scarface, with the death of its protagonist. The only question that remains is whether Walt will die of cancer before someone else can kill him.
Whatever happens, you can be sure much debate will ensue as to whether the manner of his death (and whatever happens to Jesse) is merited, but, really, you should just ignore it. We all die, some day, whether we break bad or not. The universe is a fundamentally amoral place, and a formulaic television show that revels in its extreme violence is simply another instance of that.
Please, let’s hope the death of Walter White is the end of difficult men for a while.