“Chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study
of change,” lectured Walter H. White (Bryan Cranston) to a classroom full of semi-interested Albuquerque high-schoolers, his enthusiasm entirely uninfectious. “It’s growth, then decay, then transformation. It is fascinating, really.” In January 2008, AMC’s Breaking Bad met with similar indifference from front-room slouchers, likely dismissed as a Weeds rip-off — with Malcolm In the Middle’s Dad cooking crystal meth to keep his brood financially solvent after his impending death from cancer, rather than Mary-Louise Parker dealing cannabis. Yet with its time-lapse skies skimming over vast John-Fordian sandscapes, the show felt undeniably cinematic. Walt and tetchy ex-student partner Jesse’s (Aaron Paul) twistedly near-comical crime-world mishaps had a Coenesque texture. And, in the hands of a tight-knit cast (Anna Gunn, Betsy Brandt, Dean Norris, RJ Mitte), there was evidence of — oh yes — chemistry at work. Growth. Decay. Transformation...
In September 2013, 10.3 million Americans perched on the edge of their sofas for Breaking Bad’s finale, a show showered with Emmys throughout its five-season run, and widely — justifiably — pronounced as the greatest show in TV history. The exit of Walter White, molecularly bonded to his fearsome alter ego, meth kingpin Heisenberg, was nothing less than a transatlantic cultural phenomenon.
Few creative triumphs feel more earned than that of showrunner Vince Gilligan and his team during the past six years. Sony CEO Michael Lynton had told Gilligan he thought Breaking Bad was “the craziest and worst idea for a television show that I ever heard”. Yet, after Lynton begrudgingly greenlit it (“Hey, it’s your career...”), there was no dilution of intent, no fundamental creative compromise. Gilligan had long been irked by network shows
in which detectives gunned down people one week then appeared unaffected by their traumatic experience the next. Even in this ‘Third Golden Age’ of television, with its complex, long-arc narratives, lead characters tend to remain as audiences found them. It is the world changing that so challenges Tony Soprano and Don Draper; it was Baltimore changing that defined The Wire. Breaking Bad presented us with something entirely novel (and novelistic), entirely as Gilligan had intended: the growth (financial and in self-confidence), decay (physical and moral) and transformation of a central character — along with the terrible repercussions this has on his family and associates.
Gilligan also had the cojones to quit while ahead and actually end the story before Heisenberg outlived his perverse appeal. (And it is nothing if not perverse
— Walt is the perfect anti-hero. Thanks in no small part to Cranston’s diamond-edged charm, you can’t stop rooting for Walt after each and every atrocity.) “Better to risk ending a bit too soon than to end too late,” the showrunner reasoned.
Even if you won’t allow it the title of ‘Best Ever’, Breaking Bad can’t be denied these achievements at least. For strength and purity of vision, for its unique calibration of its core character, Gilligan’s magnum opus is unsurpassed. It is fascinating, really.
Reviewed by Dan Jolin
Breaking Bad: The Complete Series
Released: 25 November 2013
This ‘Collectible Replica Barrel’ über-edition not only comes stuffed with “memorabilia” (a Los Pollos Hermanos apron!), but also No Half-Measures, a 135-minute documentary on the final eight episodes that you won’t find anywhere else. This is a blow-by-blow, episode-by-episode production account charting the phenomenon’s six-and-a-half-hour conclusion. Poignantly, we witness each principal actor’s wrap-day farewell (all the hugging is balanced out against Dean Norris’ constant cussing and Cranston’s wisecrackery) and Paul and Cranston read the Felina script for the first time on camera (“Well, I guess there won’t be a sequel,” quips Cranston). Gilligan, meanwhile, is likeably frank, even ’fessing that when making episode 5.01 he had no idea how, or on who, Walt would be using that M-60 machine-gun come the 5.16 endgame.
Each season also comes with its own previously released extras, and the discs with the final eight episodes contain even more: commentaries, featurettes (with remarkably little overlap), deleted scenes, a sound mix demonstration, the full table read for episode 5.09 (in which Betsy Brandt sports sunnies and a frosty voice to read Laura Fraser’s lines as Lydia) and best of all the ‘Alternate Ending’ to the show which is — honestly — hilarious, and the perfect antidote to those who crazily insisted that it all should have been a dream…