Lock, stock and Blu-smoking barrel
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. Its growth, then decay, then transformation. It is fascinating, really. In January 2008, AMCs Breaking Bad met with similar indifference from front-room slouchers, likely dismissed as a Weeds rip-off with Malcolm In the Middles 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 Jesses (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 Bads 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, its 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 Cranstons diamond-edged charm, you cant 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 wont allow it the title of Best Ever, Breaking Bad cant be denied these achievements at least. For strength and purity of vision, for its unique calibration of its core character, Gilligans magnum opus is unsurpassed. It is fascinating, really.