Breaking Bad is widely regarded as one of the greatest television series of all time. By the time the series finale aired, the series was among the most-watched cable shows on American television. The show received numerous awards, including sixteen Primetime Emmy Awards, eight Satelite Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, two Peabody Awards and a People’s Choice Award. In 2013, Breaking Bad entered the Guiness World Records as the highest rated show of all time.
The show which lasted five seasons, between 2008 and 2013 is described by series creator Vince Gilligan as one in which the protagonist becomes the antagonist. It tells of the metamorphosis of middle class high school teacher, Walter White who missed big chances to be an award winning chemist and finds himself turning 50, working two jobs to support a pregnant wife, a disabled son and a diagnosis of inoperable cancer. Brother-in-law Hank is a drug enforcement administration [DEA] officer and laughs with Walter about the money in meth amphetamines, and before the first episode is out, Walter is attempting to cook premium crystal meth from the back of an RV in the desert of New Mexico.
His subsequent journey into the criminal underworld, reveals to him a grit and determination and a “bad ass” fighting spirit long hidden in his middle class comfort. Initiatlly motivated by the high fees for cancer treatment and to provide for his family, Walter maximises his chemistry prowess to cook the best crystal meth in Alberquerque, becoming both successful and more and more compromised, descending deeper into the criminal world throughout the series, and becoming less and less a sympathetic antihero.
An article in the New Stateman recently, refers to David P Pierson opening essay in , Breaking Bad: Critical Essays on the Contexts, Politics, Style and Reception of the Television Series. Pierson’s essay, examines how the show has such a terrible and enduring resonance.
Breaking Bad is, he argues, a demonstration of the true consequences of neoliberal ideology: the idea that “the market should be the organising agent for nearly all social, political, economic and personal decisions”. Under neoliberal criminology, the criminal is not a product of psychological disorder, but “a rational-economic actor who contemplates and calculates the risks and the rewards of his actions”. And there is Walter White in a nutshell.
The phenomenal popularity of the show is curious in the contemporary climate. For it’s darkness, the moral narrative is complex. A good man, turns to crime to support hims family. He takes on the criminal world to make dirty money clean. His disenchantment with cosy middle class life and the hand of cards dealt him, forces him to take matters into his own hands and to become somewhat of a renegade. However, his personal dissolution and increasing moral compromise winds downward without much sign of redemption.
The show combines some familar narrative elements we are comfortable with – the disenchanted male leaving the domestic sphere to head out into the dessert to do combat vigliante style, in the Western cowboy tradition. War tales are full of good characters faced with grey moral choices in unspeakable circumstances, drawing on both good and bad motivations to achieve their ends. However, the show was popular throughout the tail end of the GFC and housing bubble collapse in the USA. When life and society let him down, Walter turns bad. Irredeemably so.
Audiences world wide watch with curiosity the dissolution of a man “breaking bad”, going off the moral deepend under terrible stress, so they don’t have to. It’s catharsis.
Breaking Bad was distinctive because we always knew where its road would end. We knew that right from the start, in the way that the first audiences of Shakespeare’s tragedies knew what lay in store for Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. But these days we like to think that the hero, even if he is an anti-hero, makes it through….. In 21st-century culture it is difficult to consider the fact of mortality, as the surgeon (and this year’s Reith lecturer) Atul Gawande reflects in his recent book Being Mortal. If Walter’s cancer weren’t terminal, there would be no story. There is no escape.
The modern day tragedy of epic proportions has gone down in history now as the most popular series of all time – far above comedy, romance, sci-fi, thriller and reality TV. This fact is illustrative of the power of narrative, to with a darkly humorous style, to map out the depth of human suffering, to journey through terrible moral choices, to give catharsis by telling a nuanced tale of a society and culture and one man’s journey to take things into his own hands.
I say, let tragedy as a genre, live on!