Spoilers abound for Breaking Bad in this. Don’t read unless you’ve seen the show.
I’ve just finished watching Breaking Bad. Throughout my viewing of Walter White’s five season-long descent to the dark side one question has always been at the forefront of my mind: What has caused Breaking Bad to be successful in a way that other shows haven’t?
I’m one of the many people who have only been turned on to Breaking Bad following its tremendous success. It is hard not to notice when something is given the title of one of the greatest American TV dramas of all time, and such a rare title is only bestowed upon a select few television shows, most noticeably a number of US dramas aired in the past fifteen years.
I’m talking about shows like The Wire, Deadwood, The Sopranos and Mad Men. These works are considered the golden standard of American television’s last few decades of output thanks to their high production values, intelligent writing and engaging serialised storylines.
The idea is often passed around that critics are in fact rather disconnected from the public, that the shows they so revere are praised for their worthiness as art rather than being simply entertainment.
I completely agree that The Wire is one of the greatest television shows ever made, but I also accept it’s not for everyone. Its novelistic like structure and requirement for the viewer to pay the utmost attention makes it difficult to get into; there’s no hand-holding so it’s naturally going to be alienating to some.
Breaking Bad, on the other hand, seems to be far more popular than any of these aforementioned programmes. Quite simply, I have never seen a show both so critically praised and publically applauded at such a level. This reaction leads me to conclude that Breaking Bad must have a level of accessibility that these other greatest dramas ever lack. Where does this appeal come from?
One possible answer is its heavy focus on science. Breaking Bad’s depiction of science is meticulously researched while still remaining fun and engaging, educational and entertaining. The programme has science at its core: early scenes show Walt teaching his students that chemistry is ‘the study of change’, and the science of chemistry becomes a metaphor for the show’s focus on the changing relationships between Walter White and the people he meets, as well as how he himself reacts to these ‘elements’. Science is also the basis of everything Walter White knows. His background as a PhD chemist means he has the skills to completely shake up the meth market and in the process transform himself into a kingpin.
The show delights itself in setting up difficult scenarios for him to break out of using improvised Macgyver-like scientific know-how. On closer scrutiny, as many other articles have noted, the science in these scenarios doesn’t really hold up but it doesn’t matter, this is pop-science; realistic enough on the surface and engaging enough for one to ignore the detail. The continual success of recent superhero films shows that we love superpowers and Walt’s superpower is his mastery of science.
With superpowers must come moments of triumph over evil, and Breaking Bad is chock full of these. Furthermore, from both how Breaking Bad has been marketed and how it has been received it is clear that these moments are particularly resonant with its fans. Words like ‘epic’ and ‘badass’ are often thrown around to describe whenever Walt goes into “Heisenberg mode” and even when he is evil beyond redemption, there is still something so great about a “Heisenbergian plan” being carried out with precision and glee. These moments of success are even sweeter in earlier seasons because they present an extraordinary break from Walt’s character. To see him stop being the underappreciated and too mild for his own good teacher and turn ‘badass’ is cathartic. Better still is when these badass character moments are as a result of science, such as his destroying of Tuco’s lair in season one.
The show’s marketing sets these ‘badass’ moments in stone; Walter is always in Heisenberg mode in posters, and his most memorably ‘badass’ quotes such as ‘Say my name’ accompany him. How many times have we seen Walter weak and powerless? How many times have we seen him break down as he realises how dire his circumstances are and how inescapable his fate is? Surely these moments must equal the amount of times Walt has stridden in like Scarface with brains but, only Heisenberg is remembered. Heisenberg is a legend not just in Breaking Bad’s fictional world, but in our world too. When we remember Walter White, we remember Heisenberg, and that’s exactly how he would have wanted it.
Walt is where Breaking Bad differs most from the list of previous ‘greatest dramas ever’. Mad Men is a portrait of professionals. The Wire is a portrait of a city. But Breaking Bad’s focus is more singular, and in doing so it allows its protagonist to become iconic. Like Tony Soprano he is a family man and a criminal, but unlike The Sopranos’ protagonist his traits are easily reproducible. Make any other character bald with a goatee and nerdy, oversized glasses and instantly they are reminiscent of the great Walter White.
There’s no easy answer to the question I posed, but what the success of the Breaking Bad does teach us is that quality and popularity do not need to be mutually exclusive. Difficulty doesn’t have to be a prerequisite for something to be seen as ‘art’ and to get the highest audience figures, TV doesn’t have to dumb down. Walter White’s adventures have raised the bar for the future: a future where hopefully great TV will no longer be discovered retrospectively through the boxset, and the best programmes are no longer hidden away on cable networks because the producers do not feel they are able to cultivate a mainstream audience.
Breaking Bad is Out Now On DVD Boxset and available to Stream through Netflix.