Remember My Name: The Legacy of Breaking Bad
*MAJOR SPOILERS – DON’T READ IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN ALL OF BREAKING BAD*
It’s been a week now since ‘Felina’, the final episode of AMC’s Breaking Bad, quite simply one of the greatest television dramas ever, and the sense of mourning can still be felt.. Labelled in the Guinness World Records as the most critically acclaimed program of all time, Breaking Bad has gone from strength to strength, starting life as a well reviewed cult show, before slowly turning into one of the most watched and beloved shows of the 21st century.
From its early days, where it was far funnier than people remember, right up to the final scene, it was insanely consistent; it’s nigh on impossible to name a genuinely bad episode. It was a rare beast, a drama that could feature horrific violence but not be gratuitous, had tense action but also slow character beats, and could make you laugh and cry. It’s unlikely we’ll ever see a show like Breaking Bad ever again, and here’s my full take on the series.
Created by the now universally loved Vince Gilligan, who wanted to turn “Mr. Chips into Scarface”, in 2008, Breaking Bad is the story of high school chemistry teacher named Walter White, who finds out he has lung cancer and resolves to cook crystal meth, along with former student Jesse Pinkman. Though it seems difficult to believe after the last few seasons, the first season is most definitely a comedy, all be it one that’s violent, morally questionable and the darkest shade of black possible.
The more dramatic scenes may stick in the mind more clearly, but there are some fine moments of comedy in Season One; Walt telling the owner of the car wash where he takes a second job to “Fuck you…and your eyebrows!”; Jesse fatally making the mistake of using strong acid to dissolve a body in a bathtub, leading to Walt and Jesse watching as the bathtub, and remains of the corpse, falls through the ceiling; and Walt getting revenge on a Bluetooth wearing, sports car riding businessman by causing his car to blow up. By the end of the season, however, the humour was just about gone; the final shot of the season is crazed drug dealer Tuco Salamanca battering an assistant to death for almost no reason. It’s an intense, brutal and scary moment, and a premonition for the rest of the series.
From series 2 onwards, Breaking Bad slowly changed. Instead of being a dark comedy, it became simply dark, with a high (and brutal) body count, a hero who evolved into the villain and many unexpected twists that lead to Breaking Bad being easily one of the most unpredictable shows around. Beloved characters were murdered brutally, likeable characters faced horrible situations and Walter did many deplorable acts in order to further his “empire business”. As more characters were introduced, most of them antagonists to Walter, Breaking Bad started going bigger and better than ever before.
Though he faced such brutal foes as Crazy 8, the Salamanca family and neo-Nazi Jack, Walter’s ultimate foe came in season 3 and 4, in the shape of the calm yet cold Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), a meth dealer masquerading as a chicken restaurant owner. Responsible for one of the best Breaking Bad moments of its run (more on this later), Gus was definitely the best of Walter’s rivals, and was one of the finest example of the strong characterisation of Breaking Bad.
The main reason Breaking Bad was so successful, and so universally loved, was the acting talent of Walter White himself, Bryan Cranston. Before Breaking Bad, Cranston occasionally appeared in minor roles (almost cameos) in indie films, and was mostly known for being Hal in Malcolm in the Middle. After playing Walter White, he’s appeared in cult favourites like Drive, blockbusters like Total Recall and the Academy Award winning Argo.
It isn’t hard to see why; his ever changing performance, in which he transformed himself from a bumbling, depressed, dying teacher into a brutal, efficient killer and drug kingpin is a genuine contender for one of the finest performances in a film or TV show of all time. Every step of Cranston’s performance, from the emotionless news of his cancer, to becoming Hesienberg at a drug deal in the desert, to his desperate laugh when he realises he may soon be murdered, was pitch perfect. Cranston is unlikely to ever top the performance, and neither is anyone else. There’s a reason Cranston won three Primetime Emmy awards in a row for the performance; it really is that good.
However, Walter White wasn’t the only major protagonist on Breaking Bad. Jesse Pinkman, the amateur meth manufacturer who just needed some money and a father figure, who went through hell and back and had every part of his life ruined, was the closest person Breaking Bad had to a moral compass. He was sensitive to the corruption around him, had a soft spot for kids and clearly wanted to settle down, first with drug addict Jane and then with single mother Andrea, who both met tragic ends.
Jesse was a fantastic character, who went from being your average dope smoking whiteboy in the first series (and nearly being killed off by the writers) to becoming one of the most popular characters on the show. Aaron Paul, also an Emmy winner for the show, managed to uncover so many hidden depths to Jesse, and brought all out raw emotion to some of the saddest scenes in the series. From his original audition (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q5fd95h4HCs), it was clear Paul was perfect for the part, but nobody could have known how far he would have to go. Though he definitely got the ending he deserved, it was a traumatic ride there.
No character, big or small, was underwritten in Breaking Bad, and that lead to some truly fantastic performances. Of the main cast, Walt’s family were fantastic. Anna Gunn, as the long suffering but often tough wife, Skylar, was always facing a difficult role: the character who often tried to stop Walt from cooking. She received a lot of unfair backlash from mostly male fans, but by the final season, nobody could disagree that Skylar was trying to stay afloat in the murky world she found herself in, and Anna Gunn was a deserving Emmy winner earlier this year.
RJ Mitte, playing Walt’s cerebral palsy suffering teenage son, Walt Junior, was always a likeable presence on the show. Away from the criminal activities of his parents, Walt Junior, or Flynn as he preferred to be known, was only a small role but an important one; Walt always said he was cooking for his family, and Flynn was his main concern.
As Walt’s brother and sister-in-law, Dean Norris and Betsy Brandt were originally given little to work with; he was an obnoxious jackass, and she was a total bitch. As the series progressed, however, Norris, playing DEA agent Hank, become a devoted and conflicted professional, intent on finding the elusive Hesienberg, while Brandt, as Skylar’s sister Marie, gave strong support to Anna Gunn as she watched her sister’s marriage break apart.
Smaller characters, meanwhile, were just as well written and cast. Saul Goodman, played by Bob Odenkirk in a comedic role, was absolutely hilarious as Walt and Jesse’s lawyer. Good was a hard and loyal worker but also an obnoxious and greedy man, and the character was often light relief in such a heavy show. Odenkirk was deliciously slimy in the role, and it is fantastic news that AMC have announced a spin-off for the character.
Odenkirk’s main partner, Mike Ehrmantraut, was another example of a small character granted a bigger role than originally intended. Jonathan Banks, playing the gruff but grandfatherly clean up man, was loveable even when killing, and badass when looking after his granddaughter. His death was one of the saddest of the show’s run, and the catalyst for Jessie’s meltdown in season 5.
Later on in Breaking Bad, another character was introduced, initially as a cook to help out Walt and Jesse, until becoming possibly the most psychotic character of them all: Todd. Played by the formerly loveable Jesse Plemons, Todd was an eerily calm, professional drug manufacturer and killer who participated in some of the most shocking and unpleasant scenes in the series. At first, Todd seemed just slightly off, a disturbed young man who had the wrong idea of the criminal world. In the final season, however, Todd became a rival to the fear created by Gus, a nonplussed nephew-of-a-nazi who does any task he’s asked to do. Plemons was a disturbing addition to the show, and contributed to many of the greatest moments of Breaking Bad.
There were so many classic moments during the run of Breaking Bad, that I decided I would rank some of the very finest scenes and shots. There’s no order, because it would be almost impossible to do. These are just some of the clear contenders:
Thank you for reading my comprehensive take on why Breaking Bad was one of the finest television dramas of all time, and why it will be missed for a long time. To Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Giancarlo Esposito, Jesse Plemons, to every actor big or small who played a part in Breaking Bad, to every director who crafted one of its many phenomenal episodes, and to every writer who created our favourite characters and scenes, I, on behalf of the millions of fans around the world, would like to say thank you.
By Harry Ford