On several occasions, Vince Gilligan has pointed out that Breaking Bad could never have existed without The X-Files (1993-2002). The sci-fi show may not be discussed among critics with an equal amount of enthusiasm, but that’s where Gilligan cut his teeth. Not only as a writer, but also as a show runner; it takes one set of skills to put together a functioning script, and quite another to run a whole TV series.
Unlike the people who were in charge of Dexter, which ended just a week prior to Breaking Bad, Gilligan made sure to guide the story of Walter White from beginning to end in a way that remained honest to the character.
Lung cancer changes his life
Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is a high-school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who’s married to Skyler (Anna Gunn). She’s pregnant and they also have a teenaged son, Walter, Jr. (RJ Mitte), who has cerebral palsy. Walter’s mundane but comfortable life changes when he finds out that he has stage-three lung cancer and is unlikely to recover. That’s when he makes the radical decision to use his knowledge in chemistry and start cooking methamphetamine. He also enlists one of his former students, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), as his connection to the drug market. They make unlikely business partners, but Walter turns out to be really good at cooking meth and teaches Jesse how to do it; the former intends to use his share of the profits to make sure that his family is comfortable when he succumbs to the cancer. But his brother-in-law, DEA agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), is bound to hear of this new drug kingpin making waves sooner or later…
Humor, tension and absurdity
“Breaking bad” is Southern slang, meaning to to veer off the straight and narrow path. That’s what Walter does already in the first season, and it’s downhill from there. I have a friend at work who’s trying to catch up but finds the show depressing. I do object against movies and shows that wallow too much in misery and forget to reward their audience, but Breaking Bad never failed. One of its best-written episodes was one of the very last where everything seemed to unravel and it was just heartbreaking to behold… but never less than utterly compelling.
The show complemented its tension with humor – and absurdity. The writers relished every opportunity to shock their audience with memorably icky or violent set-pieces, from the liquefied human remains in the bathtub crashing through a ceiling in the first season to Walter’s ingenious machine-gun attack in the series finale. Still, nothing could top the jaw-dropping bombing that targeted mild-mannered fast-food entrepreneur and drug lord Gus Fring (beautifully played by Giancarlo Esposito) in the season four finale.
However, what made Breaking Bad truly memorable was not audacious gross-out gags like that, but the hard-hitting and fully realistic portrayal of a family falling apart – not fast, but slowly, as Walter’s business intriguingly changed the dynamic between him and Skyler. The tense and often hurtful father-son relationship between Walter and Jesse also provided much of the show’s lifeblood.
The actors really emphasized the heartbreak.
The actors really emphasized the heartbreak. Cranston got his definitive breakthrough as a man who journeys from obscurity to prominence but loses almost all of his decency in the process. The same goes for Paul as Jesse, whose experiences are similar but much more painful. Some die-hard fans who harbored a weird love for Walter in spite of his crimes hated Skyler, but Gunn made her so much more than simply a supporting wife character. Other standouts included Norris and Bob Odenkirk, very funny as Walter’s ambulance-chasing attorney.
Breaking Bad 2008-2013:U.S. 62 episodes. Color. Created by Vince Gilligan. Cast: Bryan Cranston (Walter White), Anna Gunn (Skyler White), Aaron Paul (Jesse Pinkman), Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk (09-13), Jonathan Banks (09-12), Giancarlo Esposito (09-11), Jesse Plemons (13).
Trivia: John Cusack and Matthew Broderick were considered for the lead role. Remade in Colombia as a TV series called Metástasis (2013-2014). Followed by a spin-off series, Better Call Saul (2015-2022), and a made-for-streaming movie, El Camino (2019).
Emmys: Outstanding Drama Series 12-13, 13-14; Writing 13-14; Actor (Cranston) 07-08, 08-09, 09-10, 13-14; Supporting Actor (Paul) 09-10, 11-12, 13-14; Supporting Actress (Gunn) 12-13, 13-14. Golden Globes: Best Drama Series 13, Actor (Cranston) 13.
Last word: “We had an episode where Walt is giving a pep talk to Hank after Hank sees a head blow up on a tortoise. He tells Hank that, ‘I used to be scared of everything. My whole first 50 years of life. Everything scared me. I’d lay awake at night wondering what might happen, what could happen. Until I got my cancer diagnosis, and then I slept like a baby.’ I didn’t really realize it until that episode, but that’s really what has drawn me to this character. I’m not Heisenberg [Walter’s drug-lord alias]. I’m more Walter White.” (Gilligan, L.A. Times)