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Thoughts on Breaking Bad
Tuesday, 2013 October 1 - 9:32 am
I don't think it's hyperbole to say that "Breaking Bad" was the best TV show I've ever seen.

If you haven't watched the show and don't want spoilers, stop reading now.

AMC's "Breaking Bad", produced by Vince Gilligan, has raised the bar for what all TV dramas should be. While there are plenty of shows that have had gripping dramatic plots and good acting, I think "Breaking Bad" surpasses them in its use of literary thematic elements. An English student could spend a whole semester breaking down all the recurring symbolism in the show. Even the title of the final episode, "Felina", had multiple meanings: it was not just an anagram of "Finale", but it was a reference to a Marty Robbins song with clear parallels to the plot of the show.

Some have criticized the ending (spoilers start here) for being too tidy: Walt gets his revenge on Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz for screwing him out of his share of corporate fortune; he finds a way to get his riches to his son; he exacts revenge on the neo-Nazis who killed Hank; he frees Jesse and gets a measure of closure with him; and, he avoids capture by the law or suffering from his cancer by dying of a bullet wound, in a middle of a meth lab that symbolizes the beauty of his creation.

So... yes, it was the best of all endings for Walt, who some might say didn't deserve such things. But I think "Breaking Bad" is my favorite kind of story: a story about redemption. And the thing that ultimately leads to Walt's redemption is the admission, to himself and to Skyler, that becoming a drug kingpin had been something he only did for himself. It was the truth that set him free. The thing that had spoiled all of his earlier plans was not simple misfortune, or the work of his enemies... it was the lying. He had to let go of the lies in order for karma to work in his favor.

Some would say that Walt should have faced more severe punishment, more consequences for his actions. My theory all along, though, is that Walt is kind of the Dorian Gray of punishment, and Jesse is the one who absorbed all the pain that Walt should have faced. They were really two halves of the same character. I think an interesting way to re-watch the show would be to imagine Jesse as a figment of Walt's imagination.

Or if you like, you can make a Christian allegory here too: Walt represents the sin of humanity and Jesse is Christ-like figure who suffers for him (but is ultimately reborn at the end). Regardless of which metaphor you choose, the interconnected duality between Walt and Jesse was always the best part of the show, and I think it's central to the show's meaning.

To me, the show did not need a hyper-realistic ending, where Walt simply ends up in the hands of law enforcement, Jesse dies in a cage, and the Schwartzes pay no consequences. It also did not need a super-surprise ending (Skyler decides to cook meth! Walt. Jr. kills Jesse! Marie is Lydia's boss!). What it needed was a literary ending, and it delivered. The show had built to its climax and answered the plot questions that needed to be answered ("Lost" writers, take note), and stayed in keeping with its overall theme.

I loved the choice of the closing song: "Baby Blue" by Badfinger. What we see from that song is what we should have realized all along: the thing that Walt really loved was not his family and not the money: it was the pride in his creation, his unsurpassed blue meth, the one thing that he was better at than anyone else in the world. I think all of us, at some point, really want to be great at something, and to be recognized for that. That's why we all sympathized with Walt despite the horrible turns his life took along the way. That's why we wanted him to win even after figuring out he was the bad guy. Inside of all of us is a little bit of Walt, a side of us who would sacrifice a bit of our humanity if it meant achieving our ultimate dreams. Redemption comes from acknowledging that desire and dealing with it, and not trying to justify it with phony good intentions.

I hope that this has shown television executives that shows can be intelligent, complex, and adult-minded and still be commercial successes. To the broadcast networks: take a lesson from this show. No more ordinary procedurals, no more superhero shows. Give us characters, give us a plot line. We'll keep up.
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Posted by Ken in: television


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