Ed. note — This post contains spoilers and significant details from multiple seasons of Breaking Bad. If you don’t want to be spoiled we recommend getting your Netflix game up before reading this.
David Evans, Regal Radio
Within the past fifteen years or so a series of cable television shows have helped create what many people have called the second, or the truest, “golden era of television.”
Depending on who you ask, this era started in 1997 with Tom Fontana’s “OZ,” which chronicled the lives of inmates and correctional workers inhabiting the fictitious Oswald State Correctional Facility in New York State. As “OZ” established itself in HBO’s lineup, along came David Chase’s “The Sopranos” in 1999.
The first undisputed success of the era, “The Sopranos” told the concurrent stories of a crime family and a dysfunctional suburban New Jersey family, both lead by patriarch Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini). The show chronicled the challenges Tony faced as he tried to manage the conflicting obligations he held in both areas of his life. During it’s six season run, “The Sopranos” amassed a religious following and built up its viewership and legend each year — the show’s season four viewership reflected a high average of almost 11 million viewers, its 2007 series finale attracted almost twelve million viewers.
Over a period of five seasons, David Simon’s crime drama opus “The Wire,” which began in 2002, laid out with never-before seen depth the ongoing power struggle between street criminal organizations (primarily the Barksdale and Stansfield crews) while each continuously battled the efforts of special units of the Baltimore Police Department, who in turn were fighting though ineptness, corruption and disillusionment in the “legit” institutions of the city with many other smaller institutions that comprised the city (the shipyards, the public school system, the courts, black churches, the newspapers, city hall and the state capital) being given the same treatment.
While “The Wire” did not share the high viewership or award count of “The Sopranos,” it is highly regarded amongst critics and those who followed the series for it’s comprehensive approach in exploring the drug-related social problems of a major American city and in humanizing its prime subject matter — low income African Americans involved in the drug trade — in ways never before seen on American television.
Last Sunday, the AMC-produced, Vince Gilligan-created “Breaking Bad” which began in 2008, came to the end of its five season run. The show focuses on the transformation of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), who at one time was a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher and family man. Over the course of the series White becomes a cold, calculating and increasingly violent methamphetamine manufacturer.
At this point of its history, even before it officially wrapped up, “Breaking Bad” has begun to be considered by many to be one of the greatest television shows of all time, if not the greatest. The series has been nominated for 151 awards in total and won 50 — most lauded among its award haul is Cranston’s three consecutive Emmy wins for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series. Beyond that Cranston has been nominated four times by the Screen Actors Guild Awards for Best Actor.
I stand with those growing sentiments of “Breaking Bad” being the greatest television show — let it reign until a worthy successor comes along. More specifically, I would agree with the opinion that Walter White is now television’s greatest lead character. I state that with the knowledge that without the creative groundwork laid by its HBO predecessors, it is unlikely that “Breaking Bad,” would exist as it did, nor would Walter White exist in the amazing form we came to see him in.
The genesis of shows such as “OZ,” “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” (and more recently, “Game of Thrones,” “True Blood” and “Boardwalk Empire”) came from HBO’s willingness as a network to produce television shows that either didn’t shy from or were outwardly powered by mature subject matter, i.e., homosexual relationships, sex on screen, full frontal nudity, rape, graphic violence, profanity, and overall lurid subject matter — things that were traditionally only shown in R-rated films or worse, definitely not on TV.
The large following of “The Sopranos” and the more cultish followings of “OZ” and “The Wire” proved that there was an wide potential audience for these type of television shows and that they can come with a cultural cache that makes the network they’re on seem like more than just another network (“It’s Not TV, It’s HBO.”).
For Showtime (“Homeland,” “Nurse Jackie,” “United States of Tara”), AMC (“Mad Men,” “The Walking Dead,” “Breaking Bad”), FX (“The Shield,” “Sons of Anarchy”) and even Netflix (“House of Cards,” “Orange is the New Black”) among others, the opportunity soon came to change their network’s images and profit shares almost completely. Without the proven success of the pioneering HBO shows, it is unlikely that other cable networks and distributors would have taken chances on producing shows that included mature subject matter and that knocked said subject matter out the park.
The success of these shows also show a full evolution in the American public’s viewing interests in movies and television shows, moving from heroes with clearer motivations and backgrounds to those that classify as morally ambiguous antiheroes. Since the 1970’s at least, there have been a series of films who have established morally compromised characters to icon status (see: The Godfather trilogy, Taxi Driver, Death Wish, Scarface, Goodfellas, etc.). It has not been until the past fifteen years where television has caught up in such a way where the protagonists of a significant percentage of its shows and just about all the shows of cultural import feature antiheroes. In “Breaking Bad,” we find the greatest television antihero of them all in Walter White.
What separates “Breaking Bad” as excellent TV from its HBO predecessors and its current competitors is Walter White making the transformation from being the show’s protagonist at its beginning to being its clear antagonist by the end.
In both “The Wire” and “The Sopranos,” there are lead characters (Tony Soprano = “The Sopranos;” Avon Barksdale/Stringer Bell/Marlo Stansfield = “The Wire”) who are established as criminals from the jump, respected for their competence in running their illegal enterprises and feared for their ruthlessness in dealing with their competitors. At the start of “Breaking Bad,” Walter White’s character, was a realistic and relatable representation of an American everyman who worked not only as a high school chemistry teacher but part-time at a car wash to provide for his pregnant wife and disabled teenage son Walter Jr.
If all of these challenges were not enough, as we meet Walt he is handed what appears to be a death sentence of inoperable lung cancer and given two years to live. Ironically, this death sentence serves as the catalyst which transforms Walter White from the likeable, relatable family man into a detestable, drug manufacturing kingpin. Walt’s moral deterioration over the span of five seasons would not have been redeeming at all in reality, but it made for very good television.
Walt’s power derives from his intelligence, which separates him from most popular antiheroes, especially the characters of “The Sopranos” and “The Wire”, who established their sovereignty solely through intimidation and physical violence. Up until season 5, Walt basically used physical violence for self defense (a notable exception being “Full Measure,” the final episode of season 3, where Walt kills two rival drug deals who attempt to kill Jesse); his primary tools in climbing up the ladder of the drug hierarchy in Albuquerque, New Mexico was his skills of persuasion, manipulation and the quality of his methamphetamine.
Walt’s skills of persuasion and manipulation are made evident throughout the series in his relationship with meth cooking partner (and former student) Jesse (Aaron Paul). Walt’s overall maltreatment of Jesse throughout the show, reflected through frequent personal insults and his questioning of Jesse’ intellectual competence, didn’t stop Jesse’s constant return to Walt’s employ despite his leaving Walt multiple times and despite Walt constant meddling in Jesse’s personal life. This has led to tragic circumstances multiple times for significant women in Jesse’s life by the end of seasons 2 and 4.
Maybe the series’ greatest showing of Walter White’s mind meeting might was the much-praised final episode (“Face Off”) of the much-praised fourth season, in which Walt persuades Salamanca — a former enforcer for a Mexican cartel who at that point was an elderly, paralyzed mute who can only communicate through ringing a bell — to allow Walt to rig his wheelchair with C4 to blow both himself up and kill Gus, who had planned to visit Salamanca, in the process. This is all in spite of Walt and Jesse being responsible for the death of Tuco, Salamanca’s nephew, in season 1. As delicious as all that sounds, the final execution of this plan made it into an instant classic moment in TV history.
The most significant reflection of Walt’s intelligence is his ability to apply his knowledge of science to solve problems that lie outside the normal realm of chemistry or meth production; for example, there is the plan in season 1 to secure a large amount of methylamine, a fast acting ingredient used sometimes in the production of meth, where Walt and Jesse use the chemical compound thermite to break into a warehouse where it is stored. In season 2, fearing possible plans by Tuco to kill them, Walt devised a plan to kill Tuco with the toxic substance Ricin (which season 5 viewers know made an important return in the series finale).
Later, while on a weekend meth cooking trip in the desert, Walt and Jesse’s RV battery dies as a result of Jesse leaving the keys in the ignition. They suffer through four days stuck in the desert without any food, water, or cell phone service until Walt saves them by using gas to jump start the battery’s cells. Walter White’s ability to manipulate chemistry to eliminate his enemies and escape challenging situations makes him somewhat of a modern day MacGyver, more clever than his contemporaries in “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” while being being just as ruthless.
To this writer, the most compelling characteristic of Walter White, placing him at the forefront of great television characters, is his physical appearance. Specifically speaking, Cranston’s face as White (or Heisenberg), with its deep frown and laugh lines (on top of the sound that emerges as his gravelly voice) exudes gravitas. These qualities are what gives the character its seriousness, and they make the show’s other characters (as well as viewers) react so drastically to him at all times — loving, hating and fearing him, sometimes all at once.
As a former comic book collector, Cranston’s face reminds me of the illustrations of legendary comic book artist Jack “King” Kirby, known for drawing Captain America, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and many other Marvel and DC comic books from the 1940s through the 1970s. Furthermore, the character itself, with his manipulative, diabolical nature makes me believe that some of Gilligan’s inspiration in creating White (or developing him with his writers) may have come from the elaborate and pulpy dramatic flourishes given to comic book villains such as Dr. Doom, the primary antagonist of the Fantastic Four.
Whoever or whatever inspired Gilligan’s formation of Walter White or Cranston’s portrayal of him, is in my opinion, partially responsible for the creation of the greatest television show character of this century, if not all time. “Breaking Bad” has become a permanent fixture of the American television viewer’s discussion of the greatest TV shows of all time, and it has a lot of competition, but there is no question as to what character has left the most indelible mark on the psyche of American television watchers — say his name.
Follow Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and David Evans @davidevans9