I admit I didn't join the Breaking Bad bandwagon for years. In 2008, a screenwriting professor suggested I watch the show after I wrote a similar screenplay about a woman with breast cancer who decides to take back her life—but I held off. In the flurry of grad school life, I didn't want to get sucked in to what everyone said was a completely addictive show. Until now.
In the last week, I've binge-watched every episode of Breaking Bad. I've been surprised, overwhelmed, humored, angered, saddened, and excited, and that's probably what show creator Vince Gilligan wants.
[Spoiler alert—I'm going to talk about all sorts of details in the show.]
The show, if you don't know, centers on high school chemistry teacher Walter White, who finds out he has inoperable lung cancer and embarks on producing and selling pure methamphetamine to secure his family's future.
It's interesting to binge-watch a television show that in many ways, is about addiction- addiction to drugs, addiction to money, addiction to control, addiction to feeling important after a life of being average, in Walter's case. Watching episodes back to back also allows for a comparative visual lens. I learned just as much from the show's lighting as I did from dialogue and performance. In one of the later episodes, Walter stands in complete darkness, telling wife Skylar that they're going to be "okay." Of course they're not going to be okay. The show's changing visual design is a great complement to Walter's manipulation of everyone around him.
In a way, the show's drama is applicable to the world and society in which we live. Yes, it's television. And, yes, it's about high-stakes meth deals. But the writing mirrors the consequences of the real world in that the things we do and put out into the world come back to us, and to others, in small and sometimes catastrophic ways.
No one ever gets away with anything on this show, which allows for the merging of hero and villain. In fact, almost everyone in the show is a slight mix of both. There's a great play of action and consequence. Seemingly small lies and actions become larger, cataclysmic events that end up impacting everyone.
Recall Jane (Krysten Ritter) instructing Jesse (Aaron Paul) how to lay down to sleep after shooting heroin, so as not to choke to death. She later succumbs to this fate. Learning of her death, her father, an air traffic controller, causes a mid-air collision when he goes back to work while grieving. In one of the greatest dramatic turns, Walter (Bryan Cranston) wrestles with whether to save Jane as she chokes to death, considering that doing so would enable both her and Jesse to continue down a road of addiction to another inevitable death. To experience Walter's reasoning, (if there is any) in this highly charged situation is a feat that the show's writers accomplish, albeit painfully.
Everything that the characters are doing is "wrong" in so many ways, but the way they make choices are very much human and are deeply felt by the audience, despite their extreme and alien circumstances. Giancarlo Esposito's Gus Fring becomes hardened after witnessing his partner and lover shot to death in front of him. He later masks his growing meth-empire in a Los Pollos Hermanos business franchise, and a crisp, calm demeanor that makes him incredibly fascinating to watch. There's a sense that at any moment he might explode but seldom does so, adding an element of surprise you come to expect, but are unable to predict. And Saul Goodman (played by Bob Odenkirk) is the "bus bench" lawyer who, while corrupt, manages to add warmth and humor to every scene he's in. So much so, that he's scored his own spin-off show.
Because we recognize those very human feelings of guilt in Jesse, and the overwhelming self-interest that overpowers Walt, we are able to enter that world, then question why. Why, after a lead character has lied, ruined and ended lives, and still managed to cradle his young child, would we want to return to watch? Because it's drama, and great drama does that.
Read other screen columns by Nijla Mu'min.