There is a reason the word “television” carries more weight today than “movies,” and AMC’s “Breaking Bad” has played no small part in it. It may be true that the trend for well-written, inventive cable dramas started long before Walter White’s journey from cancer-ridden schoolteacher to psychotic drug lord widened the scope of the small screen.
But it is this show that shines as a shining example of TV that can introduce endless plot twists without going for cheap shocks, rises in popularity without comprising quality and satisfy an audience time and again by not overindulging them.
Consider this: It will be hard to let go when the show finally concludes a year from now. Writer Vince Gilligan has done an incredible job of creating a world where believable characters deal with the increasingly dire consequences of their actions.
There is Skyler, whose commitment to her family is tested by the poisonous influence of her changing husband; Mike, a dead-eyed “business security” man whose strict professionalism is compromised by the power-plays within the drug trade; and Jesse, a former student and partner in crime of Walter’s who must decide whether or not to follow his associate into unredeemable situations.
Finally, there is Walter himself, a man who many viewers felt sympathetic toward when the show began. As a teacher and part-time car-wash attendant behind on his medical bills, we feel pity toward him and for his wasted potential as a brilliant scientist earlier in his life.
Then, as each season wears on, there approaches an invisible line that we dread Walter will cross: a line that will define him as a villain rather than an everyman forced to commit villainous acts. As he gets ever closer to this line, it becomes more difficult to tell if Walter is still the man using unorthodox schemes to get money for himself and his family, or whether he has transformed into an immoral monster to be avoided at all costs.
That brings us to the heart of this show, the key to its dark appeal. The characters are morally ambiguous, their stories engaging, yet there is another, invisible character whose unannounced entrances shock us in a way no mere plot contrivance could.
This character could be called karma, or fate, or even a higher being, but there is a definite force that takes each character’s moral decisions and guarantees a return of some kind on a future date.
Unlike in real life, the world of “Breaking Bad” seems to adjust the circumstances of its characters to the choices they make. With so many horrible incidents adding up for which Walter White is accountable, can he make it out of this show alive?
Or will the hidden character, that awful moral force, step in to pay a visit? Although there are many clues (alluding to the inevitable) about what may happen in the eight episodes to come in 2013, writer Vince Gilligan can offer the clearest: “I like to believe … that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes decades for it to happen … I want to believe there’s a heaven, but I can’t not believe there’s a hell.”
Without giving much away, one can say that in this past season, the viewer will be presented with an ultimatum: They must decide once and for all if they are going to continue to root for Walter White despite his actions, or dismiss him to the singularly miserable fate he may very well deserve.
With half the western world finding it increasingly difficult to avoid the buzz generated by last week’s mid-season finale, there will no doubt be another wave of Breaking Bad initiates watching entire seasons over two-day periods.
What they will discover is a snake’s nest of the things that haunt human nature: the petty emotions, greed, vengeance and especially the distance they can take one person if he or she takes the first step.
ANDREW RUSSELL can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.