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Television Show Analysis: Breaking Bad
I want to tell you about one of my favorite TV shows, Breaking Bad. It premiered on AMC network television on January 10, 2008, and ran five years until its final episode on September 29, 2013. It has been hugely lauded and considered one of the most excellent television series of all time (Wood). An analysis of Breaking Bad may lead to some understanding of both its popularity and its critical acclaim.
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It may be best to start with a general overview, in case the reader is one of the few people who are unfamiliar with the television series. It is the story of how Walter White, a mild-mannered, middle-aged, high school chemistry teacher, discovers he has terminal lung cancer and turns to a life of crime in order to provide financial support to his family and their future. Walter has a teenaged son, Walter White Junior, who struggles with cerebral palsy, as well as a second child on the way. Walt’s wife, Skyler, is unemployed at the start of the series, leaving Walt as the sole breadwinner of his household. With the diagnosis of stage 3 lung cancer, Walt partners with a former student, Jesse Pinkman, to produce pure crystal methamphetamine, the like of which no one has ever encountered. Through much ‘hard work,’ Walter White becomes the world’s leading producer, a multi-millionaire, and a highly sought-after criminal mastermind.
There are more than a few ways to look at this series in its entirety. Breaking Bad can be considered a rags-to-riches tale. Or, it may be seen as a spiral into criminal madness. Some may find parallels to the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It may be perceived as a saga of absolute betrayal. Ultimately, however, very few people consider it as a simple story of ‘one down on his luck fella, doing the best he can to help the ones he loves,’ which is the jumping-off premises. It does not take very long at all before the protagonist is making questionable decisions that test the functional limits of almost anyone’s moral compass (McCluskey).
At its core, Breaking Bad incessantly begs the viewer to consider: if staring death in the face, with very little to lose, to what lengths within one’s means would the viewer go, to secure the wellbeing of family and loved ones? Understandably, this is where every viewer must gage their own principles. Could you lie to your employer or police? What about lying to your spouse? Could you commit a small one-time, non-violent, non-victim crime? What about cold-blooded, premeditated multiple murder, or flooding the entire Southwest United States with an illicit drug that is going to destroy the lives of whole demographics, and cause countless overdose deaths? At one point (or more), Walter faces these quandaries, and others. Determining for one’s self where unblurred lines separate casual scruples from hard moral principles, is a strong attraction of Breaking Bad (Hills). Such boundaries are not always so easy to identify, and Breaking Bad does its level best to keep it that way. The show does an outstanding job of pulling the viewer in multiple ethical directions, sometimes with nearly equal force, causing decisions that would seem natural for some viewers becoming suddenly not-so-simple, considering the context.
However, it is a long road from where Walter White begins to where he finishes. Situations occur that incrementally increase, pushing the envelope of what’s justifiably right or wrong, based strictly on the viewers fit conscious. Some factors in play throughout the series are: ‘honestly communicating with family’, ‘what is the price of independence, and what is the cost?’, ‘is a corrupt action less depraved if there seems no other way, or if it is something that’s been previously committed?’, ‘if there is no chance of getting caught, or the reward is far greater than the risk, proceed?’, and lastly, there seems to be a lot of what I would call ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’, and ‘at what point is pride overvalued?’. Furthermore, the show explores at every twist, what is the capacity for evil hiding within each of us? There is almost certainly someplace along Walter White’s road that any viewer would find themselves parting from such turpitude. One of the hooks on the lure that is Breaking Bad, is seeing where Walter White’s decisions lead and what will lay at the next crossroad. What would the viewer now do, what will Walt do? Walter White slowly changes over five years from the good guy the viewers root for, to the bad guy who’s demise everyone hangs on the edge of their seat anxiously waiting to witness.
Another draw to the series is a voyeuristic view into the lives of people at every junction of the seedy underworld that is drugs in North America. From the hopeless junkie on the street corner to those inadvertently affected by addiction to law enforcement to the kingpin himself (both his caring family man persona and his murderous alter ego), the show contains a wide array of personifications fascinating to shadowy netherworld outsiders. It is worth noting that binge-watching serial television was coming of age just at the time Breaking Bad was televised, and this, too, is credited as a factor in the show’s success (Wood). There are also quite a few ongoing love-hate relationships, compelled by circumstances, that keeps any serial drama appealing. There is also the development of a teacher/student or mentor/mentee factor ripe with love/hate along the course of the series’ plot, begging for closure or conclusion. Ultimately, from a phycological point of view, the myriad experiences brought about through character development (both desired and otherwise) keep viewers coming back (Watkins).
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Though the show deals directly with some weighty, often dark, grim, and explicit situations, it is worth noting that Breaking Bad was broadcast over cable network television. Though the series, by nature, deals with topics of an adult characteristic, it manages to do so in a way that allowed it to continue uncensored on primetime television. There is undoubtedly some swearing and absolutely some graphic violence, but it is in a manner that adds valuable gravity to the story. It happens in the way of indicating sever natural consequences of dastardly unnatural behaviors. To illustrate that if you reach the top, beware, as down is the only way left to go, the show is bound to employ some graphic content.
From a sociocultural point of view, Breaking Bad has something to offer most who might watch. Some of the issues incorporated into the five-year television series are race and nationality, class, healthcare, sex and gender roles, business failures and successes, addiction, parenting, facing mortality, police corruption, criminal profiling, kleptomania, entrepreneurship, bullying, tax evasion, even the value of sound legal advice and continued education. Breaking Bad addresses a broad range of matters, and in so doing, provides a story with which most viewers can identify. This diverse spectrum adds tremendously to the show’s extensive appeal. At points where viewers may disagree with the decisions Walter White makes, many can sympathize with his predicament, or at least how circumstances obliged action of some kind. The vast majority of Breaking Bad spectators are not drug dealers (let alone kingpins), are not killers (especially premeditated murders). Most viewers are not scientifically inclined chemistry teachers, nor are they dying of cancer. However, there are many facets to Walter White, and a great many other characters, that are relevant to most viewers in one way or another.
It has been ten years since Breaking Bad first aired Sundays on primetime network cable television. It has been ten years since the question “when, and how, can someone get to the point of declaring ‘That is it, I’m going to manufacture and distribute crystal methamphetamine!’?” was asked. And still, five years since its conclusion, Breaking Bad holds its own as one of the most loved television series of all time (Wood). It may not have adequately answered the question to everyone’s liking, but it DID answer it.
Breaking Bad’s hero turned antihero, Walter White departs from the character everyone knows and can relate to, into an increasingly nefarious villain. Along his road, Walt disturbs many lives. He makes and loses many friends. Loved or hated, Walt defies cultural stereotypes and defies odds placed against him. He befriends rivals and betrays friends. Throughout his journey Walter White is torn between decisions affecting pride and disgrace. Along his way Walt struggles with defining both success and failure. Throughout the series, beginning to end, Breaking Bad adheres to the age-old proverb about a particular road paved with good intentions. The audience knows where such a well-paved road leads and is quite entertained, observing as Walter White takes it to its end.
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