The caption atop the poster heralding the fifth and final season of Breaking Bad may as well be referring to its own popularity. But while overzealous fans readily compare Vince Gilligan’s meth drama to Shakespearean tragedy, it doesn’t deserve the crown.
Instead, we should see Breaking Bad for what it is: stylish escapism dressed up as thoughtful drama. The real tragedy is that the show’s weaknesses stem from its biggest drawcard: over-indulgence in the modern anti-hero trope.
Credit where credit’s due: Brian Cranston’s transformation into Walter White/Heisenberg is not just convincing, but distractingly so. This would be fine, if not for the fact that the writers, too, seem distracted, to the detriment of plausible plot development and character complexity.
The storyline is mostly a tedious merry-go-round of Walt’s resistance and then capitulation to the meth business. It resembles a retro video game whereby Walt uses his powers of chemistry to defeat progressively harder bosses. He one-ups the laughably overplayed Tuco Salamanca in Season One by exploding fulminated mercury disguised as meth, and caps it with a corny, superhero catchphrase: “a little tweak of chemistry”. In Season Four, he constructs a bomb to kill Gustavo Fring, whose over-the-top death undermines the more grounded qualities of the character.
Somehow, Walt’s antics continue right under the nose of his super-detective brother-in-law, Hank, who doesn’t manage to equate Walt’s suspicious behavior or chemistry genius with the proliferation of blue meth by this mysterious Heisenberg until it’s actually spelled out for him.
Meanwhile, by the fifth season Walt is a pathological liar, a manipulative, villainous, kid-poisoning megalomaniac. His sympathetic qualities are stripped from his character in Season One as emphasis increasingly falls on showing what an unmitigated badass he is. While most television series (until recently) of similar production value invited us to partake in the actions of their protagonists to some extent, these characters were a nuanced mix of sympathetic and repulsive qualities.
Breaking Bad, on the other hand, confuses amorality with character complexity. Walt is constrained by the hammered-home chemistry motif, which reduces meaningful reflection upon his actions to a simple trajectory, a ‘study of change’. The moral awareness of sidekick Jesse Pinkman (one of Breaking Bad’s more rounded regulars) and Walt’s isolation are not enough to offset the show’s broader problems with characterisation or the allure of Walt’s slick, menacing one-liners like, “Stay out of my territory”, or, “I am the one who knocks!”
The resulting distance in empathy means that instead of grappling with the subtleties of Walt’s nature, we can only await the next time we get a chance to vicariously don the Heisenberg hat-and-sunnies and exact cathartic revenge. Against whom? Enter Skyler White (played by Anna Gunn), embodiment of domestic oppression.
I’m not the first to point out that Skyler’s characterisation is at best unsympathetic and at worst sexist. Most if not all the dialogue in the first episode between Skyler and Walt involve the former nagging her humiliated, two-jobs-working, cancer-riddled husband. Her house is the claustrophobic antithesis to the dangerous but expansive desert frontier Walter so often finds himself.
We barely get any other insight into Skyler’s character before it is set in stone. Attempts to correct this by depicting her distress (as she eerily walks into the backyard pool) or empowering her (through her infidelity with Ted) are too late, and merely perpetuate the perception amongst fans she is holding Walt back from instigating the more enjoyable parts of the show. This hatred toward Skyler can be seen in the popular ‘Fuck Skyler White’ Facebook page which has almost 30 000 ‘likes’ and the death threats received by Gunn.
Audience and textual studies tell us popular shows are often polysemic: they contain junctures of transparency or ambiguity to invite multiple readings. It’s therefore debatable whether the problem lies more in the way Skyler is written, or whether it reflects existing social power structures. Still, I don’t remember the same amount of venom being directed at Edie Falco/Carmella Soprano of The Sopranos.
There’s little doubt the final episode of Breaking Bad will be an aptly morbid end to what has often been a compelling and addictive series. But without greater effort to counterbalance the coolness of the amoral protagonist with legitimate internal conflict and sympathetic, contradictory perspectives, Breaking Bad and the anti-hero are bound to end up as hollow as the annoyingly righteous archetypes they set out to challenge.