I have, of course, entirely missed the boat on this, as ever, and no doubt it’s all been said already and the Sauron’s eye of popular culture moved on to fresh pastures. But I just saw the final episode of Breaking Bad last night, and felt the need to muse a little on this extraordinary show. I’m going to try to avoid major spoilers in the text but I can’t say the same for the comments, so if you haven’t seen it, just go and watch it. Then come back.
There’s been a true revolution in television drama over the past decade or two. It’s becoming almost old hat to assert that the small screen has taken over from the big as the place where exciting work is aired. But even so it’s hard to think of long-running tv series that maintain their consistency, let alone present any kind of coherent arc from beginning to end. Indeed the commercial imperatives of US TV make it likely shows will be kept going at least a little bit past their best. The Shield had a fantastic first couple of seasons and a dynamite last, but sagged in the middle. Battlestar Galactica produced two superb seasons, one reasonable one, then wandered off into the philosophical desert. Deadwood was brilliant but meandering. By the end it was clear the writers of Lost had been lost all along.
Breaking Bad’s first season – somewhat hamstrung by the writing strike – was maybe no better than promising, but since then it’s been brilliant, and the fifth and final season was truly stupendous, more or less every episode a proper corker packed with shocks, horrors, big moments and huge payoffs. And it maintained its focus throughout, kept a steadily mounting pace in spite of the commercial pressures of tv, had a thematic purity that you very rarely see. Bold in concept and meticulous in execution, it’s maybe the most impressive example of a single, focused story brought to long-form TV. The closest you’ll come to a televised novel.
It’s an absolutely towering central performance from Bryan Cranston – hard these days to imagine as the Dad from Malcolm in the Middle – by turns pitiful, vile, likeable, self-defeating, terrifying, and yet somehow combining into a totally coherent and believable human. You believe in him as a harassed and hopeless chemistry teacher. You believe in him as a ruthless criminal mastermind. By the end of the final series he’s done some truly appalling things but when he’s finally portrayed as a monster unmasked you feel his sense of injustice at it because each step along the path has been natural, believable, even inevitable, his righteous motives of providing for his family after his death mutating by deft degrees into greed, ambition, self-preservation and a driving desire to win by any means necessary, the nature of the show changing with him to cover new ground, a grander scale, and an ever darkening moral climate.
The style undoubtedly developed over the course of the five series run, and became something truly exceptional I think. It often seems understated because what the camera is pointing at is so humdrum, banal, routine. There are long pauses, endless silences, in the desert of New Mexico, and in the deserts of the character’s emotional lives. Wide shots are sometimes left punishingly long (often the mark of great editing is not intricate cutting, but the confidence to let one shot breathe). There are strange, unsettling angles, weird fish eyes and points of view taken of smoke, equipment, cameras, faces looming disconcertingly into shot, distorted, monstrous. There are concentrations on odd details, ultra close-ups, recurrent motifs that in some way encapsulate the message or theme of a given episode. There are frequent glimpses of the past, reinterpreted with hindsight, and hints of what is to come whose horrible significance only becomes clear with time. There are occasional barn-storming grandstand sequences, like the one in which ten witnesses are murdered in prison within two minutes to the merciless ticking of Walt’s lovely new watch, the use of sound reminding me of a classic sequence from John Boorman’s Point Blank, in which tension builds to the tapping of Lee Marvin’s shoes as he strides implacably to a reckoning. Sometimes the visual inventiveness is far quieter – a brilliant moment in the final episode when Walt’s wife Skyla, sitting in her kitchen in static wide shot near a faux wood clad pillar, receives a phone call warning her that Walt might be on the way. You begin to suspect that Walt is in fact already in the house. In a more typical show he might have stepped out of a doorway or moved into shot as his wife put the phone down. Here the camera begins to crawl inexorably forward, so that Walt is revealed, behind the pillar, as having been standing in the middle of the room the whole time.
But, as with any great tv, or film, or books, it’s the characters that really make it. The acting, and the writing, is great throughout. It’s hard to think of anyone who doesn’t convince. Walt overcomes a raft of psychos, thugs and gangsters through his ill-starred criminal career, but his most dangerous and memorable antagonists – Fring, Mike, Jessie at various times and in various ways and finally, awfully, inevitably, Hank – are all fully realised people, often admirable in their own ways, usually considerably more sympathetic than is Walt himself. Walt is at times truly loathsome – small, vicious, selfish, manipulative, ruthlessly ambitious – and yet he remains human right to the end. Indeed there is a kind of redemption in his desperate attempts to hold things together that his own actions have irrevocably blown apart. He retains our sympathy because he remains utterly believable as a person, despite the fact he has done unforgivable things, then worse, then worse.