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Is 'Breaking Bad' Overrated?

September 05, 2012|Stephen Markley

I'm just saying: “Breaking Bad” has become a bit overrated.

Obviously, it’s great. The performances are great, the ambience of dread created throughout the show’s five seasons is great, the mechanisms by which the plot evolves tend to be great (although not all the time), but all told, in the cannon of long-form narratives told as television series(es), it’s a been a bit overblown by the hype machine. 

Again, I love “Breaking Bad”. It’s as addictive as Walter White’s blue meth. I’m just saying, let’s have a bit of perspective.

[Spoilers galore lie ahead]

Vince Gilligan’s dark drama about a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, who decides to cook meth to leave his family on solid financial footing, and who gradually turns badder and badder as he works his way up the illicit narcotics hierarchy to the role of kingpin, will obviously keep people watching. Yet it’s also a story as old as “Scarface” or time itself for that matter. Genius and hubris, tragedy and comedy and all that jazz.

It was quite obvious from the show’s earliest episodes where we were headed with Walter White, that his tragic turn and dark decisions would lead him down ever blacker roads, each decision spinning off its own chaos and bleak results. At the core, it’s a morality play about how evil actions have unintended evil consequences, and while none of this is even remotely original, it sure is great fun to watch play out.

Count me as a viewer continually annoyed by serial television writers who begin an idea without any clue of where it’s going or how it will finish (“Lost”, you can burn in hell). “Breaking Bad” is not one of these shows, and Gilligan clearly has a masterful grip on what he wants from his story. Along the way, some of Walter’s chaos has been riveting (his two-season confrontation with Gus Fring), some of it has been silly (Season Two’s airline disaster turn was the result of an unearned narrative coincidence that became a pat send-up of 9/11 tragedy-wallowing) and some of it has been downright iconoclastic (I’ll never look at limpid blue lighting the same way ever again).

The series’s success has been in its ability to breathe new life into an exhausted genre. The story moved remarkably slowly from an examination of the troubled lives of ordinary people in post-recession America to a thrilling, if typical, gangster film stretched out over several highly watchable seasons with unforgettable characters: Fring, Jesse Pinkman, and axe-weilding psychopathic Cartel twins being my favorites. 

Yet in the end, Gilligan telegraphs his moves, and it seems there are a never-ending series of “guns on the mantlepiece” so to speak. At times, I’ve fallen madly in love with “Breaking Bad’s” Chekovian moments (Season 5’s opening scene with Walter playing with his bacon, for instance) while others have annoyed me to no end. Waiting to find out which one of the guns on the mantelpiece would lead Hank to discover Walter’s secret has been nothing short of dull (although I was betting it would be Walter’s Heisenberg hat). Now we only have to watch Hank go to Skyler to warn her, at which point Skyler will go to Walt to warn him at which point Hank will become Walter’s next point of breaking badder. That Walter’s little poison pill taped behind the bedroom outlet must, at some, point get used, pretty much sets up the last eight episodes a little too easily (Okay, I can’t help it, one more prediction: Walt tries to poison Hank and ends up poisoning Skyler or Walter Jr. or that ageless baby!).

(Gilligan’s use of symbolism is another topic that would require an entirely separate column and for which I do not have the energy here. Suffice it to say, I’m split on whether it’s fascinating or too “creative writing undergrad” or both. A typical example: the omnipresent insects, and Walter’s irritated conscience turning up semi-infrequently as a droning fly.)

There is no doubt whatsoever that “Breaking Bad” is a taut, compelling, insanely well-made and entertaining television show, which would have made it truly something special in say, 2002. But now that we’ve lived through the likes of “The Wire” and “Mad Men” while “Homeland” and “Boardwalk Empire” begin their runs, I’m just saying it’s a far more predictable and limited show. In the scheme of what the television serial is becoming, it will likely prove only the fifth or sixth greatest show of its era.

Which I guess is kind of like whining that your meth is only 99.1% pure.

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