Now the meth smoke has cleared a bit, and we have begun to grow accustomed to lives without science (bitch) and ones who knock, perhaps we can begin to historicise Breaking Bad.
For mine, the show’s greatest quality was its intrinsic watchability. Portlandia credited Battlestar Galactica with possessing this attribute, but more than anything else in the new pantheon I’ll refer to as premium television, I think Breaking Bad best realized that quality of supreme addictiveness.
Which distinguishes it immediately from the programs that formed the first wave of premium television: the HBO dramas of the early ’00s and the AMC, Showtime, and Netflix serials that formed their successors, as canonized in first draft form by Alan Sepinwall in The Revolution Was Televised. And before I continue, I’d like to make a point about this new canon and about premium television: although it does refer to a style and a business model, as a mark of quality, it’s a poor one. For a start, Game of Thrones is middling and Battlestar Galactica is worse. But more importantly, shows that exist outside of the temporal, cinematic, dramatic, and geographic realm in question are as meaningful, as thoughtful, and as purely entertaining as any of HBO’s marquee properties. None of these premium programs approach the genius of the first ten seasons of The Simpsons. I probably prefer the ten minutes of Adventure Time I see a week to any “serious” television. Gilmore Girls was as well written. Seinfeld was as formally inventive. Frontline and The Thick Of It and Puella Magi Madoka Magica should not be considered lesser for being produced outside the United States. Premium television is a category as much about the wealth and cultural cachet of the people who talk about it as anything else.
But genres and canons don’t vanish because their criteria for inclusion is unfair and Breaking Bad, like Deadwood and Oz before it, claims an importance other properties cannot. And what’s interesting about Breaking Bad is that, rather than help create the tradition of premium television, it demanded entry into a caste that had already been created for it. Like its channel-mate and contemporary Mad Men, it was built in the thematic, stylistic, and aesthetic mode of its recent predecessors.
And yet, formally, Breaking Bad was a departure from those. The mark of The Sopranos and The Wire — perhaps the quintessential premium TV brands — was their complexity. The Wire, in particular, was famously slow. It could be hilarious and absorbing and compelling, but it was prickly and demanding and shrugged off the casual viewer. The Sopranos was in possession of more immediate charms, but its operatic nature led it into strange territories and away from spectacle as often as it gestured toward it. The Sopranos was a character study and was prepared to abandon action and excitement for long stretches or to leave great plot arcs unresolved if they interfered with the show’s intense focus on Tony’s inner workings. Mad Men, made by Matthew Weiner, a Sopranos alum, was cast in this mold. In its early seasons, at least, Mad Men seemed wilful in its determination to elevate its aesthetic and atmospheric details over any other consideration.
This “difficulty” added to the shows’ reputation. We want to believe that hard things are worthwhile, and these programs made a good case for the connection between slowly revealed charms and quality by possessing both slowly revealed charms and quality. Breaking Bad, however, both played into these expectations and denied them.
It is true that, particularly in its early episodes, past its gripping opener, Breaking Bad was almost perverse in its willingness to obsess over process. But its soul lay in delivering quick hit of excitement after quick hit, kind of like the methamphetamine whose manufacture provided the show’s impulse. The early stretches of agony served only to make the highs higher.
Because, despite its pretensions of being something smarter, Breaking Bad was steely in its focus on the next high. Character and motivation and reality could be flexible: was Walter White a man who cared about amassing money or would he throw out an entire batch of meth because he was unhappy with the quality? Was Hank Schrader a racist goofball, the War on Drugs at its worst manifested in human form, or a thoughtful and unexpected hero? Was Jesse Pinkman a sinister fuck-up evil enough to push product at rehab meetings or a confused kid at the mercy of men more decisive and powerful and less empathetic than he was. (Note, for instance, that Jesse’s love for children isn’t as complex or ultimately dreadful as Tony Soprano’s affection for animals: it just is; it demonstrates his goodness in contrast with Walt’s lack of the same.) The writers operated without larger purpose: they set up for themselves astonishing spectacles and then struggled to concoct the details that would make sense from their showmanship.
Breaking Bad was like a soap or an action thriller: it lived for the grand moment, the thrilling set piece, even if it didn’t make sense. Was it believable that Walt could blow up Tuco’s headquarters through chemistry wizardry and cojones alone? That Gus Fring would die adjusting his tie after half his face had been blown off? That ricin could act as the totemic force of sorcery the show claimed it to possess over the final two seasons? That Walt, the most wanted man in America, could make his way from New Hampshire to Albuquerque undetected, as he did in the finale, and rig up a machine gun in the trunk of his car that perfectly, gloriously macheted his enemies precisely as he had planned?
In fact, the finale does more than anything to make the show smaller than it seemed. Where The Sopranos and The Wire both had endings that were open enough to enlarge the seasons that had come before them, either by lacking conclusiveness or suggesting large cyclical forces, Breaking Bad cauterised itself definitively. The ending is so sensitive to its protagonist’s pretenses that Emily Nussbaum’s idea of it representing the fantasy of a dying man made thematic, albeit not narrative, sense.
None of this is to argue against Breaking Bad's greatness. It was magnificently executed, and there is one arena in which stands above all contenders: cinematography. It was gorgeously shot, making inspired use of its landscape and the cultural and historical connotations of its corner of America. It did much to capture the zeitgeist of its time, both by centering its story on health care at a time the United States was undertaking a seismic debate over its system of medical insurance, and by shifting the cultural representation of drug abuse and trafficking from an inner city concern to a suburban and rural one.
But if premium television demands narrative and thematic complexity over action, if it requires character study rather than soap twists, Breaking Bad does not deserve to be spoken about alongside the true greats of the form, The Sopranos and The Wire.
Yet Breaking Bad, if its successors — Game of Thrones, say, or The Walking Dead, or House of Cards — are any indication, suggests our definition of premium television has expanded beyond the initial staid bounds of its earliest incarnations. Gauche crowd-pleasing is no longer verboten; in fact, if executed well, it is celebrated. Television is allowing itself more leeway to depart from the strict bounds of respectability without fearing it will lose its hard won status of being considered respectable. Premium television, once rarefied as the domain of low audience share and critical acclaim, can now make its claim to greatness even while being lurid or tacky or pandering.