While I’m sure there are still tons of people out there who enjoy going to the movies week in and week out, over the past three or four years TV has become a more reliable source of quality material for me. Recently, I’ve developed a habit of following new shows obsessively, and for a while my favorite among them was Dexter. And why not? The show’s pretty easy to like. Though the story seems somewhat hokey (Dexter is an unfeeling, murderous yet lovable sociopath that works for the Miami Police Department—the irony!), I was intrigued by its intermittent ability to give an amusing look at our daily social interactions through Dexter’s struggle to find his place in the “normal” world while still exploring larger issues like paternal responsibility and moral culpability. Dexter was exciting, sexy, and, for a while, captivating.
But then I found Breaking Bad. This show simply blows other shows out of the water. Halfway through the series, I found myself asking why I even bothered with something as childish and thin as Dexter, and, by the end of the latest season, I decided that Breaking Bad is the best show I’ve ever seen (maybe The Wire can give some competition, but that’s a different article).
And Breaking Bad is much better than Dexter for a surprising reason. Sure, Breaking Bad has amazing cinematography, acting, etc., but the crystallizing moment for me was when I finished an episode and realized “Jesus, Walt is actually fucking crazy.”
That is what separates Breaking Bad from Dexter, and really most other shows on TV. Dexter simply can’t compare to Breaking Bad because it actually begins the story having already made the point that it seeks to prove, namely that Dexter is an emotionless sociopath. The show begins having already made this judgment of Dexter, and the audience is robbed of the experience of themselves making this assessment of him. The audience gains no further insight into the nature of Dexter’s pathology throughout the show because they aren’t given the opportunity to have any sort of objective analysis of his character. Dexter is deemed “crazy” by the shows premise itself, and, from the very beginning, the audience’s sympathy with him is never really tested. Add quirky dialogue and spotty acting (even when I loved the show I cringed whenever Deb appeared), and Dexter becomes “zany-cousin Dexter” and not as scary as he should be.
Breaking Bad is far subtler. This show amazingly balances its most rewarding “Holy shit!” moments with hopeless, sometimes frustrating moral ambiguity. The premise is a familiar story: protagonist learns he is about to die, decides to do something crazy, yada yada. But by the end of the first season, it becomes apparent that the show is much deeper, and so is its protagonist. The show perfectly plays with the audience’s sympathy in the beginning; we of course know that Walt shouldn’t cook meth, lie to his family, or manipulate a former student, but we understand why he’s doing it. The audience knows he is reprehensible, but the portrait of the struggling high school teacher with a family is so convincingly painted that we can’t help be empathetic, or at the very least interested.
As the show progresses, however, the audience sees Walt do things that we may not be able to forgive until we are finally forced to make the decision either to stick with Walt through the whole journey or discount him as a deviant. As I try to put my finger on a specific moment when I fully swayed in one direction or another, I realize that it’s impossible for me to be so specific. His dinner with Gretchen (capped by a really exemplary “F U”), the ending of the episode “Half Measure,” or even the finale of season 4 certainly tested my empathy to it’s limits, but none in and of themselves managed to break my relationship with Walt.
But isn’t that exactly how it is to have a relationship with a person like Walt? It is rare that we can break a relationship with someone just on the basis of one transgression; it is the accumulation of minor and sometimes major faults in a person that leads us to break from them completely. This struggle is stunningly portrayed in his wife, Skyler, herself forced to break bad at first just to spite Walt (her affair with Beneke) and later to help him (her laundering money and running the car wash). This subtlety makes this show really authentic: the viewer really does have a relationship with this character, and the show becomes a test of when we ourselves are unable to maintain it any longer. I’ve talked to fellow viewers who stopped following Breaking Bad around the third season, or the time when our allegiance to Walt first becomes really tested. Their loss of interest in the show may be because they have already made the unpleasant assessment of Walt and, as would probably happen in the real world, simply lost interest in him.
The finale of season 4, which was originally intended to be the series finale, seems like a perfect ending. When Skyler asks Walt to tell her what happened with Gus, Walt simply replies “I won.” This statement is the fitting end to the series because it is a perfect encapsulation of Walt’s pathology; after irreparable emotional damage to his family, literally crippling his brother-in-law, destroying Jesse’s relationship with everyone he loved, and nearly ruining his own life, Walt still thinks that he has won. This is the pathology of Walt, and it is something that was there from the beginning of the show. Of course we can say, “There’s a little Walt in all of us,” but I think that actually takes away from the shows genius (though that thought is probably true). The show becomes really amazing when we look at it as a portrayal of someone who was always innately capable of doing the things he did and was never conditioned all that much by his experiences. Walt has always been underachieving and resentful, and from the most minute interactions in the beginning of the series (think of his unnecessarily harsh comments on student’s work), we could see degrees of spite where it never really seemed to fit. Maybe Walt got a raw deal in life, but, regardless of that, he was same the person by the end of the show as he was when we met him.
So what to expect from the final season after this fitting ending? I think we’ll see Walt assimilate back into the environment he was able to camouflage in so well at the beginning of the show. The show becomes a little scary in this sense; if Walt was so able to fit into our normal routine at the beginning of the show, then he should be just as able to fit back in by the end of the show. Walt took his opportunity to break bad and succeeded precisely because of this ability. After Breaking Bad, I’m left feeling that maybe we’ve all met Walt at some point in our lives, and may never even know it until we ourselves are given the chance to break bad.