With the (now controversial) Academy Awards sweep for Sam Mendes’s American Beauty (1999), Hollywood made the bed for its love affair with the mid-life crisis.
If it’s because there’s something to be said about straight, white men of a certain age running the industry, then the fate of Walter White is what they deserve.
If you don’t know what to watch next, AMC’s Breaking Bad (2008-2013) is available to stream on Netflix. Showrunner Vince Gilligan saw the series win sixteen Primetime Emmy Awards.
Leading man Bryan Cranston took home four of them, co-star Aaron Paul earned three, and leading lady Anna Gunn won two.
The neo-Western crime drama, set and shot on location in Albuquerque, spins the yarn of Walter White (Cranston), a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with lung cancer who produces and distributes meth with former student Jesse Pinkman (Paul) to provide for his family.
Simultaneously, Walt finds himself trapped in a violent criminal underworld that threatens not only himself, but also the lives of his wife, Skyler Lambert (Gunn), and his DEA agent brother-in-law, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), who he’s desperate to keep in the dark about his business.
Through it all, Walt becomes an increasingly powerful (and dangerous) drug lord.
The theme of Breaking Bad is addiction, and the key to addiction is escalation. Walt, the “average,” domesticated suburbanite, grows to be as addicted to his dark alter ego, “Heisenberg,” as users are addicted to his meth, and as addicted as the binge watcher is to his downfall.
Breaking Bad is the once-in-a-lifetime show that improves with each season until it reaches that even rarer “perfect” finale, intensifying its mythos to such a transcendent crescendo, it feels as though the writers had the entire series charted from the beginning.
It is a slow burn from an intoxicating initial hit to a dizzying high with nowhere to go but down, which is why Gilligan led the noble maneuver to bow out gracefully at the production’s peak, rather than beat a dead horse.
His ethos, on the other hand, lands a somewhat more discordant note. In the Breaking Bad universe, actions have consequences, and crime doesn’t pay.
Still, many fans fail to see Walt’s abusive, narcissistic behavior for what it is, instead demonizing one of his longest-suffering victims: his own wife, Skyler.
Skyler White is something of a lovechild between Patty Hearst and Lady Macbeth, a housewife who wakes up one day to find her American Dream perverted into her worst nightmare.
The home she made is now a prison, the family she raised is now in jeopardy, and the man she married is the monster who started it all.
As she is forced to launder his blood money to protect her children from the truth about their father, Skyler cannot scrub her own hands clean. It’s a life she never asked for, and it’s a cross she’ll have to bear forever.
She is hypocritical and manipulative, but her flaws are what help her survive in Heisenberg’s unforgiving empire.
Overall, she’s a contradictorily-faceted, nuanced, tragic character, played to pitch perfection by Gunn. She is hardly the megalomaniac Walt is – where Heisenberg says family is his motivation to rationalize his deadly lifestyle, for Skyler, it’s the truth.
Regardless, the fanbase turned against her with such vitriol, the actress herself was the recipient of death threats.
Most likely, it’s because Walt’s role as the “antihero” at the focal point of the narrative seduces the audience into sympathizing with him, falling for the “meek,” “mild-mannered” persona which turns out to be just another lie.
It’s a masterfully verisimilitudinous character study, but it unfairly cuts Skyler into an antagonistic figure – in the end, she is right to condemn Walt’s choices, even if he ostensibly made them for the sake of her, because he is ultimately what destroys everything they have together.
For the objective, ethical consumer, with enough critical remove to see behind Walt’s mask, Breaking Bad is a work of art that will be studied centuries from now like we study Shakespeare today.
Sir Anthony Hopkins penned an open letter to the cast praising their performances as the greatest of all time, and Cranston and Paul deliver, as protagonist and deuteragonist, respectively.
Even though Cranston isn’t the sociopath Walt is (or, at least, one would hope), this turn in his career is still a deeply personal one for him. Before Breaking Bad, he was a comedic staple on NBC’s Seinfeld (1989-1998) and Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle (2000-2006).
Heisenberg is as miraculous a transformation for Cranston as it is for Walt, a chameleonic alchemy of dynamism further tempting us onto Walt’s side at the beginning, when he’s at his most harmless, only to find ourselves, much like Skyler, bedfellows with a villain by the end.
Toxic masculinity and heterosexual, Caucasian, male egocentrism stand trial in American Beauty on meth, for the crime of vampiric selfishness, with five seasons of evidence to convict the accused.
Gilligan’s verdict ought to serve as a cautionary tale for all the other Walter Whites out there who seek empowerment through oppression.
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