With such a forceful character at the forefront, it falls to the most prominent secondary players to serve as the moral compass of the show. Here, this role alternates between two people – Walt’s business partner and former student, Jesse, and his initially oblivious wife, Skyler.
While Jesse is initially running his own meth cooking business under the moniker of “Cap’n Cook”, he quickly cedes to the superior ability of “Mr. White” after they begin their unlikely partnership. His character is the one most seeped in self-created consequences, falling victim to self-destructive guilt. He’s been rejected by his family much as he is later by Walt; he loses people close to him as a direct and indirect outcome of his own weaknesses and even literally ends up as a slave to an offshoot of the empire that he and Walt helped create. We are frequently bombarded by images of his aloneness, as one person after the other begins to abandon him or succumbs to their association with him. His slow but steady emotional breakdown is downright agonizing to watch, which makes his eventual freedom all the more satisfying.
Besides these two characters, the show features an impressive roster of bad guys that become progressively scarier as Walt moves up the ranks, but the show’s greatest strength lies in humanizing the bad. As much of a genius as Walt is, we only truly see the extent of his intellect as he reveals and exploits the core weakness of each these characters, be it for the overzealous Salamancas, the outwardly reputable business owner Gus Fring, or the eerily efficient Mike Ehrmantraut.
It’s as though Walt consistently needs the validation that comes from having someone close to him bear witness to his transformation. We see his barely concealed vindication as he reveals his true nature to Jesse, comes clean to Skyler, challenges Hank, and threatens the Schwartzes. He enjoys being recognized as anything but the “nice guy” that he is now perceived as being. And though he achieves his own rather twisted version of redemption at the end, it isn’t before he has waded through a significantly damaging vision of his aftermath. He does not truly realize how far he’s fallen until even Saul Goodman, the morally bankrupt lawyer who made it his purpose to clean up Walt’s messes, tells him he cannot go forward with him and his twisted plans.
Here is a show that walked the tightropes of social and racial politics, not always cleanly, with episodes that may not have always gelled perfectly with its rich overarching narrative, but that barely dents the show’s overall brilliance in its tidy balance of dark humor and heart-stopping, gut-wrenching twists.
To many fans, Breaking Bad was more than a show – it was a remarkable piece of storytelling with characters one could root for or revile at the drop of a hat. The show’s success relied heavily on how much its viewers invested in the outcome of their favorite characters, and for that, it will be missed.
Mahnoor Yawar is Articles Editor at The Missing Slate.