On saying goodbye to Breaking Bad, the greatest show of the decade.
By Mahnoor Yawar
“And as to you Death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to try to alarm me.” – Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
When first released, Whitman’s magnum opus served as a subversive ode to material reward and wonder in a largely spiritual society. In a show like Breaking Bad, where moral quandaries are routinely set aside in the face of instant wealth or power, there are few symbols more fitting. The book is a gift to the protagonist from an adoring assistant, who soon succumbs to his boss’s ruthless quest for dominance. This book is kept as a trophy, in a self-indulgent boost to his ego, and ultimately serves as the catalyst to his own downfall in an act of true, and perhaps somewhat literal, poetic justice.
The show has a fascinating premise– if the end was near, how quickly would you shed your inhibitions? When oft-undermined yet brilliant high school chemistry teacher and car wash employee Walter White is diagnosed with lung cancer, it sets off a chain of events like no other. Knowing he has a limited amount of time to secure the future of his wife and children, as well as to leave his mark on the world, he makes the unique decision to partner with a burned out former student and launch a rather dubiously motivated meth business (later empire). For five seasons, fans have followed his startling transformation from meek family man to ruthless meth lord, and now it comes to a thoroughly satisfying, albeit uncharacteristically neat, conclusion.
Creator Vince Gilligan (previously a writer and producer for The X-Files) had already planted himself firmly among television royalty, but this – his true masterpiece – is a triumph that pairs the nuance of a Shakespearean tragedy with the action and drama of a Tarantino film. That this is a show destined to spawn volumes of academic research is a given. It is a work of art, rich with symbolism and literary allusion, offering a unique portrait into individual agency and its myriad consequences. We see a man who turns his social invisibility into his greatest strength, and rips apart the fabric of his own world while hiding in plain sight.
Driven completely by its characters, Breaking Bad never shies away from testing its audience and their support. Walter White makes a compelling anti-hero, repeatedly making viewers question the extent of his moral ambiguity. You root for him right from the start, as he is henpecked by his domineering and very pregnant wife, or when his students witness him wiping down tires at the car wash where he has to work a thankless second job, or even when his cocky brother-in-law Hank commandeers attention at his own 50th birthday party. You want the little guy, the boring guy, the loser to have just one win. Except his “wins” get darker and darker, beyond reproach, and you’re left to question how far your sense of morality can withstand being in his corner.