As Breaking Bad concluded its historic run tonight, something became absolutely undeniable. We are currently in a new golden age of television, and we just lost our brass ring. Revolutionary programs like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, and Breaking Bad have been some of the most compelling shows in the history of television. What was the secret to the success of these programs? The vision of their respective creators.
The Shield, in particular, never let up. Every week was full of tension, every moment had to be mentally retained, no moment was wasted. The final three episodes were, arguably, the best send-off in television history. Creator Shawn Ryan and his impeccable staff spent six seasons building a house of cards that they knew they would one day destroy right on top of main character Vic Mackey (played by Michael Chiklis). Breaking Bad chief Vince Gilligan had an even more concise plan.
“When I pitched the series from the get-go, I used the sort of charming, if not overused at this point, glib line of, ‘We’re going to take Mr Chips and turn him into Scarface’.”
This has been the line repeated over and over by Gilligan when asked about the mission statement and how he pitched the concept.. From the very beginning, he knew it would take five seasons (granted, the fifth one is several episodes longer) to tell this story. He wasn’t always sure of exactly how it would end but that statement doth imply quite a bit.
Oddly enough, it was The Shield (and other similiar programs) and its male anti-hero that made FX pass on BB. Finding a home at AMC, Gilligan began the journey of Walter White, a mild-mannered high school chemistry. After being diagnosed with lung cancer and knowing the daunting financial future that awaited his family without him, he becomes a methamphetamine manufacturer in order to provide for his wife and children after he’s gone.
The idea and subsequent act is deplorable, yes, but also admirable. It was a tightrope that the show walked and inspired the viewer to follow along at their own peril. Like The Sopranos and The Shield, it tested viewers to see how far down they would follow the lead characters into their respective darkness and still root for them. However, what sets Walter’s story apart is that we were all there at the beginning of his descent. We could sympathize with his pathology. After all, what wouldn’t you be willing to do for your family? Just like Walter, we gave ample justification to his actions because we wanted to believe what he always said, “Everything I do, I do for this family”.
As riveting as the story is, the masses don’t buy it without a talent capable of personifying it. In the role of a lifetime, Bryan Cranston has delivered the performance of a lifetime. His portrayal of Walter White is TV’s answer to Daniel Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainfield in There Will Be Blood. There may never be a better match for actor and character again. While Cranston deserves a lot of the accolades for doing a lot of the heavy lifting, he was hardly alone in his excellence. Anna Gunn has done her best work in the series, as Walter’s wife Skyler, in the last two seasons. Going from overbearing, domineering, and vindictive to frail, frightened, and victimized in such a short period can come across as nonsensical but her performance morphed so gradually as the weight of Skyler’s guilt became more difficult to keep in.
As the final showdown, or series of showdowns, drew near, everyone raised their game. We saw more diversity out of Dean Norris (Hank Schrader) and Betsy Brandt (Marie Schrader) as well as some real desperation and fear from RJ Mitte (Walter Jr.) and (normally just comic relief) Bob Odenkirk (attorney Saul Goodman). Along the way, they have given us powerhouse performances in villainous roles from Raymond Cruz (Tuco), Giancarlo Esposito (Gus), Jonathan Banks (Mike), and Michael Bowen (this season’s Jack). Even as wonderful as those supporting players are, there was a real hidden gem in the cast.
Jesse Pinkman was a character that was never meant to see Season Two. The likability of Aaron Paul’s portrayal made him impossible to get rid of. His game rose with every season. As the writers found different and horrific ways to torture Jesse, Paul took it all in and turned a throwaway character into two Emmy Awards.
As the curtain closed on this incredible series (SPOILER ALERT), nearly every conceivable plot thread was tied at the end. Every character’s journey paid off. Everyone gets what they had coming, the ending they deserved. Not just the characters, but the viewers. Sunday nights are going to be empty without that knot in the stomach that only a series so powerful and wonderfully paralyzing can induce. Walt may have said that he did it all for himself, but we were right there with him. The pride and love he ultimately felt for Jesse is equal to that of what the writers and directors of the show put in. We felt that pride and love for the last six years and now it’s time to say goodbye to Breaking Bad and W.W., our star and, now, our perfect silence.