Yes, this one was a long time coming, but I owe it to myself to get to it finally.
I think it will come as no surprise that I love Breaking Bad. Loved. My feelings toward it have become more complicated over the past few years. Regarded by many as one of the finest shows to grace television screens, certainly since The Wire, Breaking Bad is largely responsible for the uptick in prestige television dramas in the 2010s because it proved that razor-sharp plotting and clever cinematography not only wins awards, it makes bank. The show accelerated right up through its bombastic finale, and the episode Ozymandias is still, six years later, the highest-rated episode of television on IMDb.
But now that the phenomenon has passed and we’ve seen what it’s wrought, my enjoyment of the series isn’t as sincere as it once was. You look at its core audience and their takeaways, you look at the types of characters it portrays and how it portrays them, its stereotypes, its violence, and the fact that it took them four and a half seasons to figure out, “Oh hey, maybe we should make sure people know we don’t like Neo-Nazis,” and the show starts to slip. It’s still an impressive example of film craft, but it’s worth a re-examination now that the dust has settled and the hype has been transferred to other projects.
3P Reviews: Breaking Bad, Season One – ***
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: Oops, I Guess We’re Crime Lords Now
You know the premise by now, as it’s one of the key hooks of the series: an overqualified high school chemistry teacher is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and, worried about leaving nothing but medical debt for his family when he’s gone, teams up with one of his former students to manufacture and sell methamphetamine.
This is an impressive premise, enough to get my attention and keep the show at the back of my mind for a while before I watched it. However, it wasn’t enough to actually push me over the edge until I stumbled across an episode while Season Three was airing and I realized how it delivered its story. Much praise is duly granted to the show for its tense, creative plotting, well-realized characters, and stellar dialogue, but that’s not what made me sit down and finally start the show.
Breaking Bad is a horror comedy.
No, really. It has all of the markers, and fits the build right up to the end, even as it becomes more action-focused and glamorous.
Horror comedy invites a lot of images, usually of light-hearted horror films or comedy films with a horror aesthetic, but the clearest examples of the genre are pretty well-defined. Take Shaun of the Dead. The film starts with a mundane setup to establish characters, as do many horror films, but when the real horrors begin, the film uses them initially for slapstick comedy. By juxtaposing scenes of genuine tension with humorous anecdotes and low-stakes decision-making, the film highlights the absurdity of zombies without losing their (pardon the pun) bite. As the tension ramps up, the comedy gradually falls to the wayside, allowing for genuine drama and all the emotions that come with it.
So it is with Breaking Bad. By the time it gets to the fifth season, especially the latter half of it, there is little comedy to speak of, and what remains takes on a much bleaker tone. For this reason, I think it’s easy to forget how ridiculous the first season is, and how well its comedy blends with its more serious moments.
Most of the comedy comes from interactions between Walt and Jesse. Their dynamic carries the show, and the amusing animosity is essential for the emotional payoff of other seasons when Jesse becomes a semi-moral human being and Walt throws him under the bus.
But that’s discussion for the future. For now, we’re interested in how this meth circus starts.
It starts with pants. Technically, it starts with rocks and then we get pants, but the pants are the important bit.
Breaking Bad has one of the most well-composed pilots ever made.
Just the first few minutes of the opening is enough to grab you by the head and pull you into the series. It shows a man careening down a desert road in an RV wearing nothing but his underwear and a gas mask, an unconscious passenger also wearing a gas mask and two figures, apparently bodies, in the back, rolling around with spilled brown chemicals and broken glassware. The RV crashes and the driver runs out, coughing, then darts back inside to grab a video recorder and a gun. We hear sirens in the background. The man records a message to his family, then prepares what has to be the most foolhardy face-off with the feds ever put to film.
Credits, 2 days earlier, breakfast.
The opening captures the high tension and utter absurdity of the show in mere moments. While Walt’s determined face-off plays a bit heavy-handed now, it is nonetheless a striking image and if you’ve seen any fan or promotional art of Breaking Bad, it’s likely of Walt in his underwear and Jesse in his hoodie standing on a desert road next to their RV. That’s the icon of the series.
While the opening is a stand-out sequence, though, the rest of the pilot holds up as well. It introduces the core characters and the concept at a fast but steady pace, presenting Walter White as an under-appreciated chemistry teacher who, while not content with his life, rarely complaints about it. His pregnant wife, Skyler, is a Mom, and basically the only reason the house is still together. Her attention is often diverted from Walt to more domestic matters, even during sexy time. They have a son, Walt Jr., who has cerebral palsy and is just trying to get through high school. Skyler’s sister, Marie, is the wine aunt, loud and assertive on all matters whether she merits a say in them or not. And her husband, Hank, is a DEA agent who isn’t above abusing his power for a joke.
The family setup establishes an environment where Walt, being old-fashioned feels unmanly and one-upped by his brother-in-law. When told by a doctor he has incurable lung cancer, Walt’s life suddenly becomes a mural of failure, as all of his talent goes to waste and he can’t even ensure the wellbeing of his family on his own. Ashamed and frightened, he keeps his diagnosis a secret and slowly searches for an outlet for his depression, eventually realizing he could potentially make a ridiculous amount of cash using his chemistry knowledge to manufacture methamphetamine.
This half-baked plan becomes viable when Walt joins Hank on a drugs bust and while waiting for the DEA agents to clear the house, sees a former student of his running from the crime scene. Walt tracks the boy, Jesse Pinkman, to his aunt’s house and blackmails Jesse into cooking meth with him. Jesse is thrilled. This arrangement properly sets in motion the plot, with Walt handling the chemistry and Jesse dealing with the actual criminality — or that’s Walt’s idea of things, anyway.
As it turns out, Walt is quite good at making meth, quite a bit better than Jesse is at selling it. The episode comes full circle when Jesse tries to sell Walt’s “product” to some higher dealers he knows and they accuse him of helping the DEA during the drugs bust. Walt kills the dealers in the RV by instigating a reaction that produces phosphene gas. Hearing sirens, he grabs Jesse (knocked unconscious in the struggle) and drives off, only to crash and then, after the mess of the opening, realize the sirens were from fire engines.
Not a bad way to kick things off.
Part Two: For Science!
The first season directs its efforts toward defining its two main characters, Walt and Jesse, so as a result, the season lacks the plot intricacies and depth of later seasons. Because the main characters are only starting to build up their extreme mentor-student relationship, the first season also lacks many of the remarkable moments where the protagonists shift from their archetypes and turn vicious or vulnerable. Even this early, though, you can see the seeds starting to germinate.
After the chaos of the first episode, the season follows an uneven trajectory. The second and third episodes define the comedic and dramatic angles of the show, first in showing Walt and Jesse trying to figure out how to “discorporate” dead bodies, and then what to do when one of those bodies turns out to still be alive. The first three episodes form their own arc that’s solid from a writing standpoint but quickly introduces elements common in the show that will put some viewers off of it. This would be a good thing, if that three-episode arc didn’t also run right into a roadblock in Episode Four and Episode Five.
There are actually three distinct arcs in the first season, the first of which is easily the strongest narratively. Episodes Four and Five make up an arc where Walt and Jesse split apart to work out their problems on their own, which goes poorly, forcing them back together. The last two episodes of the season see Walt and Jesse back in business trying to find a new kingpin to sell to, landing them in trouble when they overpromise to a manic meth user and kingpin named Tuco.
As will become apparent in later seasons, Breaking Bad tends to have a memorable start and finish to each season, but a lot of fat in the middle that becomes a bit of a slog when watching the series. The ending of a season is usually tense enough to make you forget the slower moments, but don’t be fooled; in this series about drug dealers and the criminal underworld, you will also be entertained by multiple subplots about Marie shoplifting, Walt getting handsy, Hank brewing beer, tedious affairs, and how much Walt resents people helping him. These portions in the first season are especially grueling.
Walt has been given a free pass as if by a miracle: an old friend of his who has struck it rich offers to cover his entire cancer treatment out of generosity. And Walt refuses.
This is, on some level, important for his character, because it asserts that his cooking meth is his decision alone, putting the blame for everything bad that happens in the show squarely on Walt’s shoulders. However, Walt is just unpleasant through the whole ordeal, persistently rejecting the offer with, what seems to the audience, no provocation. I almost feel like the series shows its hand too early, which is perhaps a consequence of the show having an unclear trajectory after being picked up. This offer of stability comes at a point where Walt has nothing, so he comes across as blatantly petty. While not inaccurate to later portrayals of the character, Walt’s refusal of charity clashes with the show’s attempt to introduce him as a relatable figure. While the show creators often tout Walt’s arc as “Mr. Chips to Scarface,” it’s really more “Sherlock Holmes to Scarface.”
The show’s saving grace is that it isn’t exclusively about Walt. While later seasons spend ample time fleshing out characters like Saul and Mike and Jesse’s friends, the first season leans heavily on Jesse to make up for Walt’s less compelling subplots, and to good effect. Actually, Jesse’s subplots are a regular reprieve from Walt’s, and they make up an essential part of the story’s structure.
There have been a number of Breaking Bad duplicates seeking to replicate the success of the original, but none of them have quite managed. I put this down to their lack of a Jesse analogue. Jesse is the resident comic relief character, filling a common archetype that you may have noticed I tend to enjoy, that of the unreliable junkie who is good at heart and swings wildly from side to side as the plot demands. These characters are often quite entertaining. However, in Breaking Bad, Jesse is an essential part of the show’s makeup.
Jesse is Walt’s main character foil and vice-versa, following an arc that contrasts with Walt’s. As Walt goes from domestic husband to drug kingpin, Jesse goes from small time drug dealer to guilt-ridden lab assistant. Walt relishes his newfound power even as it corrupts him, while Jesse progressively loses his stomach for the drug business. Walt becomes more of a monster with each new season, while Jesse slowly grows a conscience.
This dynamic is more fully developed in the later seasons, but it’s part of the core of the series. Jesse, while not always a sympathetic character, is usually more sympathetic than Walt, so having him around as a punching bag that the show can throw around to demonstrate just how bad things can get provides perspective. Where Walt responds to tragedy and horrors by ignoring them, or trying to rationalize them, or using them to his advantage, Jesse just crumples. He responds the way most people would, offering an unequivocally human perspective that contrasts with Walt’s eventual loss of his humanity.
This is present even in the first season, Jesse’s few moments of moral clarity being an early indication of what this show is capable of. The episode where he runs home to his well-to-do and disappointed parents also happens to be the same one where Walt gets his cancer break, and Jesse’s section of this episode is the main reason I was originally able to get through the mid-season dirge. The moment I think I like most, though, perhaps in the entire first season, is when Jesse comes back after giving Walt an ultimatum in the third episode.
After disposing of their first body, Walt and Jesse realize the other man who tried to kill them, Kraze-8, has survived, and isn’t going to die on his own. Jesse fastens the man to a pole in his basement with a bike lock and insists that because they flipped a coin (Jesse handles the dead body and Walt handles the live one), Walt’s the one who has to kill him. Jesse leaves Walt to fret over whether he can kill a man in cold blood, and while the audience sees the entirety of Walt’s dilemma, when Jesse comes back in the morning, all he finds is an immaculate basement, no Kraze-8, no Walt, and the bike lock on the floor. And at that point, you get this wonderful little silent acting moment from Aaron Paul where he just sort of fiddles with the bike lock, as the weight of what the character has gotten into hits him all at once.
The show has plenty of these sorts of moments framed as comedic or tense, but here, it’s just heavy. And in a series about moral failings, you want those heavy scenes, and you want them where they’re needed. It’s one of the things Breaking Bad does quite well.
Part Three: Come Now, Vinny
I would love to go on about the thrilling subplots and intricate personal connections between the characters, and just how fucking amazing these characters are… but, well, that’s kind of the problem. Walt and Jesse are well-realized characters and their arcs are some of the best that have been put to television. Ever. But as much as their dynamic works, and as much as I appreciate how clearly-defined the other major characters in the show are, the side characters are consistently weaker than the main two. In the first season especially, the side characters seem to exist largely to fill time and space. Quite a few of them and their subplots could probably be cut without affecting the plot, and later seasons even entirely forget subplots from the first.
On top of that, the side characters are where the show flaunts its main weakness, which is its uncomfortable lack of diversity and problems with stereotyping.
Let’s start with the women. Of the four major recurring characters in the first season aside from Walt and Jesse, two of them are women, sisters Skyler and Marie. While Walt is navigating the meth underworld, Skyler is auctioning off the family’s collection of ugly art sculptures, being pregnant, and arguing with her sister. Skyler has her own direction and is an active agent in moving toward it, but the show is cold toward her, generally dismissing her interests as unimportant. Walt is actually kind of horrible to her, treating her like a sex doll, lying to her about his job and the cancer, getting angry at her when she tries to help, ignoring her very simple requests for managing their tight finances, and steadily pushing her into the housewife box. Skyler is a minor antagonist, especially in the first season, as much of the tension of Walt’s illicit dealings come about from him trying to hide his secret life from his family, Skyler especially. The show tends to come down on Walt’s side of things, contrasting his high-stakes crime subplots with Skyler’s much lower-stakes domestic dispute subplots. She’s framed as petty, nagging, confrontational, naive, and complacent, and rarely anything explicitly positive. It often seems like the show sees Skyler as important to Walt simply because she’s his wife, and her ability to be a housewife is a reflection of how well Walt is providing for his family.
Marie meanwhile, spends much of the first season shoplifting, denying to Skyler that she’s shoplifting, and nagging Hank. While Marie actually has a career as an MRI technician, we never really see her at work, nor do we know anything about her goals, interests, or hobbies. She’s a kleptomaniac, and she likes purple, and that’s about as far as her drive goes in the first season. She has a well-defined personality, being the sort of relative/friend you probably know, that one who’s annoying and stuck-up and selfish, but not in a particularly malicious way, so you don’t have a good excuse not to keep them around. Marie is very vibrant, filling a room with her presence and saying exactly the wrong thing in almost every scene, but in a way that toes the boundary between frustrating and hilarious. Betsy Brandt is a highly compelling actor, and she is a lot of what makes this character work despite how little regard the show itself seems to give her. In fact, both she and Anna Gunn (who plays Skyler) are well overqualified for their roles in this show.
The show seems to have a bit of a twisted perspective on gender dynamics in general, relegating its female characters to girlfriends, wives, secretaries, and daughters, most of whom are there to be protected or mourned by the men in the show. It’s actually really weird re-watching this show and remembering it’s supposed to take place in the early 2000s. Cell phones look very odd next to a man insisting his wife quit her job to take care of the new baby.
The decision to write Skyler and Marie in as limited roles as they are might not be as prominent if not for how their lives are juxtaposed with the show’s ideal of what a man’s role should be. There are no male characters in the show with traditionally “feminine” jobs, such as those in the arts, public relations, or assistanceships. The closest we get is Walt being stuck as a high school teacher and a carwash worker, both of which are presented as emasculating, and therefore bad. In fact, Walt quits both rather early on in the series. There are absolutely no queer characters in the show of any sort, even implied, and characters rarely transition out of unusually tight gender constraints, often only doing so unwillingly. The only male character who ever diverges much from the macho archetype is Jesse, and even he tries to play into it for most of the first season.
The show presents characters like Hank, who works a high-risk and investigative job, as closer to an ideal for a man. Hank’s gullibility and softness toward his own family is portrayed as the main reason for why he isn’t in a higher position in his career. He’s not as smart as Walt, nor as ruthless.
However, Hank is preferable to the show’s representations of unmitigated masculinity, those being the drug lords. The main antagonists of the show have in common characteristics of machismo, a tendency to value physical and emotional strength, even violence, above all else. The drug lords are unpredictable, wrathful, and preoccupied with how they’re perceived by others. They all carry guns, big guns, surround themselves with beefy body guards, and establish a presentation that communicates power. They’re sort of like CEOs with no legal bonds or moral scruples. Or, just CEOs, I guess.
The show does not frame its antagonists as CEOs. No, in fact, there’s this curious trend where most of the antagonists are irrational Latino men who are angry to the point of violence. Funny that, especially considering the show has like, three Latinx characters who aren’t antagonistic, and all of them are dead by the end of it. Very funny. Hilarious, even.
So this is another area where I need to point out that I am white, so my understanding of how Breaking Bad handles race is going to have a lot of obvious gaps in it. In fact, I was only alerted to this rather prominent problem when someone asked one of the actors about it during a talk I attended. The person asking the question was Latino and expressed concern that the show, despite its high praise, had pretty horrific caricatures of Latin Americans almost unanimously cast as criminals and drug users. I have heard quite a few similar complaints from the Hispanic and Latinx communities, and with good reason.
I think characters like Tuco and the Twins tend to attract the most criticism, being stepped in Mexican culture while also highly unrealistic and stereotypical. I actually thought initially that Tuco was a delightfully cartoonish villain, outlandish in a sort of supervillain way that fit the grounded absurdist humor of the series. While I’m not sure it’s Raymond Cruz’ most nuanced role, he brings a stability to Tuco that adds depth to the character, presenting him as a meth addict with far too much power than is good for him or anyone else. Tuco is contrasted enough early on with other Latinx characters that I always took him to be an outlier, but granted, given the way the show continues to bring back similar archetypes or turn characters like Gus into characters just as violent and unpredictable as Tuco, I’m not sure I can view the character with the same naivete any more.
The lack of prominent non-white protagonists, especially Hispanic protagonists, creates serious baggage for the show. In the years since Breaking Bad completed its run, persecution, racist rhetoric, and violence toward Latinx populations in the US has risen, and right now, it’s outright monstrous. While Breaking Bad is far from the sole contributor, it does very little to stem the image many white Americans have of Latinx people, Mexican men in particular, being violent drug addicts and criminals with cartel ties. What’s more, by placing its suburban white protagonists opposite the cartels, the show obfuscates the reality that where cartel crime is a serious problem, it affects poorer Hispanic communities far more than insular white ones.
The show arguably gets better at presenting a broader picture in later seasons, introducing Andrea as a minor recurring character who offers insight into how the meth rings have ruined peoples lives, especially in the town’s poorer Hispanic neighborhoods. It also gives us a few Nazis to serve as antagonists in the fifth season, which I kind of feel it mainly did to shoo away any racists it may have attracted in its fanbase. Not quite sure how that worked out, but it’s better than nothing, I suppose.
Still, it’s kind of hard to fully admire the show’s better qualities alongside its missteps. They’re not minor issues, and it would be unethical of me to praise the show without at least mentioning them. I do think the show is worth watching, especially if you can get through the first season and enjoy where it’s going. This is the sort of show that largely gets better as it goes along, which is rare enough to find these days. Just know going in that it’s a good stone’s throw from perfect, despite what some fans might tell you.
Series Breakdown Rating: