Breaking Bad30 November 2013
Blood drips from the ceiling as you stare through the gaping hole where a bathtub used to be. A human head glued to the back of a tortoise explodes. As a plane crashes overhead, a little pink teddy bear, half burnt and eerily staring at the sky, is fished from the bottom of a pool.
Think you’re experiencing the effects of a bad trip? Don’t worry, you’re just watching Breaking Bad, a show as addictive as the methamphetamine its characters cook up. Be warned, symptoms include red eyes (from prolonged periods of watching), uncontrollable twitching between episodes, and the loss of basic communicative abilities which are then quickly replaced by expert knowledge on how to cook meth and kill those who stand in your way. After five seasons, however, the show has finally come to its end.
For those new to the show, Breaking Bad follows Walter White’s evolution from a mild-mannered chemistry teacher to the biggest drug kingpin in New Mexico. Like so many before him, Walt becomes helplessly addicted after his first hit of success. But that’s okay, because in Walter White’s universe, manipulation, cheating, cooking (meth), lying, murdering, cooking (Walt Jr Flynn’s breakfast), backstabbing, double crossing and treating your partner in crime like absolute shit because you’re apparently the only ‘one who knocks’, is all acceptable behaviour. But much like after that first great trip, we soon discover that the drug world is a bitch (not unlike Walt’s wife, Skyler, who probably should have taken a ‘trip to Belize’ in the first season). So what exactly is it that makes Breaking Bad so addictive? The answer is simple: the bad is very good.
Breaking Bad is the embodiment of Walt’s own brand of blue meth: destructive, yet totally addictive. We hate to love Walt like addicts hate to love meth. We are drawn in by everything he says and does, and every time he expresses how justified his intentions are, or how he has everything under control, we believe him. We are deceived by Walt in the same way we deceive ourselves in thinking that this is ‘our last fix’. Somehow we believe that some good can come out of something so bad. But the truth hits you right about the time gentle Gale gets a bullet between his enchanted eyes: Walt has changed. Then we realise we have also changed. The morality line hasn’t just been blurred. It has taken a boxcutter to the throat and been dumped into a barrel of hydrofluoric acid. We no longer want to see Walt make ‘just enough’ to provide for his family after he’s dead. We want carnage. We want Walt to win. Before we’ve known it, we’ve been hooked well and truly. The needle is in and we don’t want to pull it out for fear of missing that ultimate high. We’ve developed a tolerance and now we need more; even if it means we get blown to shit by a little angry man with a bell. Ding ding, bitch.
Any chemical equation must have balance. As Walter White loses his conscience, the drug addict Jesse Pinkman gains one. The irony that a lowlife meth dealer who can’t even complete rehab becomes the show’s true sympathetic protagonist is not lost on anyone. Jesse symbolises the antithesis of Walt’s addictively bad nature by representing the part of us that recognises the poison we’ve put in our system that we now want to get out. When does this realisation come for Jesse (or indeed us)? Is it when his best friend gets shot by some little kid caught in his own fucked up neighbourhood trying to impress his local gang? Is it when that kid is subsequently murdered? I guess it doesn’t really matter—Jesse has taken a long hard look at the needle sticking out of his arm. We only have to watch him throw a ton of money away and constantly try to ‘break good’ to see that this is one addict that knows he needs to stop. Unfortunately, stopping is never that easy.
The unpredictability of plot is similar to the erratic nature of a drug trip: the good times are happy and the bad times are about as fun as being poisoned by ricin. With such a volatile storyline, any character can potentially ‘break bad’, and this is what makes it so damn addictive. Don’t believe me? Okay, take our beloved, smart-mouthed hero Hank. For a DEA agent, Hank was an incredibly ‘innocent’ character. For crying out loud, he could tell the minute difference between a couple of rocks (“Jesus Christ Marie, they’re minerals!”), but he couldn’t see that his own brother-in-law was the biggest meth cook in Alberqueque? Aww, come on! Yet even Hank realises that justice and morality don’t always see eye to eye. Fitting a wire to Jesse and sending him to Walt like a lamb to the slaughter is justified in his mind because they’d only have lost a “junkie murderer” and they’d have “something great on tape”. Even the most morally guided character ‘breaks bad’ and when he does, that sweet feeling comes right back.
Breaking Bad has ended. We’ve taken it in and experienced all the highs and lows, but now the supply has run out. There is a sense of empty fulfilment; glad that it is over, yet the question is, what now? Whether or not we find something stronger, one thing is for sure: the ride is over and it is time for the long, hard sober up. Good luck and have an A-1 day.