Chemistry – well, technically chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change. Now just think about this. Electrons, they change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements, they combine and change into compounds. But that’s all of life, right? It’s just the constant, it’s the cycle. Solution, dissolution, just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation. It is fascinating. Really.
In the pilot episode of the US television series Breaking Bad, the main character, Walter White, an over-qualified high school chemistry teacher, lectures his students on what chemistry is. White’s rhapsodic explanation not only pinpoints his profession and his way of thinking, but offers a key to all that we are about to encounter, over 62 episodes and two years in the lives of White, his family, and his antagonists. Breaking Bad is a drama about change, about solution and dissolution, about both the power and the mutability of bonds, and about the growth, decay and transformation of a person.
I have spent the past month wholly engrossed in watching Breaking Bad on Netflix, watching two or three episodes in an evening. I’ve come late to the party, since the series started in 2008, ending with season five in 2013, and long before its finale it has been acclaimed as one of the finest television dramas yet made. I would agree entirely with that. It is hard to think of a more intelligently structured piece of television. This post is my attempt to unpick why it works so well, and what it says about video drama and the art of narrative.
Breaking Bad tells the story of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who discovers he has terminal lung cancer and turns criminal (‘breaking bad’) by producing the drug methamphetamine, ostensibly to provide for his family. As the series progresses we discover, or White discovers within himself, that he is driven less by an urge to provide than by than a desire to assert himself and think only for himself. We learn that White has seen a fellow chemist with whom he worked closely turn their once shared business into a multi-million dollar concern, while he was bought out at an early stage for a pittance. He has made wrong decisions all his life. He is browbeaten by his family and gently but insistently mocked by his macho brother-in-law Hank Schrader, who works for the Drug Enforcement Agency. Decisions are always being made for him.
The lung cancer should have been the final blow, but instead it becomes the catalyst for extraordinary change, as White discovers first that he is able to produce the best methamphetamine anywhere, then that he possesses a propensity for lying and an ability to think his way out of impossible situations by the application of analytical thinking and practical chemistry. As the series progresses he reveals more and more of a heartless streak that insidiously burrows into audience expectations, as the man for whom we expect to root for disgusts, frightens and ultimately bewilders us.
Walter White’s transformation has its effects on a wide cast of people – fatally so for quite a number of them. There is his wife (the supposed moral centre to the drama who gradually becomes compromised herself), his son Walter Jr. (who has cerebral palsy), brother-in-law Hank (the Javert to his Jean Valjean) and Hank’s kleptomaniac wife Marie. There is his former pupil and now collaborator in drug production Jesse Pinkman, and as the story progresses an extraordinary array of characters, notably among them the elegant fast food proprietor and drug kingpin Gus Fring, the crooked, quick-talking lawyer Saul Goodman, world-weary hitman Mike Ehrmantraut and corrupt business executive Lydia Rodarte-Quayle. Not least among the pleasures of Breaking Bad is the matching of compelling names to compelling characters.
Breaking Bad is about many things. It is very obviously and topically about the drugs trade in America, particularly the fears over crystal meth and the traffic in drugs and drug-related crime from Mexico (the action is set in Albuquerque, New Mexico). It is about the attraction and repulsion of family life, prefigured in White’s words about ‘bonds’ (the White family themselves, the violent Salamancas – for whom “family is all” – the villainous Uncle Jack and his nephew Todd, but also the camaraderie of the DEA agents and Jesse’s drug crowd). It is about the anxieties of masculinity (emblematised in the opening shots of the opening episode in which Walter loses his trousers, a recurrent motif thereafter). It is about gun-related violence in America and the travails of living with insufficient medical insurance. It is about father/son, teacher/pupil relationships. It is about business models. It is about class. It is about money versus morality. It is about morality versus survival. It is about cancer. It is about chemistry.
There is a lot of chemistry in Breaking Bad. The opening credits feature a criss-crossing of chemical elements, the letters from which are also highlighted in the credit names. Walter White’s supreme knowledge of chemistry (we know that in the past his research into crystallography helped contribute towards some Nobel prize-winning work) allows him to make a fortune and repeatedly to outwit those faced against him. He applies the scientific method to every situation, calculating that for every action there is reaction and a solution. The dehumanizing aspect of this is noted early on when we see a flashback to his youth when he lists all the compounds that go to make up the human body in conversation with his then love Gretchen (who will go on to marry the man who made a fortune out of White’s knowledge). There seems so little to a human when all you do is add up the chemicals that make up one such being. “What about the soul?” asks Gretchen, when his numbers do not quite add up to 100%. Meanwhile, intercut with this scene is the ugly reality of White and Pinkman having to dispose of a drug dealer’s body that has been insufficiently dissolved with acid. We are more than flesh, more just a collection of elements, surely?
This tension between science and humanism, or maybe between science and art, is exemplified partly by Walter’s relationship with his would-be fiction writer wife, but more so by his relationship with Jesse Pinkman. Pinkman is the most uncalculating of people – not a good person, but someone who believes that there things that are good. The contrast, and indeed chemistry, between the two is at the core of Breaking Bad‘s success, and it is hard to believe that the writer Vince Gilligan originally considered killing off Pinkman at the end of series one. In Pinkman, flawed as he is, we find a little hope for ourselves; in Walter White we see none.
There are many reasons why Breaking Bad is compelling to watch, but what lies at the heart of its success is its control over narrative and time. Everyone who has sung the series’ praises says much the same thing about how brilliantly its plot developments evolve, how ingeniously it introduces not so much twists as new vistas. Just as you think that you know where you are and how everyone relates to one another, a new element is introduced which pulls the rug from under your feet. Yet these developments are never gimmicks for their own sake; in every case they simply redefine our perspective. The naturalistic, convincing way in which these plot developments are introduced is another hallmark. Breaking Bad has its contrivances, but they are so well hidden that they never jar. An inconsequential action of character in one episode is revealed to have major significance three or four episodes later, forcing us to rethink where we think the story is going.
Such control over narrative over 62 episodes and five seasons is all the more remarkable given the uncertain nature of television production. The first season of seven episodes (reduced from nine after a Writers Guild of America strike) had to lay the groundwork for plot developments that might never happen if audiences had rejected it and the networks had not commissioned further seasons. Gilligan was certain about some plot developments, but others emerged as writing progressed as an the internal logic of the dramatic situation suggested new directions down which to travel. Breaking Bad could have gone in many directions, or could have been any length, even while in its finished state it feels wholly thought through, without padding or irrelevance. It is fully orchestrated drama.
The control over narrative and time is seen at the micro as well as the macro level. Individual episodes are distinguished by the extraordinary amount of action they pack in while never seeming to rush things in any way. Time is played with through flashbacks, and by the regular use of time-lapse photography. Episodes frequently have pre-credit flash-forward sequences, teasing as to the outcome of events, so that we do not think so much what will happen next as how will be get to the point from where we started (notable examples include the effects of the plane crash that ends season two, or White’s return from disappearance under a new identity in season five). It doesn’t matter what happens next: what matters is how we will get there – what matters is the method.
The mastery over the experience of time – something of which Walter White has little left, of course – is there in the different ways in which audiences have been able to watch the series. Those with it from the beginning back in 2008 saw each weekly episode in turn until the end of a season, then had to wait until the next season came along. Those who have found it on DVD, or like me on Netflix, in its full state have the opportunity to watch it in any way that we choose, even in a single sitting should one have the time and the stamina. It works just as well. In effect it is a 50-hour movie.
Comparisons have been drawn between Breaking Bad and the works of Charles Dickens, and this does seem valid. Writers of Dickens’s period produced novels in multi-part form in magazines, which only later were collected into volumes, and then single volumes. They had the overarching vision of where their story was to go, yet had to work in an environment where their story was made available to the public and to the market while they were still writing it. They, the story, the characters and the audiences, all grew as a necessary part of the publication model. The process could not be endless (such as a soap opera): there was always a dramatic end in sight. So it is with Vince Gilligan and other writers of multi-season television dramas which lie at the mercy of the audiences and the networks, yet which have a magnificent canvas on which to paint if they get the model right.
There is a Dickensian quality to Gilligan’s creation. Walter White is a very different character to Pip, David Copperfield or Nicholas Nickelby, not least in how his actions lead him to the bad rather than Dickens’s model of trials-leading-to-redemption, but all show a man asserting himself in the contexts of his time, through a narrative rich in character and incident, incidents that he eventually is the generator of rather than the victim of, as he gains mastery over his domain. There is the same combination of epic sweep and domestic detail. Dickens’ understanding of money as the engineer of society is powerfully echoed. There is same use of counterbalancing comic characters (Breaking Bad is frequently very funny), from the splendid creation of lawyer Saul Goodman (Micawber-like in comic stature) to the comic chorus of Pinkman’s friends Badger and Skinny Pete. It is narrative attuned to, and determined by, the temper of the times. Breaking Bad says, as Great Expectations once said, that we are living in the most dramatic of times.
The Dickens analogy doesn’t entirely fit, of course. Dickens operates in a narrative world where good must be rewarded and evil punished. Breaking Bad observes moral decisions, but is not determined by them. The bad frequently prosper, the good invariably suffer. Those who live or die do not do so because of some sense of reward, or justice. They die simply because someone points a gun at them and pulls the trigger. Yet it is not a nihilistic drama where unhappy things just happen. Walter White goes to the bad, and we know that it is bad. He and other characters becomes obsessed by their need for money, and this desire is invariably their undoing. We know that there is good, and that there is evil – it’s just that life’s rewards are not quite allocated in the same way. Stories depend on rewards and punishments for us as readers or viewers to find them satisfying – it is why we choose to read them in the first place. It is Breaking Bad‘s notable achievement that it both satisfies our sense of a moral world while showing us the realities of the real one.
I’ve started watching Breaking Bad all over again, and there is just so much else to enjoy. There is the poetic yet naturalistic use of language. Here’s Jesse Pinkman saying reasoning with Tuco Salamanca is a bad idea:
What is that? Conjecture? Are you basing that on that he’s got a normal, healthy brain or something? Did you not see him beat a dude to death for like nothing? And that way, that way he just kept staring at us. Saying, “You’re done.” You’re done?! You wanna know what that means? I will tell you what that means! That means exactly how it sounds, yo! Alright, we are witnesses, we are loose ends! Right now, Tuco’s thinking, “Yeah, hey, they cook good meth, but can I trust them?” What happens when he decides “no”?
There is the inspired use of music (often alt-country music bands quite unknown to me, but I must explore further). There is the casting – everyone is so ordinary, and convincing because they have the peculiar stamp of ordinariness about them. It is a series without stars (I only knew vaguely of a couple of the actors when I started watching for the first time). There is the skillful use of mobile phones to drive the narrative and connect characters (watch The Killing for comparison, where the characters’ continual use of phones teeters over into absurdity). There is the way White and his wife Skyler try to have amicable conversations only for the suspicion between them to creep in. There is the playful use of significant objects. There is the exceptional cinematography, with any number of surprise camera angles that are wholly appropriate to a drama where we’re not too sure where to look or what will happen next, and a sly use of colour coding that could take up a whole blog post in itself.
The boxed set TV drama, now further invigorated by catch-up services such as LoveFilm and Netflix, is one of the creative triumphs of our time. Tremendous stories are allowed to unfold, stories of our times rather than times past, stories which take on grand themes that appeal to that which is intelligent in all of us. 24, The Wire, House of Cards, The West Wing, The Bridge, The Sopranos – they transcend the limitations of the movie or the one-off TV dramas which needs must compact what it wants to tell into a couple of hours. They transcend television itself, finding a new home on disc, tablets or smart TVs that puts the audience in control of what it reads. These multi-part dramas revive the spirit and intent of the nineteenth-century novel and should be considered as co-equal with it, in their art and in their science. We are living in a classical age.