COLUMN: Exploring The Multitudes of 'Breaking Bad'
Published: Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, September 25, 2013 21:09
“Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
Those famous verses come from Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself,” but they might as well be talking about another W.W.—Walter White, the chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin played by Bryan Cranston on AMC’s Breaking Bad. As anyone with a Twitter account, Facebook, or even the slightest connection to pop culture knows, Breaking Bad is completing its run this Sunday, rounding off a final eight episodes that have proved unusually relentless and grueling, even by Breaking Bad standards.
Breaking Bad has been discussed, analyzed, and blogged about nearly to death over the course of its five-season run. So what is left to say about it—especially by a latecomer like me, who binge-watched the first four and a half seasons this summer? Well, Whitman isn’t a bad place to begin, and not just because the writers were clever enough to make a copy of Leaves of Grass a pivotal plot point this season. Breaking Bad is a show that has always aspired to literary grandeur, peppered with references to Kafka and Shelley and unspooling as a sort of slow-motion Greek tragedy.
It’s that Whitman quote, though, that gets to the heart of Breaking Bad, a show founded on a character who contradicts himself and large enough to contain multitudes of meanings.
In one sense, the path charted by Breaking Bad couldn’t be more direct. From day one, creator Vince Gilligan pitched the show as a linear transformation: the story of how Mr. Chips could become Scarface. Over five seasons, Breaking Bad fulfilled that promise, showing how the impending doom of a cancer diagnosis and a series of bad decisions could make a straight-laced teacher into a drug lord. It’s a singularly focused concept, with a clear starting and ending point.
But Breaking Bad has never suffered from tunnel vision. Instead, the writers took full advantage of the possibilities afforded by serial storytelling to gradually expand the show’s universe. Characters that served minor functions or seemed cliches at first glance—Saul, Gus, Mike, Todd—blossomed into major players with significant backstories. One decision could set off a chain of reactions with repercussions extending to Mexico and Germany before looping back to Albuquerque. Breaking Bad is a five-year illustration of the idea that actions always have consequences beyond our control. As the show has unspooled, its scope has expanded from the intimate domestic drama of the White family to global—and even cosmic—proportions.
The most dramatic example of Breaking Bad’s expansiveness happened at the end of season two. Several episodes opened with cryptic images of a scorched teddy bear in Walt’s pool, bodies being hauled away from his house, and other ominous symbols. By season’s end, the source of these flash-forwards was revealed to be not a drug shoot-out but a deadly plane crash—one caused indirectly by a death for which Walt was responsible. The season culminated with an unforgettable point-of-view shot, as the plane’s wreckage crashed into Walt’s own backyard, bringing home his guilt in cruel and dramatic fashion.
When I first saw that episode, I thought it was a bit much. The chain of events that connected Walt with those crash victims was so tenuous and coincidental that it stretched the show’s believability. But I soon came to realize that Breaking Bad never aspired to be believable. It’s not a grounded drama but a twisted, cruel morality tale played out on a massive canvas. Its logic is more cosmic than realistic—evil begets evil, and, again, actions always have unforeseen consequences. Somehow, the show’s creators have managed to trace this overarching tale without overpowering the show’s unique individual parts. Take any random episode of Breaking Bad and you’ll find a mini-film that might look like a Western, or a police procedural, or a family drama. But seen in full, the show stands as a coherently unified vision.
On Sunday, that vision will be complete. Can Vince Gilligan stick the landing? I have no doubts. But I also know that this story cannot end well for anyone. So it will be with a combination of fear and excitement that I sit down to watch the finale. As The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum writes, Breaking Bad is “a show that you dread and crave at the same time.”
Now there’s another contradiction—but Breaking Bad has never had trouble dealing with those. It is large, and it contains multitudes.