Breaking Bad is the best television show of the 21st century (so far). It managed to offer week after week of not only compelling stories, but enough symbolism and alternate character interpretations to keep even the most snobby English-Lit major interested, while distracting less intellectually focused viewers with instances of “bad ass” behavior.
Vince Gilligan used to write for The X-Files (in fact, Bryan Cranston appeared in the episode directly before the first episode Gilligan wrote) a show I haven’t watched regularly since the nineties, but proves to me that he has a lot of talent. He knows how to tell a good story, obviously. His real genius with Breaking Bad is in how he draws characters, especially television characters. On TV, people don’t really change. There is an illusion of change, but very little actually occurs.
Take a show like Dexter, which is thematically relevant since both programs ask us to root for a criminal. Through the first four seasons (I stopped watching after that) Dexter appears to go through a lot, but what about him really changes? He is still a blood spatter analyst, he still murders people for fun, still talks to his dad, etc. He is dating Rita, then living with Rita, then married to Rita. But how does this affect his nighttime activities? Minimally. Because Dexter is not a person. He doesn’t feel real. If a serial killer joined a family, I’m almost positive he wouldn’t be able to keep doing his thing. Dexter might say in voiceover “wow, it sure is hard juggling all this crap; I’m tired,” but he still manages to kill all the people he wants. If John Lithgow hadn’t killed Rita, I doubt the writers would have had her discover his secret because it would break the show.
Breaking Bad (excuse the wordage) breaks the show constantly. The first two seasons settle into a relatively comfortable formula: Walt and Jesse bumble their way through the meth business and we enjoy the drama of watching a corny white man and a less-corny white boy act in ways they aren’t prepared for. We enjoy watching Walt come up with elaborate lies to tell Skyler. But the difference between Skyler and Rita is that Skyler suspects something is up and begins changing her treatment of Walt in very tangible ways. When he mistakenly utters that he still has his second cell phone before going in for surgery, Skyler leaves him. She doesn’t browbeat him; she doesn’t start making him call to check in every two hours, (wouldn’t it be even wackier if Walt had to call Skyler in the middle of a shootout? yuk yuk yuk) she breaks their relationship and it never gets repaired.
These are real people, not characters. Every single person on Breaking Bad ends the show very different from when it started. Vince Gilligan could have very easily allowed things to settle into a formulaic parade; he could’ve had each of Walt’s chemistry lectures figure into his drug dealing plot; instead, he slowly eliminated that aspect of Walt’s life. He could’ve forced the battle of wits between Walt and Gus to continue for much longer than it did; instead, he essentially has Walt become Gus. This is why Breaking Bad is so great; the characters are not only allowed to change but are in a constant state of change. The events of Breaking Bad take place primarily over one year.
At one point, Marie comments on how long the year has felt (this is in the fifth season). This is important because here, the characters go through five seasons worth of development within one year, in-universe. In most shows, characters go through one year of development over five years. Life is change. Any sense of “now” is illusory. “I can’t believe it’s only been a year since ____” is a sentiment you feel in your own life. It feels real.
This is why we should never find out the exact circumstances of why Walt left Gray Matter. Or why exactly his relationship with his mother is so bad.
Let’s return to Dexter. Why does he kill people? In the first season, it’s revealed that, as a toddler, Dexter’s mother was brutally murdered in front of him, and he spent a couple of days locked in a storage container with her corpse and an unsettling amount of blood. That is his “origin story” and it explains everything: why he kills, why he became a blood spatter analyst. (Dexter even says something like “no wonder I learned to look for answers in blood” just in case you needed spoon feeding.) In theory, this should make Dexter seem more human, more real, but it does the exact opposite.
When we talk about realism, we’re really talking about verisimilitude, which pretty much means “it doesn’t feel like I’m watching a TV show right now.” People say Batman is more realistic than Superman, but both characters are incredibly unrealistic. What they really mean is, Batman’s motivations are more relatable. You don’t want realism in your Batman stories because realistically, Bruce Wayne would’ve gotten therapy as a child and moved on. We look at Batman’s origin story, see a child witness his parents’ murder, and we say “oh, that makes sense.” We have a plausible character motivation, but we sure don’t have realism.
We’ve learned to digest fiction in a certain way. We see a character behave in a certain way and we know that his past has something to do with it. When we find out what it is, our brain kind of relaxes a bit, and the character “makes sense.” Boy watches his parents get killed and wants to fight crime? That makes sense. But it doesn’t feel real because reality doesn’t make sense.
The closest thing Walt has to an origin story is his cancer diagnosis, but that’s actually not an origin – it’s what kicks off the story. Walt’s real origin is implied; it’s given to us in small chunks and we never get all the pieces of the puzzle. We know that Walt was with Gretchen and business partners with Elliot – then something happened – and he ended up an ineffectual school teacher with a chip on his shoulder. We can guess that the “something” had to do with Walt’s pride, since it’s clear as the show progresses that this is a problem of his. We come to see that Walt feels he needs to make it on his own steam, that he can’t accept charity, and it’s possible this was emphasized by his mother, perhaps with harsh lessons and scolding. But we can’t be sure, which is why it’s so much fun. Which is why it feels real. Because in reality, you don’t get to push pause and take a trip back to someone’s past to see exactly why they are the way they are. You get some pieces of a puzzle and make guesses.
In our lives, we experience change, we don’t see every angle, we make guesses. TV usually gives us the exact opposite of that. Breaking Bad gives us the same feelings that life gives us, which is why we can accept the narrative leaps the show makes. (How exactly did you get access to Brock, Walt? And why did you even think that was a reasonable plan? SO MANY THINGS had to go in your favor!) And it’s why it feels like a reenactment of events that actually transpired.
When you look at Walter White, you see a man who’s gone from crappy-mustached loser to a grizzled kingpin. When you look at Dexter you just see Dexter.