Best TV of the Decade, No. 4: “Breaking Bad”

Breaking Bad

Throughout this month, I’ve had the pleasure of looking back at a lot of great television. Moody dramas and hilarious comedies (and vice versa). The 2010s offered more TV than ever, and a greater variety than ever, filling every niche demographic you can imagine. No matter your tastes or preferences, there was most certainly something that could resonate with you these last ten years.

The downside with the explosion of Peak TV, though, has been the slow and steady fragmenting of pop-culture at large. With so many new shows premiering each year, the likelihood of two people watching the same series is lower than ever. Communal series and “event” television are no longer common – ironic, considering how many different means of TV-watching we have these days.

There have ben exceptions to this rule. Though the 2010s didn’t weather any hits at the level of Friends or Lost, it produced a handful of watercooler shows. Chief among these was Game of Thrones, the massive HBO series that spanned eight dragon-filled seasons. A more recent example is Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers’ love letter to ’80s sci-fi, which causes a social-media splash every time Netflix drops a new season.

I don’t count myself among the Game of Thrones or Stranger Things fanbase – despite sampling the early episodes of both, neither held my interest very long. So to solidify my commentary about “event television,” I must turn to the early part of the decade, and to a little series called Breaking Bad.

Created by Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad premiered on AMC in January 2008. The series centered on Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Wanting to provide for his wife Skylar (Anna Gunn) and son Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) after his death, he decides to enter the highly profitable but highly illegal world of meth cooking. With the help of former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), he embarks on a path filled with drugs, dealers, and quite a lot of death.

The first two seasons of Breaking Bad were filled with memorable moments – the broken plate, the “talking pillow,” the introduction of Tuco Salamanca and his wheelchair-bound Tio, the Jesse/Jane arc, and the one-eyed floating teddy bear. Unfortunately, those two seasons aired before the start of the decade, and are thus ineligible for consideration in this list. Luckily, the remaining three seasons provide plenty of excellent material to let it qualify.

Breaking Bad kicked off the decade with a spectacular third season, centering on the fallout from Season Two’s jaw-dropping cliffhanger. The season put a large emphasis on new characters like Gus Fring and Mike Ehrmantraut, and featured a meatier role for sleazy Saul Goodman. (All three characters, of course, have had their lapels pinned earlier.) The season featured two of the show’s finest episodes – “One Minute,” which featured a white-knuckle climax between Hank (Dean Norris) and the Cousins, and “Fly,” Rian Johnson’s meticulously directed episode confined almost entirely to Walt’s Superlab.

Though it lacked the cohesive story of Season Two (Gilligan and co. adopted a “wing it” strategy for the season, a formula they would maintain for the rest of the series), Season Three cemented Breaking Bad as one of the most skillfully-crafted shows on the air. No other series could generate this level of tension for this long a period, with each episode leaving viewers breathless for the next.

Season Four continued the run of excellence, at times rivaling the third for supremacy. Though it focused more heavily on serialization (as opposed to unique episodes), there was nary a false hour in the run. An increased role for Gus, a chilling menace whose cruel disposition never felt forced or hammy, gave the show higher stakes than ever, and from the opening scenes of “Box Cutter” (perhaps the show’s strongest premiere) to the final minutes of “Face Off” (a stealth-pun of a title that set up the series’ most memorable visual), he proved himself as Walter’s most menacing foe.

Following two seasons of wild, seat-of-the-pants storytelling, Breaking Bad – and the network it aired on – chose to take a breather. As part of a trend which became all too common this decade, the final season was split into two halves, each eight episodes long. From a financial standpoint, this made sense: Breaking Bad had been growing in popularity each season, thanks in part to new viewers discovering and binge-watching earlier seasons on Netflix. AMC figured – correctly – that keeping the show around longer would allow it to grow in popularity even further.

But from a storytelling standpoint, Breaking Bad hiccupped. Though it introduced some compelling new villains and featured a memorable train heist episode, the first half of Season Five was perhaps the show’s weakest stretch; it felt like the show was biding its time while setting up a more intriguing climax.

But when that climax came, it delivered. The final eight episodes were a blazing and brutal thrill ride to the show’s conclusion, upping the ante with each new episode and hitting a series peak with “Ozymandias” (one of the decade’s best TV episodes, period). The finale, though criticized by some for wrapping things a little too neatly (prior to that, the show was never known for the tidiness of its endings), served as a riveting sendoff to a riveting show.

And it served as one of the precious few communal TV events of the decade. An astonishing 10 million viewers tuned in to watch the series finale of Breaking Bad. (By comparison, the midseason finale one year earlier had garnered fewer than 3 million.) AMC would repeatedly outdo that number with The Walking Dead, but the home stretch of BB was a rare case of non-zombie unification.

In the years since, Breaking Bad has remained a formidable TV force. New viewers continually discover the show for the first time. Better Call Saul has been enjoying wide acclaim since 2015. And not long ago, Netflix released a new movie centering on Jesse Pinkman. A very good movie, as it turned out.

So Breaking Bad isn’t going anywhere. It will continue to inspire other shows (though perhaps not always in the right ways) and will keep its reputation as one of TV’s all-time greatest works. So much so, in fact, that there will probably be some quibbling about my placing the series outside my Top 3. But fear not – the best is yet to come.

Tune in tomorrow for the 3rd-best show of the decade, which proved that perky blonde women will save the world.

The List So Far

20. Person of Interest
19. Justified
18. Hannibal
17. The Americans
16. Atlanta
15. Manhattan
14. The Leftovers
13. Better Things
12. Mad Men
11. Fleabag
10. Review
9. Better Call Saul
8. Community
7. The Good Wife
6. Master of None
5. Fargo

8 thoughts on “Best TV of the Decade, No. 4: “Breaking Bad””

  1. Thrilling show. But the fourth season started off a little too slow, and the fifth season’s first half was just a dud overall. So I can’t fully throw my love behind either of them. And I am one of those people who really doesn’t care for the finale. I don’t know if tidiness is how I could describe it, but it was certainly one of the least compelling, most straightforward Breaking Bad episodes ever. It was great to hear Walt admit that he did it for himself, and I don’t think the show implied he got redemption…but it leaned a little too far in that direction.

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    1. The issue with the finale is that Gilligan wanted to give fans what they wanted, rather than what the show needed. So you end up with a finale that lets Walt (who has in the past been crippled by ego, emotion, and hubris) finally get everything he wants, the way he wants it. It’s a very well-done ending, but it doesn’t quite fit the ethos of the show, which is why I can never consider it (as some fans do) one of TV’s greatest finales.

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      1. I actually totally disagree with this take: if anything, the finale shows that Walt still can’t get what he wants. He can’t win his son’s love, he can’t win Skyler’s appreciation, he can’t win Gretchen and Elliot’s respect. His only power at this point is the memory of the terror he inflected as Heisenberg. A year ago he could have had Gretchen and Elliot killed; in the present, the best he can do is give a scary speech and pay some junkies to stick a laser pointer at them. You know that great scene in season two? Where Walt tells Jesse about the blowfish?

        “The blowfish puffs himself up four, five times larger than normal, and why? […] So that it makes him intimidating, that’s why. Intimidating! So that the other, scarier fish are scared off. And that’s you! You are a blowfish! You see, it’s just all an illusion. Yes, it is. It’s nothing but air.”

        By Felina, it’s become clear that for all his intelligence, Walt is a blowfish; that his true skill is puffery, the ability to cow his opponents into submission with the empty threat of the Heisenberg persona. Moreso than wanting power, Walt wants appreciation. “Felina” denies him both.

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        1. Walt gets what he wants insofar as what many fans want him to want. Which is to say, he beats every single bad guy, and does it on his terms, no matter how many contrivances it takes to get him there. True, he no longer has the power he once did, but he still has enough resources, skill, and blind luck to raise a giant middle finger at all who wronged him. Which is what many fans who believe Walt to be the unvarnished hero of the series were hoping for.

          I’m of the mind that the final scene of “Granite State” is one of the high points in the show’s home stretch, because it perfectly encapsulates how much Walt’s ego feeds his self-destructive urges. Except “Felina” turns those self-destructive urges into more of a positive twist than the show it caps ever did.

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          1. Exactly. Of course he was never going to win back his family’s affections. He lost them seasons prior. “Felina” doesn’t undo what “Ozymandias” shattered, which is why even though I don’t care for the finale, it doesn’t really tarnish the series as a whole for me. Still, I agree with Jeremy that, given what he had to work with, I’d say things went the best they could in that finale, and pretty much without a hitch. Which not only doesn’t make for compelling television, but seems antithetical to what the series had done before.

            That said, Vince Gilligan is a story-telling master, and I think Breaking Bad is an amazing accomplishment even if it’s not a personal favorite.

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  2. Anyway, I think just going off the seasons that aired in this decade, Breaking Bad doesn’t quite make the grade, just not for the reasons Flame is thinking of.

    You know how we talk about Better Call Saul as a great family drama tied to a not-so-compelling Mike-and-Gus plot where we know the protagonists won’t die? Breaking Bad has the exact same problem. Yeah, Gus is scary, but what’s he gonna do, kill the show’s two leads? Not likely. But there’s absolutely no bottom to how low Walt can sink with his family – and there’s the added bonus that that sort of marital discord is all too real, in a way that the fantastical cartel plots can never be.

    Ultimately, I think Breaking Bad is much more successful when the drug stuff is played for black comedy than when it’s the source of the show’s drama. (This is why “Fly” is so polarizing, because the half of the audience who thinks the episode is bad are right. It’s a contrived retread of “4 Days Out” with some cute directorial gimmicks.) Is it a coincidence that the underwhelming first half of season five focuses near-exclusively on Walt’s ascent to the top of the drug game, and that the brilliant second half of season five is about the total destruction of the White family unit? I don’t think so.

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    1. “Fly” is a bad episode. It tells us nothing about Walter White that we don’t already know.

      I do kind of disagree about the other points you made. Walt’s family weren’t that interesting to me, and I found “The Americans” to be a superior family drama.

      We knew Walt wasn’t going to die of cancer, but we also know that Jimmy will become Saul, and it’s still an extremely rich story to tell. So I really think it’s just down to execution. And I also ultimately prefer Jimmy’s story to Walt’s, and I would take BCS’ A-story over Breaking Bad any day. Breaking Bad is more well-rounded, though, so I have to give it the edge for that.

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  3. I’m a huge BB fan. The suspense and comedic timing of it was brilliant. I’ve binge-watched it several times but I had to stop since I felt like I was living in a meth world and it turns out, that I didn’t really want to live in such a place. Tis dangerous. Haha. And I loved Tuco- craziest villain ever! “Tight-tight-tight.” LOL. You never knew what that degenerate was going to do next! Great post!

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