1. It’s visually stunning
There are no wasted frames in Breaking Bad. Shot in the 35-mm film, each scene balances its mood, its tension on its use of colors. Somehow the show captures and complements the rich shades of the American southwest perfectly – and not just the reds and oranges of the landscape. Breaking Bad takes risks with even the most mundane moments: dark hair against yellow sheets; the play of light and shadow at the dining room table; the lines in Walter White’s face.
Director of photography, Michael Slovis, portrayed the show as “real film-making, more so than even many films that you work on now.” And it is told in a long, narrative arc, the visual elements of the show can be unfolded slowly as well, allowing it to go out on a limb.
Why not open up season two in black and white with just one hot pink teddy bear floating in a pool? Why not play with wide-angle lenses and other visual techniques? Why not juxtapose action sequences with long, slow shots of the desert? Lots of shows even don’t take these small risks, however, Breaking Bad pulls no punches.
2. The Writing
Furthermore, good lord, however, no show I’ve seen has aced the craft of the cliffhanger. Partly, this on because not every episode ends at the edge of a cliff. Some simply end. There’s finality – now and then even a feeling of catastrophe or malaise – to many episodes.
The show has a vision, and the writers figured out how to take a long story-arc and not let it get away from them. This has been the downfall of far too many shows, from Lost to The Sopranos. Breaking Bad has avoided the easy routes in favor of the long haul. Even better, the back story remained shrouded in fog, further enforcing the sense that Walter’s past is not so terribly different than his present: defined so completely by his lies.
Few other shows pull off characters this intricate and convincing, and the writing is a big reason why.
3. The acting
Our two meth-cooking leads are all well supported by a strong cast of major secondary characters. Anna Gunn, gives Walter’s wife, Skyler, a lot of profundity and complexity, making her at once strong and loving and deeply wounded, scarred by her concern and suspicion over Walter. Gunn’s Skyler is a tragic figure in a heartbreaking role.
As Walt’s brother-in-law, Hank, Dean Norris plays a goofy, loud-mouthed A-type personality with hidden depth. His struggle with panic attacks after two violent encounters in his job as a DEA agent create a more vulnerable character, and Norris crafts a significantly more intricate character than I’d thought possible after an initial couple of episodes.
Of course, they’re not building a robot. They’re building a homemade battery to jump their Winnebago.
Which brings us to…
Chemistry has never been so fun. Besides all the science-based action sequences, there are even a few of Walter’s high school lectures that contain just enough science treats to be really fascinating.
I’m not sure I’ve seen a show with such an excellent choice of tunes to go with it, and that began right from the get-go with songs like “Out of Time Man” by Mike Harvey:
Consistent with the innovation sprinkled all through Breaking Bad, we even get a Greek Chorus part way through Season Two – or rather, a Mariachi Chorus, with the tune “Heisenberg”.
Simply reading through the artists represented on Season One could set you on a days-long listening spree. The only other show I can think of with such an accentuation on quality musicians is The Wonder Years. Even in the event that it didn’t help define the mood so well still just be really good music. (Note: The Walking Dead also has some pretty bloody good tunes.)
Perhaps the most satisfying thing about the show, however, is the way it’s all entwined: the humor, the science, the extraordinary visuals, the writing and acting and music. Everything compliments everything else. The color and the music; the increasingly unsympathetic role of Walter White in stark contrast to the increasingly human Jesse Pinkman; the humor and the tension. For those of us who write about the war on drugs and issues of criminal justice, Breaking Bad displays a tough, complicated portrait of the issues, not content to stake out a clear stance on the matter.
What Vince Gilligan and AMC have created is the perfect anti-hero story, and they’ve managed to do it well and keep it fresh regardless of what some may see as a glut of anti-hero books and movies and television shows. Yet, there’s something so much more addictive and alluring and real about the misadventures of Walter White that just wasn’t present with that other well-known anti-hero of modern television, Tony Soprano. Unlike Tony, we don’t realize what’s in store. And, we can’t wait to find out.
Or at least I can’t.
Written by Sukanya Roy
Artist, Critic, Writer, Photographer, Movie buff, Graphic Designer, Literature and Geography enthusiast, Soccer fan, and Imaginative.