Breaking Bad is not the best television show ever made. Either those who say it is have never seen Deadwood, The Wire or The Sopranos – or they have not understood them.
The programme is often described as an HBO-style drama in which a terminally ill chemistry teacher in New Mexico starts producing crystal meth in order to provide for his family, but really it is the story of a middle-aged loser searching for significance. It is an answer to the question: “If you had six months left to live, what would you do?”
In the very first episode, aired in 2008, Walter White attempts to hold his students’ attention by playing tricks with Bunsen burners. “Technically,” he says, spraying chemicals across the naked flames to create vibrant flashes of colour, “chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change.”
Over the next two years, Walter is transformed from a sympathetic family man with poor health, no money and a second child on the way into the drug lord Heisenberg, driven by monstrous ego and ruthless enough to eliminate those who jeopardise his personal empire. The plot progresses like a volatile chain reaction, its pace distracting viewers from the questions they ought to be asking: is Walt still good? Was he ever?
Like Whitman, the poet for whom Walter is named, Breaking Bad’s protagonist contains “multitudes”. He is pitiable, attractive and deadly all at once. Scores of zealous admirers have taken to social media to defend and rationalise his crimes. Bryan Cranston, the actor who plays Walt, found himself so in love with the character that he believed in his motives being pure right up to the final scene.
“If religion is a creation of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished,” the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, has said. “I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.” This duality drives the series: behind the interplay of cause and effect, of every action and its consequences, there is always a desire for justice. When a plane exploded above Albuquerque at the end of series two, Gilligan explained it as nothing less than “the judgement of God” on Walt.
That is why it was surprising that the final episode, broadcast on 30 September on the online streaming service Netflix, gave us the sort of ending the fans demanded, rather than the one Walter deserved.
Perhaps Gilligan feared the abuse the Sopranos creator David Chase suffered in 2007 when the show concluded with an abrupt cut-to-black, just as its mobster family appeared set for execution. Or maybe the kernel of the finale was not Walt’s death but rather the death of his self deception. Either way, Breaking Bad is essential viewing: a Molotov cocktail of poverty, science and decline.