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October 14, 2013 | by  | in Arts TV |
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Breaking Bad – A Cultural Icon

Many scorn the notion that a television show can become an integral part of our cultural lexicon. Yet Breaking Bad is proof that television has an incredible power all of its own. 60-minute episodes and multiple seasons allow writers to delve into the motivations and lives of their characters. More convincingly than cinema, it can methodically chart out an interesting character or story arc that feels organic and is compelling. Indeed, for six years, the increasingly disturbing tales of a chemistry teacher turned meth cook has transfixed a devoted base of viewers. More than that, it has transformed the landscape of dramatic television.

Like any classic cultural artifact, Breaking Bad explores and critiques the society in which it was produced. Through the brazen schemes of Walter White, the show has pulled apart notions of white-male privilege and ridiculed them, even if a portion of the audience mistakenly believes Walter is meant to be a hero. His sense of entitlement to money, power and even his wife’s body may fulfil his need for control, but it also wreaks havoc on everyone around him. From a moral standpoint, Gilligan and his writing team endorse a somewhat dichotomous view of what is right versus what is wrong.

Don’t take that to mean that their version of morality is in any way simplistic, but rather that they believe Walt’s vapid justifications don’t negate the harm he causes. He may claim to be merely protecting his family, but the writers illustrate how goal-creep soon causes him to engage in empire-building. However, this empire is built on one man’s extraordinary arrogance and is therefore bound to crumble. Thus, in one sense the entire series is a carefully constructed morality tale that pursuing what is easy will only lead to ruin.

However, the beauty of Breaking Bad is that it operates so effectively on a multitude of levels. Far from just being a dour rumination on the ills of a male-dominated society, Breaking Bad is also a hugely entertaining show. For every indictment of masculine hubris, there is a pair of axe-wielding assassins. Its narrative arc is simple if obviously far-fetched: Walter White cooks meth to provide for his family and quickly becomes seduced by the power it brings him. However, within this storytelling framework, Vince Gilligan and his team have accomplished some amazing feats. Season after season, viewers have been amazed at how the writers methodically set up the pieces before rapidly knocking them down. Unlike so many other programs, Breaking Bad rarely (if ever) drags out storylines or hesitates to make dramatic plot leaps. The result is a show that at times can be slow and contemplative; at others, breakneck and unrelenting.

Moreover, the directors have managed to coax out of the show’s cast some of the most extraordinary acting performances. In the days of premium cable channels, top-quality acting isn’t exactly a rarity on television; the most recent season of Game of Thrones happened to feature Dame Diana Rigg after all. Yet Breaking Bad has always towered above all others in this respect. Through the impeccable craft of the cast, the tribulations of the characters have become an intimate part of our lives. Breaking Bad’s final season wasn’t tense simply because it was the culmination of a tragic journey, but also because the actors so expertly conveyed the emotional turmoil that their characters were experiencing. Bryan Cranston’s performance as Walter White seems bound to be remembered as one of the greatest in any visual medium. His moral degradation has been terrifying to witness and yet simultaneously engrossing. Given this degree of acting skill, it is impressive that the supporting cast is just as excellent. Gus Fring was one of the most disturbing villains ever seen on any visual medium, largely thanks to Giancarlo Esposito’s chilling emotional reserve. As a result, every character resonates with the audience in a way that other shows struggle to achieve.

In light of all this, claims of hyperbole regarding the praise for Breaking Bad simply don’t stack up. Over the course of five seasons, it has demonstrated the proficiency of television as a medium for storytelling, and is undeniably one of the finest cultural achievements of the 21st century.

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