-Mark Twain, On the Decay of the Art of Lying
Hence is the thinking of one Walter White (Bryan Cranston), main character of AMC’s award-winning series, Breaking Bad. In Season One, it is Stage 3 lung cancer that initiates the beginning of a series of moral compromises Walter makes, not the least of which is lying on a routine basis- to his family, to his friends, and most frequently, to himself. However, even as each season progresses, and Walter’s unscrupulous decisions continue to create ever larger, more severe consequences, he is still unwilling to abandon Twain’s satirical sentiments, believing the entire time that all of his actions are just for they are performed in the name of selflessness and family.
Here in lies the original brilliance of AMC’s Breaking Bad; its ability to capture the ordinary man’s struggle with extraordinary forms of evil and corruption. With three seasons under its belt, and Season Four to air Sunday July 17th, Breaking Bad has garnered a larger following each year. Much like HBO’s The Wire, most people did not immediately jump on the bandwagon of Breaking Bad like other successful shows such as The Sopranos or AMC’s own Mad Men. Probably on account of its peculiar, implausible storyline (Routine high school chemistry teacher gets diagnosed with cancer and decides to begin cooking crystal meth in order to pay his medical bills and provide his family financial security after his expected demise only to become a pseudo-drug kingpin), Breaking Bad did not achieve the popular appeal immediately, even if it was winning the most critical praise of any show in recent history.
Now though, with Season Four about to premiere, the hype is loud, but more importantly, completely justified. So many shows today attempt to offer its viewers worlds that are often unimaginable. Be it the world of fantasy (The Game of Thrones and True Blood); the criminal underworld (The Wire, The Sopranos, Sons of Anarchy); bygone eras (Mad Men, Deadwood); or the world of the famous and wealthy (Entourage and Sex & The City) , much of the best TV of the past ten years is predicated upon taking its fans to worlds outside their comprehension and humanizing them is such a way, through plausible moral dilemmas, that they suddenly become relevant and as a result, cathartic. However, Breaking Bad alters this model, as it started with the human aspect. The common man (public school teacher) with a relatively ordinary family placed in what is unfortunately a very common and sad reality (cancer) and then taking us on the roller coaster of dark humor, familial hardships, and inexplicable and incomprehensible tragedy and horror.
Watching Tony Soprano attempt to function in the real world of everyday society, constantly trying to suppress his sociopathic tendencies in order to survive was entertaining and creative. Yet, watching Walter White digress from the well-respected, upstanding community member, husband, and father into a manipulative, violent, selfish monster is all the more fun. Whereas Tony Soprano was immersed in a world of violence, corruption, and crime from a young age, Walter is a sincerely good man, completely unfamiliar with the criminal underbelly of society, which makes his own corruption and self-deception all the more palpable, scary, and often funny because he is far more relatable to the average viewer.
Walter’s daily interactions with family and friends and others- bickering with his drug partner and former student Jesse (Aaron Paul); lying to his wife Skler (Anna Gunn); hiding the truth from his DEA brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris); teaching his son Walter Jr. (Rj Mitte) to drive; teaching his students about carbon emissions; and negotiating million dollar drug deals with drug kingpin Gustavo (Giancarlo Esposito)- all in a single episode makes Breaking Bad one of the more perfectly crafted shows on TV, with brilliant writing, filming, and of course, acting. The show has the uncanny ability to leap from a routine, authentic classroom scene (my favorite is the one where Walter admonishes his class when he hears a cell phone vibrating, only to realize it’s his own, secret drug cell phone he has hiding in the ceiling) to a shocking, brutally realistic meth-house for junkies or murder scene without any suspension of disbelief.
There in lies the additionally brilliant, yet equally disturbing, aspect to this show- that it seems entirely possible. What would the average person do to protect their family if faced with an entirely possible dilemma? While it is unlikely they would become a drug dealer, it is not unbelievable to think that they would lie and sacrifice their own stringent code of ethics. And it is also not unbelievable for that single lie to manifest itself into a series of lies, all worse than the last, eventually corrupting a person entirely and preventing them from ever going back. This slippery slope of moral equivocation in the name of good and family is something that occurs every day, and a show like Breaking Bad forces us to inspect our own conscience to see what questionable actions and misdeeds and lies we are willing to accept and live with, which is why I think Mark Twain would have liked it and why everyone should start watching it.