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Breaking Bad: Retrospective; or, Yeah, We Pay Our Debt Sometime

It has officially been one week since the end of Breaking Bad, with the last episode, Felina, wrapping up all of the loose ends that we needed wrapped up and giving us at least some closure on what was one of the greatest television series in history. Yes, this post will contain some very obvious spoilers, so if you have yet to finish the series up yet, please, do so. Seasons 1 – 5a are on Netflix and 5b is probably on some VOD platform through your cable provider or, you know, through nefarious means. It’s worth it.

If Breaking Bad was supposed to be a show where the protagonist becomes the antagonist and we get to see a villain grow into prominence before we see the unsightly end, we got just that from Breaking Bad. We saw Walter White go from a high school chemistry teacher who was diagnosed with lung cancer grow into a criminal mastermind who named himself Heisenberg. The name Heisenberg was taken from German chemist and physicist Werner Heisenberg, best known for his work with quantum physics and the Uncertainty Principle, who was also diagnosed with cancer.

The evolution of Walter White was fascinating, to say the very least. The Walter White of the first two seasons was bungling, aloof and coming out of the slumber that he was in for most of his life. It was a classic tale of a meek and small man who finally gets a whiff of power and just runs with it. The excuse for his meth cooking and dealings was always that he was doing it all for his family, which helped to at least partially anchor him throughout most of the show, even if most of his actions spoke otherwise. At the end of the day, no matter what atrocity he had committed, he could sit back and say, “I did this all for my family.”

By the time the final episode came along, the revelation what Walter had when he had his last conversation with Skyler finally gave some closure to the issue, as he had accepted the fact — and spoken it out loud — that he had done it all for himself. We all knew that was the case, that he had no reason to return for his money and his legacy other than to stroke his own ego, but he finally admitted it and let go of the fairytale that he was a man doing everything for his family. It was the evolution of his character, finally reaching his dramatic end.

What made Breaking Bad what it was, of course, was the supporting cast of characters that were surrounding Walter. It’s amazing to think that Jesse Pinkman was supposed to die at the end of season one when you think about it, as Jesse eventually turned into the sympathetic lead character as Walter’s character progressed throughout the series. Jesse went from a young burnout with no future or self-confidence to a capable meth cook and human being who began to feel like his life of crime was affecting more than just himself and wanted out of it.

While Walter always wanted more and for his name to go down in history for his accomplishments, Jesse found himself just wanting to put his life back together and to take responsibility for his actions and move on. In the process of knowing Walter he gained and lost everything multiple times. You could easily argue that his relationship with Mike was a far healthier one that helped to foster his independence from Walter, but even then, that just proves how utterly messed up Jesse’s life was, even for a former tweaker.

Jesse’s ending was ambiguous at best, but it left it up to the viewers’ imagination in the end, which I like. Does Jesse have any money left at all? Does he know where he’s going? Does he have any chance of finding Brock and living a life with him? Will the cops give him leniency because he tried to work with Hank and Gomez? None of those questions are answered, but it doesn’t matter because Jesse is finally free from Walter’s grasp and has become his own man, with both the emotional and physical scars to prove it.

Jesse wasn’t the only character that we saw evolve, either, as we saw Skyler, Hank and the whole cast grow and evolve throughout the series. Hank went from a dipshit jock tough guy to a guy who was probably one of the most capable DEA agents with an amazing sense of intuition and a little bit of an anxiety disorder. Skyler went from the clueless wife to an emotionally complex character whose intentions were not always good, but always found a way to redeem herself, even if it was temporary.

A lot of the discussion about Breaking Bad in the past few weeks has revolved around if Breaking Bad is one of the greatest shows in history or not. The consensus seems to be “yes,” which I tend to agree with, but then there are a vocal minority who are saying that every “best show ever” seems to get ousted every few years, which makes it less special. Then, there are also the people who believe Breaking Bad to be some sort of pro-government, anti-drug show, and, honestly, those people are missing the point and trying to politicize a work of fiction while completely missing the point. There have been some truly great shows in history, as to which one is the best, well, that is going to be subjective. Shows like the Wire, the Sopranos and Breaking Bad all have their own individual merits. They all also suffered from at least one “weak” season that might not have measured up to the show’s overall greatness, but we forgive them.

What Breaking Bad has going for it is that it is one of the most well-written television dramas in years that always stayed on point with its message and delivery and featured a truly dynamic story that kept you rapt with attention. All of it was accentuated by absolutely incredible performances from the entire main cast, which made the already dynamic characters even more memorable. Even the minor characters from the show, ones like Skinny Pete, Badger, Tuco, Hector, etc. were memorable in their own way and will be referenced for years to come.

Any good work of fiction will have you heavily invested in the characters and the story, actively rooting for one or a group of characters, which is precisely what happened with Breaking Bad. They were characters that you found yourself relating to and thinking about when the show was over, almost becoming real people that you knew, which is just incredible. There were so many reasons to be disappointed in Walter or Jesse throughout the series, so many times when you wanted them to be redeemed or punished, which the finale was able to bring some closure to, as Walter was punished and Jesse was redeemed.

Part of what helped to make Breaking Bad so special was the use of symbolism on both a micro and macro level, sometimes intentional and sometimes unintentional. There are little details that you might pick up on and they might line up perfectly, they’ll leave you wondering if they are intentional or not. Honestly, it doesn’t matter if they are intentional or not, what matters is that you are watching the show and picking up details for yourself and finding something deeper in them. One of the little things I noticed recently was when Walter and Jesse were in the RV in the junkyard with Hank on the outside. As Hank removes the tape from the bullet holes on the door, light beams in from them and the bullet holes are overlaid on Walter’s stomach, which is of course ironic as Walter’s demise at the end is from being shot in the midsection.

Was this intentional? It could be, but probably not, due to them debating over what the ending to the show should be and almost letting Walter walk free. Maybe they did think about that show, maybe it was subconscious, but it doesn’t matter. There have also been multiple articles online of people analyzing the color changes for each character’s clothes, even though Vince Gilligan was cited saying that the specific colors weren’t as important as the fact that they were just changing. The change was what was important, not the actual color. I mean, if meth were actually blue it would lose its purity, but it is just fiction and sometimes things make for better fiction.

I think all of the possible analysis is what really helps to make Breaking Bad that special and what will help it to live on for a long time. Repetition of shots throughout the entire series, calling back to previous situations, lines and events and how the world was so self-contained. If you had to ask me if people would still be analyzing Breaking Bad in ten years, or if people would still be taking critical looks at it, my answer would have to be yes, which I can’t say for many television shows in this day and age.

I still can’t believe that the show is over, nor can I believe that for season 5b I’ve written over 18,000 words about Breaking Bad for MiddleEasy, but it seems like a ton of you enjoyed reading about it, so I can only thank you for reading and your feedback over the past nine weeks. Although it does moderately depress me that I could have probably finished one of the novels I’m working on with those 20,000 or so words, but such is life, right? I also hope that someone gets the title references that I’ve been doing, as they’ve not only been referencing song titles, poems and whatever else, but the title itself is a reference to one of my favorite novels of all time; Moby-D**k; or, The Whale.

I’ve always been big on sharing a song to cap these off, so Walter has paid his debt sometime, while Jesse has to look himself in the eye and tell himself that it’s over.

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