Ever since its 2008 debut, Vince Gilligan’s saga about the world’s unlikeliest meth kingpin has coasted on a wave of zeitgeist affirmation. It’s the most over-praised entry in television’s present golden age, a show that mixes a slim test tube of thrilling ideas with a fat Erlenmeyer flask full of derivative and obvious ones.
Breaking Bad’s foundation is a towering performance by Bryan Cranston, a performance that is not just flawless in nearly every individual choice but also vast in its range. It extends from heartbreaking poignancy to slapstick worthy of Buster Keaton. But one brilliant actor doesn’t make a great show. All of the characters other than Walter White are sorely underdeveloped. Each starts out as a stock figure with a single discordant vulnerability designed for maximum irony. Hank is a swaggering chucklehead, so he gets panic attacks. Marie is a snippy busybody, so she’s concealing a humiliating addiction. Although the show gradually grows more subtle, much of the early writing that establishes the characters is so on the nose it hurts. Any time we see Walt in class, it’s certain that what he writes on the chalkboard will echo events in his secret life. (“The faster they undergo change, the more violent the explosion.”) Jesse finds an old paper from school on which his teacher wrote, “Apply yourself!”
The primary victim of Breaking Bad’s difficulty with characterization is Walt’s wife Skyler, who is introduced substituting fake bacon for real and yet, somehow, manages to become even less sympathetic. When Walt chooses to deal with his cancer in private, Skyler stages a cringe-inducing intervention, and she makes his illness all about her. When Hank tells her about Marie’s kleptomania, Skyler loses it and makes that about her, too. When she believes that Walt has taken to smoking pot, presumably for the pain from his cancer, Skyler tracks down his drug dealer and gives him a lecture straight out of an afterschool special. Is it possible to redeem a character who has been depicted as that prim and naïve?
There are critics who defend Skyler and accuse viewers who despise her of sexism. But the real sexism is built in to the show, which rarely evinces any curiosity about Skyler’s inner life, apart from how it affects Walt. (Quick: Try to think of a scene in which Skyler is funny, or just amused by someone else. Then consider how much humor accrues to even the most dour male characters.) It isn’t until the third season that Breaking Bad shapes Skyler into a figure who can compel empathy, and only through pity, really, as it becomes clear how few options she has. Skyler’s line “I fucked Ted” is exhilarating, but Ted is a loser who will make her life even more miserable. Then there’s Jane, Jesse’s tragic heroin-addict girlfriend, who enters the show as one lamentable stereotype (a goth version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl) and abruptly morphs into another (the emasculating femme fatale) when the plot requires it. Breaking Bad gives none of its female characters the kind of agency that its male characters enjoy.
If Skyler is too wan a character to exist as the show’s emotional center, another popular idea is even less sustainable: the thought that Jesse represents the show’s conscience. As the series progresses, the writers draw an increasing contrast between Walt’s ruthlessness and Jesse’s pangs of self-loathing over their misdeeds. But Jesse moves from one unsavory master to another—Walt, then drugs, then Jane, then Mike—and those masters almost always push him toward the unethical choice. Walt acts; Jesse only frets. There is no figure in Breaking Bad who can match Walt in force and charisma in the way that, for instance, The Shield postulated its elegant, ever-shifting hands/head/heart triangle with Vic, Dutch, and Claudette. Fans who cling to Walt even now as Breaking Bad’s hero are not so much misreading the show as reacting to a crucial imbalance. For its moral calculus to work properly, Breaking Bad needs Skyler and Jesse to equal Walt in stature. They never do.
One reason for that is the show’s willingness to privilege humor or effect over consistent character development. No matter how soulful he seems when he’s dialing his dead girlfriend’s voicemail over and over again, Jesse is still the guy who asks if Walt is going to build a robot to get them out of the desert, who contemplates moving to New Zealand (because that’s where they shot Lord Of The Rings) and becoming a bush pilot. Walt’s school assembly speech after the plane crash goes far past any kind of psychological realism and into the territory of The Office’s squirm-inducing comedy. When Walt is found naked in a grocery store after a long disappearance, the next line is, “It wasn’t a Whole Foods, was it?” It’s a response so insensitive that it’s a stretch to accept it being uttered by even by the prickly Marie.
Lines like that aren’t just harmless throwaway gags. They point to an absence of humanism at the core of Breaking Bad—a curious, regrettable flaw in a show that, undeniably, strives toward thoughtful contemplation of the nature of good and evil. Danny Trejo’s head mounted on a tortoise, Gus’ gross-out demise, the stroke-ravaged Tio Salamanca as a source of shit jokes and dinging-bell gags, and the meth freak shrieking, “I ain’t no skank” and squishing her partner’s head with an ATM are all part of a vulgar misanthropic streak that runs deep.
Digressive vignettes like the turtle and the ATM are stylish and catchy, but they also represent Breaking Bad at its most self-indulgent. The twin hitmen get a huge buildup, then prove to be minor characters. The enigmatic black-and-white prologues in season two are not just pretentious (with their splash-of-pink shout-out to Schindler’s List), but also a narrative cheat, as they hint at a jeopardy for the primary characters that never comes. And is Hank’s tossing away of Tuco’s gold teeth really so powerful a moment that it justifies flashing forward to an anonymous migrant worker’s discovery of them in a riverbed? A hallucinatory image loses most of its power when you circle back and explain it.
A plot-driven series frequently mistaken for a character-driven one, Breaking Bad sometimes has construction problems on the order of far less serious-minded shows like Lost or 24. Some of the plot holes are so bad they’re worth singling out, like the Scooby Doo-worthy subplot where Mike puts some of his loyal guys in mortal danger just so Jesse can fend them off and feel good about himself. Even when the storylines do pass the plausibility test, the architecture is usually visible. Most of the major new characters introduced after the first season—Jane, Gale, and Lydia, especially—are one-dimensional figures there only to fulfill some pending story requirement. The worst example of the character-as-plot-device problem is also one of the most popular: Gus Fring, the robotic narcotics magnate who exists almost entirely on the plane of Bond villains and 24 “big bads.” Even the Achilles’ heel that finally does him in—his epic hatred for an old enemy—is the narrative equivalent of kryptonite.
This lack of spontaneity cuts off the possibility of happy accidents. When John De Lancie turned up as Jane’s father, for instance, he etched an unforgettable cameo of grief and regret in only a few scenes. A less schematic show might have had room for this character to expand, but since Breaking Bad was committed to the dopey, butterfly-effect pseudo-profundity of its plane-crash reveal, the meatiest parts of Jane’s dad’s story occurred off-screen. Maybe that’s why the Breaking Bad universe seems so underpopulated in comparison to The Sopranos or The Wire, which filled every corner with colorful, diverse characters.
Other than Walt and possibly Saul Goodman, the only character in Breaking Bad who comes close to seeming fully formed is Mike Ehrmantraut, the sardonic, world-weary black-bag man played so drolly by Jonathan Banks. With Mike in play as Walt’s primary antagonist, the first half of the fifth season was probably the show’s strongest. In it, Breaking Bad seemed to move beyond the intimate character drama that it never quite mastered and embrace a more comfortable identity as a lean, mean action machine. It’s true that Breaking Bad has a visual panache not often seen on television. It integrates its New Mexico landscape into the action in an organic way, and it has always hired the best television directors and encouraged them to cut loose. But even in the look of the show, clichés abound. In Breaking Bad, the sky over Mexico is always yellow. Much of the show, including its quietest moments, is afflicted with an unmotivated camera shudder that will date the show as badly as the excessive use of zooms dates many films from the early ’70s.
As underwhelming as many of the individual components of Breaking Bad are, the more central problem is that all of its essential concepts and themes have been done before… frequently better, and not that long ago. The similarities between Breaking Bad’s premise and those of both Weeds and The Sopranos are obvious. Yet while many observers have noted those similarities (as well as connections to The Shield and The Wire), few have considered the extent to which they render Breaking Bad redundant. Two recent books about contemporary television drama—Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised and Brett Martin’s Difficult Men—conclude with a chapter on Breaking Bad. Both writers see Gilligan’s meth opus as the climax of an advance toward serious intentions and aesthetic sophistication in the television drama.
To my mind, if history is just, it will judge Breaking Bad differently: as a show that reconstituted other, finer series’ spare parts with middling success, and as more of a footnote to an exciting movement than a centerpiece of it. More than anything, the ascendancy of Breaking Bad signals that this particular television renaissance may have come to an end.