Masterpiece. The pinnacle of television. The gamechanger of TV production. Ozymandias – the single most praised Breaking Bad episode truly lives up to its name – the King of all Kings. Among other things, its qualities are evidenced by the massive critical and universal acclaim. There aren’t many TV episodes which can boast with 10/10 rating on IMDB after 192k reviews.
Its perfection, however, was built upon five seasons of masterful narrative, a plethora of deeply-developed characters with organic development brought to life by raw, dense and incredibly credible acting performance and, above all else, the ingenious creator Vince Gilligan who has created a piece rightfully compared to Shakespeare by none other than Anthony Hopkins.
Breaking Bad indeed is a shakespearean tragedy in the true sense of the word and Gillian plays with our sympathies towards its figures with an almost alarming fluency. Thanks to the unhurried pace, we get to witness the rise and fall of several characters. We find ourselves on a slippery moral slope, we balance on the edge until finally our legs slip and we roll down the hill to the unknown. Can certain inherently wrong deeds be justified if one has no choice? Don’t we always have a choice?
The plot is simple. The high-school chemistry teacher Walter White has been diagnosed with cancer. His brother-in-law Hank Schrader works for the DEA. After taking Walter to a hit against a meth lab, Walter realizes that by cooking meth he could earn enough money before he dies to provide for his wife Skyler, his unborn daughter Holly and his son Walter Jr. who was born with cerebral palsy. Walter’s descend into the underworld is hence motivated by relatively honest reasons. However, there is something that Walter had not counted on – cooking meth is not as easy as making moonshine and he will need to sacrifice more than just his free time and a clean conscience.
The key features of a tragedy include a character who we sympathize with. This character, however, commits a fatal mistake or is fatally flawed to incite their rightful downfall. Usually, this downfall is preceded by massive hubris. The protagonist’s downfall is not necessary but thanks to their actions, it is unavoidable. Tragedy climaxes with catharsis which purifies the viewer of guilt and fear. In case of Breaking Bad, it’s actually Ozymandias where catharsis happens and the gradually built suspense of previous seasons explodes in a nuclear blast.
Nevertheless, Breaking Bad is not just a tragedy. It is also a melodrama where many characters do not deserve their fate and they suffer only because they (even if only briefly) got close to the person whose every action triggers a domino effect ending in a catastrophe every time. Breaking Bad is also a parade of genuine people. They are not just black-and-white caricatures or personified narrative functions. Each character can be sympathized with thanks to their positive traits and each character has negative traits for which they can be despised. Furthermore, theses sympathies and antipathies shift over time and if we should compare one character from season one with the same character from the last season, we find out that they are completely distinct characters who would probably despise each other too.
Each season represents a certain chapter of the protagonist’s life and his transformation. This transformation is the main theme of the whole show as the title – “Breaking Bad” foreshadows. Walter’s transformation is so fluent and coherent that it’s the absolute opposite of the last season of Game of Thrones where the writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss completely skipped over the transformation of Daenerys and in the span of two episodes made a murderous maniac out of a patient and sympathetic queen. But that is a story for another time.
The road towards the absolute catharsis of the show is lined with smaller climaxes. All seasons are interwoven with twists so unexpected they shock you, yet so natural that you feel like the story couldn’t have gone any other way. The narration is absolutely viewer friendly. Whatever is set up, is also paid off later. It is also worth mentioning the usage of foreshadowing. Many times, the show let’s us see into the future without knowing the context. This technique is used very effectively as it increases the tension, arouses viewers’ curiosity and the final reveal is always surprising.
The whole show is abundant with symbols. Viewers who can read between the lines could learn about several characters’ fates in advance they can be actually witnessed. What’s more, throughout the whole universe of Breaking Bad, it feels like there is a some kind of cosmic force present which has a sense of irony. This invisible cosmic entity feels like it is one of the main characters. Its omnipresence drives the suspense into infinity and it makes Breaking Bad quite an extraordinary experience. Whenever some of the characters think they can triumph over this entity, they get a quick lesson on how wrong they had been. This cosmic irony elevates Breaking Bad among the best modern tragedies. And it gives the story its befitting fatality.
Before the last period of this article, it would be a sin not naming the building stones out of which this monument has been built. They include Aaron Paul whose performance on the screen is a naturalistic concert of emotions. His character – Jesse Pinkman – a man traumatized and tortured by drugs, cartels, police, junkies, neo-nazis and even his friends – has had the opportunity to live through quite a lot of them. Another notable name is Giancarlo Esposito whose punctual, collected, calculating and stoical Gustavo Fring commands respect even when vomiting into a toilet bowl. Jonathan Banks deserves his spot on the mantel too with his pragmatic Mike Ehrmantraut as well as Bob Odenkirk with his sly lawyer Saul Goodman. And let’s not forget the iconic disabled Hector Salamanca. Even though he doesn’t say a single word in the show, he steals every scene he appears in. All three of them continued in their roles in a no less brilliant spin-off Better Call Saul and to analyze their qualities in such a short article would just divert attention from man in the center of it all.
That man is none other than Bryan Cranston who has gone down in history with his performance and proved that he doesn’t belong to sitcoms only, but to the Hollywood Walk of Fame as well. The number of positions which this man can act and which the screenplay offers him abundance of is so high that there happens no interference when transferring the character from the paper to the film reel. From the screen a real three-dimensional character breaths, coughs and bleeds at the viewer without the necessity to put on 3D glasses. Watching his development is so fascinating that it can be compared with visiting a zoo. We witness a personality split where one of the personas slowly smothers the other one and becomes dominant. Cranston is able to serve us the ideal cocktail of ego, ambition, genius, pride, adrenalin, temerity, pathos, pettiness, desperation, wrath and darkness deep inside every human. His Heisenberg is the personification of Jung’s Shadow archetype. Walter slowly lets it loose until he can no longer control it. Naturally, the consequences follow. Fortunately, the cameras captured this all and we can enjoy the study of his psychological profile in the comfort of our homes with a clear conscience. And we can avoid his mistakes.
“I am not in danger. I am the danger!”
Published: 6 months ago
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Breaking Bad - The pinnacle of TV production
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!" After almost ten years, the king of all TV kings has not yet been surpassed.
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