Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston in ‘Breaking Bad’/Image © Frank Ockenfels/AMC
As addictive — and flawless — as the blue crystal meth at its center, the acclaimed television drama “Breaking Bad” returns to close out its fifth and final season on August 11. One of AMC’s flagship programs, the series stars Bryan Cranston as high school chemistry teacher Walter White, who, after a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer, begins cooking and selling an especially pure form of methamphetamine to support his family. Over the course of the acrid chemical burn of “Breaking Bad’s” narrative (framed with some of the most cinematic images on television), Walt becomes a major player in the criminal underworld, his fall into corruption an enthralling swan dive in the New Mexico desert.
In his original “Breaking Bad” pitch to executives, creator Vince Gilligan famously described Walt’s descent in a single, instantly compelling sentence: “This is the story about a man who transforms himself from Mr. Chips to Scarface.” While he’s since noted that this arc is more complex than that initial characterization, that line has come to define the series with its culturally iconic images of the teacher and the gangster. But the show’s debt to these characters is greater — and more subtle — than just Latin puns or saying hello to someone’s little friend. “Breaking Bad” shares with its predecessors a fascination with certain facets of human nature — morality, masculinity, pride, loyalty, greed, innocence — and, ultimately, with the tantalizing question of how far misfortune might push us.
Like the most famous versions of “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (1939) and “Scarface” (1983), “Breaking Bad” is very much of its time. Based on the 1934 novella by James Hilton, “Chips,” with its feel-good story of a beloved Latin master at an English public school, offered a morale boost for British audiences in the months before World War II. In an Oscar-winning performance by Robert Donat, the shy, compassionate Charles Chipping not only evoked a (very) romanticized notion of the teaching profession, but also of the British character: honorable, brave, sensible, moral, and dutiful. On the other end of the spectrum, “Scarface,” based on a 1929 novel as well as the 1932 adaptation, embraced the excesses of the 1980s, from its oversized performance by Al Pacino on down to its almost three-hour length. Tony Montana’s rise from Cuban refugee to feared gangster represented a garish, hopped-up version of the American dream. While radically different in focus from either film, “Breaking Bad” also concerns itself with contemporary society. Rooted in the economic realities of average American life, it understands the desperation of a family knocked back by a surprise diagnosis or event.
Each of these stories pivots on moments of adversity, revealing the true character of its protagonist as they act out of necessity: Chipping faces professional disappointment and the death of his wife and newborn, and keeps a stiff upper lip while going about his work, earning the respect and devotion of the school; Tony struggles with his illegal status, and links up with a drug cartel as a route out of the refugee camps to power. With the luxury of a long-form medium, Walt’s journey is more nuanced than that of either the saintly Mr. Chips or the depraved Scarface. The “Breaking Bad” pilot episode establishes his ordinariness: a fifty-year-old teacher with a pregnant wife and teenage son, he’s financially stretched (he bolsters his salary with shifts at a car wash), subject to tiny humiliations (his students alternately ignore and ridicule him, his car wash boss patronizes him, his son looks up to his brash DEA agent brother-in-law, his masculinity is frequently derided), and frustrated by his lot in life (a company he co-founded and quit later became lucrative). His decision to manufacture meth is spurred by his stage-III cancer diagnosis and a proclaimed duty to provide for his family, but it becomes the outlet he needs, earning him the acclaim, power, and money of his dreams.
At first, Walt’s turn is empowering, the revenge fantasies of the average person — he blows up the sports car of a guy who steals his parking space, beats up teenagers mocking his son’s cerebral palsy, and outwits a dealer with his scientific knowledge — and we can actually sympathize with his choices. But the brilliance of “Breaking Bad” is that, while it acknowledges his personal liberation as his actions become darker and less justifiable, it doesn’t take the easy route of glamorizing or fetishizing his behavior. (See every “Scarface” reference in a rap song or every poster in a college dorm room.) As Walt has endangered his family and his partner, former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), and plotted to kill off rivals or innocent bystanders (including Jesse’s girlfriend and a child) — decisions that have consequences, major and minor, across Albuquerque — the show refuses him sympathy, leaving him increasingly and thrillingly isolated.
As we head into the final eight episodes of “Breaking Bad” — toward Walt’s certain discovery and death — it’s impossible to decide whether his repentance and redemption or his continued villainy and punishment would deliver the greater catharsis. How do you hope the series will end? Discuss below.