Serious spoiler alert: “Breaking Bad” really is over, wrapping with what series creator Vince Gilligan calls a very “finite ending.”
The lead character of the dark AMC series – a high school chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin and murderer – died on Sunday night. This completes the journey that began five seasons ago when Walter White, diagnosed with a fatal cancer, parlayed his lab skills into cooking up and selling crystal methamphetamine to pay for his son’s separate medical issues and provide for the arrival of a new baby.
The basic cable show averaged at most 3 million to 4 million viewers in its first four seasons, jumping to 6 million viewers in the final season – and more than 10 million on Sunday night, according to Nielsen. More important, it became that most elusive of TV programmers’ dreams, a critical hit that garnered Emmys and water-cooler buzz.
The series touched a nerve in US society for several reasons, says Mark Tatge, journalism professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. The fact that the main character is someone who faces many of the same pressures that average people face – health, job, and income – means that the show reached the public on a gut level. But Walter’s extreme strategies are a cautionary tale, Professor Tatge says.
The show’s message is that “we are on our own to solve our problems and this means that we may have to do unorthodox, even illegal things to solve our problems,” he writes in an e-mail. “It is a very, very dark view on the current state of our society.”
Media watchers point to the dark hit both as a sign of our violence-saturated times and as an important indication of the maturation of TV storytelling.
“You would never have seen this kind of exploration of such dark themes even as recently as the late 1980s,” says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. For one thing, a code among the National Association of Broadcasters stipulating that characters not be rewarded for bad behavior did not end until 1982, he notes.
“It took awhile for broadcasters to begin to expand into more complex themes,” he notes, but even then with such series as the seminal police drama “Hill Street Blues,” “you still only saw a bad cop in the larger ensemble of good cops, never as the star.”
Then came cable and such groundbreaking shows as “The Sopranos,” HBO’s organized-crime drama, and others like “The Shield” and “Dexter,” all featuring largely unrepentant antiheroes. “Breaking Bad,” however, differs in some respects from these shows, notes Fordham University professor Paul Levinson, author of “New New Media.” The Walter character takes a slow journey into evil, he says, and only as he struggles with the “unfair hand” that life has dealt him.
“There is something noble in the way he stands up and fights back against his fate,” says Professor Levinson, adding, “He is not willing to sit back and let the unfairness of his situation just roll over him.”
However, the depths to which the character descends – coldblooded murder, among other things – is a chilling sign of our times, says Tatge of DePauw. The show “is a very cynical commentary on where we are at as a society,” he says.
The appeal of such a dark tale reveals something about people’s inner lives, says Susan Mackey-Kallis, communication professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. Walter is all the more intriguing because he carried his skills to an extreme conclusion, she says, adding that he tapped into the vast creative well of his darker, shadow self and, as he said in the final episode, he liked it.
While that shadow represented what was ultimately the most vile evil, is Walter so different from Robert Oppenheimer, who invented the A-bomb?, Professor Mackey-Kallis asks via e-mail. For many, Oppenheimer was also an evil scientist who became fascinated by the powers of chemistry and carried those possibilities to their ultimate conclusion.
The vast majority of us learn to become civilized as we systematically repress our id energy, but Mackey-Kallis says we remain fascinated by those who don't do so and identify with them because we wish we could act out, too.
“Hopefully we wouldn't break the law or commit murder,” she says but adds, who hasn’t had the urge to tell off a boss or a person who has offended you?
It is worth pointing out that the show’s overall audience is still small when compared with those for even modest broadcast network hits, says Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council. He would like to see families have more choice about bringing such dark material into their homes.
“The show is certainly well written and well acted,” he says, but most families would not watch this show. Yet with cable packages being what they are, he says, “they are forced to pay for this kind of programming which they don’t watch just in order to get the news and other shows that they do.”