What Makes Breaking Bad So Insanely Compelling?

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As the show arrives at its Series Finale this coming Sunday, the army of Breaking Bad fans and critics espousing their opinions online is still growing. One would be hard-pressed to name another television series that has generated this many reviews, recaps, analyses, deconstructions, or good old-fashioned water cooler conversations. Here are just a few reasons why.

The TV Equivalent Of A Page-Turner

Episodes never end at a tidy moment. Often they end in a “holy shit” moment. At the very least, they leave us wishing they hadn’t ended.  We need to know more, we need to know what’s next. That’s why we get hooked on the show via web streaming and binge-watch episodes until 2:57 a.m. when we have to be up at five-thirty (or is that just me?). But of course those are the older episodes only. Watching new episodes the old-fashioned way, one episode per week as they air, we are forced to consume at a most unsatisfying pace. Maddening, yes, but better for our health in the end (literally, considering the effect on heart rate of an episode like “Ozymandias”). But it’s that forced-wait period that gives us time to reflect, and generates the discussion. And this is a show well-worth discussing. As I pointed out in a previous post, we sometimes need that week of down-time to process the complexity of what we watched.

It Watches Like Epic Literature Reads

Each episode is a chapter, each season a volume, in what has turned out to be a pentalogy. Unlike so many shows that came before, and surely many that will come after, it is a complete, unified story from beginning to middle to end. As it progresses, it only sharpens its focus and gains momentum. While there were moments in the first two seasons where it seemed the writers were perhaps finding their way through some of the character elements, these were blips on the radar – the story itself never wavered. Marie’s compulsive stealing, for example, was an unnecessary diversion that had a hint, just a whiff, of the kind of digressions that ended up ruining Lost. Fortunately, the writers never committed to these. In this respect, Breaking Bad was fortunate to be able to learn from the mistakes of a show like Lost, which aspired to epic status but quite literally got lost in the telling. But for one episode, (those who watch know which one), Breaking Bad’s story has arced as gracefully and confidently as an arrow shot from episode 1.1 to 5.16. As a story told in chapters and volumes, it’s worthy of being considered in the same company as a number of great works of fiction.

The Characters Live On When The TV Is Off

Not only can we see their faces and hear their voices, we can see them react and hear their tone of voice in our heads. When we read “I am the one who knocks” we hear Walt’s gravelly, angry voice inside our brain. Same with Jesse’s triumphant “Fire in the hole, bitch.” We know these people, we understand them, we’ve felt what they’ve felt. At times we may like them and root for them, at others we may hate them, but they are just about as close to flesh and blood as fictional characters can be.

There may be only one episode left, but these characters will not soon be finished with us. Regardless of what happens to them this coming Sunday, they will live on.

3 thoughts on “What Makes Breaking Bad So Insanely Compelling?

  1. That life that the characters have is extraordinary. Having watched the whole series over a couple of months, I find myself saying things and thinking “That sounds just like Jesse Pinkman”. It really is like a Dickensian novel or the Brothers Karamazov in its epic scope.
    As well as the cliffhangers, there is something else. Breaking Bad never takes the predictable option. I expected Walter at some point to try his own product or for Walter Jr to buy some of his father’s blue meth off the street. Never happened.

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    • Yes, I’m glad neither of those things happened. Walt trying his own product, and perhaps getting addicted to it, would really have de-railed things in a “we’ve seen this before” kind of way. Other stories have gone that way. We’d never seen anything quite like where Breaking Bad went.

      I do think more could have been done with Walt Jr’s character in the end. It’s nitpicking to say it, but there was room to handle things from Jr’s perspective a bit satisfyingly.

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