"What if you just do stuff and nothing happens? What's it all mean? What's the point?" - Jesse Pinkman (Breaking Bad Season 4, Episode 7 - Problem Dog)
At its most general level, Breaking Bad, AMC's unlikely story of a fifty year old high school science teacher with a knack for producing the best methamphetamine in New Mexico, is a story about people making a lot of bad decisions who suffer incalculable moral consequences even as they appear outwardly unaffected by the choices they make.
When Walter White, a brilliant but meek high school chemistry teacher is diagnosed with cancer, a lifetime of bad choices suddenly come into sharp relief. As a young man, he left a struggling, but potentially lucrative biotechnology firm for the safety and security of teaching, only to watch his former partner walk off with the money and the girl. When he is diagnosed with cancer, his modest savings and limited health coverage will not protect his wife Skylar, son Walter Jr., and baby on the way (Holly) from a lifetime of penury when he dies. All Walter has is his freakish, but long dormant skills in the laboratory; so, when a former student and low level drug dealer named Jesse Pinkman pops up on his radar screen, Walter realizes that he can use his talent to produce methamphetamine and avoid the humiliation of accepting his former business partner's offer to pay for his cancer treatment.
And that's the set up. From this improbable premise, the show, like the endless vistas of the Southwest that Vince Gilligan uses to such great effect, has unfurled over four seasons of ever heightening tension, jaw dropping scenes of raw human emotion and a steadily increasing body count to draw viewers into a morality tale where we know things will end badly. And unlike its AMC brethren Mad Men, which traffics explicitly in the manipulation of time as a plot device, because Breaking Bad plays out in real time, that is, each season picks up where the prior one left off, the viewer is treated to a ringside seat for the death spiral. But what makes the show so appealing is that rarely is there one defining moment where a suddenly good life goes bad - rather, there are small sign posts along the way, opportunities to take off ramps back onto the straight and narrow that are considered and jettisoned, which only serves to make the next set of choices narrower, more lesser of two evils than good or bad.
We may have met Walter White at a vulnerable point in his life, and he may have rationalized the sale of methamphetamine as a means to an end (he even calculated what he needed to earn to ensure his family would be taken care of when he passed away) but it quickly becomes apparent that the trade offs Walt has to make cannot be reconciled within the boundaries of his moral universe. Walt cannot segregate his meth production from the end result of his labor - whether it is in turf wars that result in Jesse's friend "Combo" getting killed, a dust up between the Mexican cartel and Walt's distributor landing brother-in-law Hank in the hospital with gun shot wounds and no use of his legs, or the disintegration of his marriage to Skylar. Hell, Walt isn't even at the hospital for the birth of his daughter Holly because he's scrambling to reach a rendezvous point to off load a huge stash of meth that he thinks will set his family up for good.
But the show's dirty little secret is that Walter White does not want to reconcile these contradictions. The respect (and money) he commands by producing his high quality product offers something that was desperately missing from his life - respect. Walt is able to invigorate his flaccid ego above the many indignities life has dealt him. One day, he was just a poor schmo driving one of the worst designed cars in history (Chevy Aztec) and being tuned out by high school students; the next, he's negotiating six figure drug deals under the sobriquet "Heisenberg." Overshadowed by his gregarious alpha male brother-in-law Hank, a rising star in the Albuquerque office of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Walt subverts him by building a criminal empire right under Hank's nose.
Of course, Walt does not become a drug lord overnight. He and Jesse, in fits and starts, move up the food chain through deals with other low level pushers, mid level traffickers, and ultimately, with the man who runs methamphetamine along the border - an unassuming fast food chicken owner named Gustavo (Gus) Fring. But along the way, the bodies (and poor decisions) pile up. Walter and Jesse are in over their heads but don't even know it. Jesse's band of street level dealers infringe on a rival gang's territory and one of his friends is killed. Jesse gets involved with an addict who draws him deeper into drug use, upgrading him from meth to heroin. When the big score Walter and Jesse have been waiting for finally comes in, Jesse has nodded off in a heroin haze with his girlfriend Jane, forcing Walt to scramble to make the deal even as he misses the birth of his daughter. Walt can quantify the amount of money he needs to make sure his family is provided for ($737,000), but wantonly permits the erosion of his own morality in the process.
By the time that big score comes in, Walt is in too deep, but also realizes he is ill-equipped to handle the volume of drugs he needs to produce or the protection he needs to ensure his safety and so he makes a deal with Gus to become his "cooker," bringing Jesse along in the bargain. While the custom lab Gus builds Walt appeals to the latter's inner chemistry nerd, Gus keeps him to a taxing schedule, expecting 200 pounds of meth each week that is then spirited out in Los Pollos Hermanos chicken batter. Of course, because Walt is out of his depth, he does not realize that he has been targeted for murder by a ruthless Mexican drug cartel for killing a mid-level guy named Tuco. When Gus intercedes on Walt's behalf, it is Hank who suffers the consequences, narrowly avoiding death at the hands of the cartel's executioners. In one of the show's poignant but cruel bits of irony, it is Skylar who pressures Walt into covering Hank's additional out of pocket medical costs with the very drug profits that were generated for the people who ended up shooting Hank.
Walt and Gus's partnership is the pivot point where Walt truly "breaks bad." Up until then, Walt had surely done morally reprehensible things, not the least of which included murder, profiting enormously off the sale of a drug that is more addictive than heroin and sacrificing his family life, but when Walt becomes Gus's cooker, things change. While both men exhibit a calm exterior, they also have a rational view of "business," and for Gus, he needs Walt just long enough to train a well-credentialed chemistry dork named Gale Boetticher to take Walt's place. To Gus, Jesse has no value, and when he catches Jesse skimming product, targets him for assassination. For Walt, the stream of money flowing to him is great until he realizes that his utility to Gus has an expiration date on it and decides to act, getting a reluctant Jesse to pull the trigger and murder Gale.
Gilligan has deftly raised Jesse as Walt's mirror opposite -an otherwise "bad" person who finds himself less and less comfortable the more successful a criminal he becomes. Jesse may have initially been a stoner with little ambition, but as he and Walt have achieved more financial success, Jesse's level of comfort with the world he inhabits has become lower and lower. He toggles between self-destruction and nihilism, at times immersing himself in a drug induced haze and at other times being so disgusted with the fat knots of money he has earned that he literally crumples them up into balls and watches meth heads scurry to collect his discarded $100 bills.
At his core, Jesse is a shy kid who was a bad student and a run of the mill street dealer. What he lacks in self-confidence he makes up for in bravado, but in his relationships with women, it is clear he just wants love, something denied to him by his parents, who will not speak to him. First, he falls for Jane, a recovering addict who becomes his co-dependent, as they spiral into a heroin-induced oblivion stopped only when she ODs and, unbeknownst to Jesse, is left to die by Walt, who could have saved her. Andrea, Jesse's new girlfriend, is also a recovering addict, but has a son (Brock) of her own and is the sister of a young boy who killed Jesse's friend Combo and was himself killed by Gus's goons. Brock's poisoning is the ruse Walt needed to lure Jesse back to his side in his war with Gus because he knows that going after Andrea and Brock, two people Jesse cares about, will have the effect Walt desires.
Season Four played out against this morally bleak backdrop, where every character made massively poor decisions that only served to draw each deeper into the morass. Skylar handed over hundreds of thousands of dollars (which Walt was saving so they could go into some unsanctioned form of "witness protection") to former lover Ted Beneke so he could avoid being indicted on tax evasion, but when he was preparing to abscond, he ends up getting killed (accidentally) by do-it-all lawyer Saul Goodman's henchmen. Saul, who when we met him was a cheap suit lawyer, has evolved into a mix between Winston Wolf and Lionel Hutz, always ready to help an entrepreneurial drug dealer set up a sham business to launder his money, but less able to navigate the deeper waters of internecine drug warfare. Hank's wife Marie is a sticky fingered kleptomaniac who escapes the drudgery of caring for her paralyzed husband by stealing items from open houses while Hank aimlessly channel surfs and pities himself.
And in the center of all of this was the battle of wits (and wills) between Walt and Gus, each using whatever tactics were necessary to get over on the other, knowing only one could survive. While Gus went from attempting to kill Jesse building Jesse up as a cook-in-training, playing a long game of cleaving Walt and Jesse's relationship, Walt was even more devious - poisoning the young son of Jesse's girlfriend and pinning it on Gus to cement Jesse's allegiance to him. In the end, Walt leveraged the enemy of his enemy, Hector, a mute cripple who can only communicate by ringing a bell on his wheelchair and turned Hector into a suicide bomber - killing him and Gus simultaneously while throwing Hank, who was tantalizingly close to blowing open Gus's secret, off Walt's trail.
What Breaking Bad gets right in ways that so few of today's TV shows do, is both the big picture and the little things. The narrative arcs feel cinematic and are worthy heirs to such touchstones as The Godfather and GoodFellas. Gus's killing of his Mexican rivals rolls out in sepia-toned flashbacks that borrow liberally from Scarface (even guest starring Steven Bauer) and have a "Michael settling all scores" vibe from the first Godfather movie. Walt's diligent attempts to assassinate Gus are framed in set pieces that feel like 70s conspiracy movies, and Gilligan's lovingly shot cinematography of mesas and deserts pay homage to everything from Natural Born Killers to A River Runs Through It.
While Gilligan does the broad strokes well, the small scale stuff is there too - haunting images and quiet moments that stay with viewers, from Jesse tricking a meth head into coming out of his home by digging a hole in his front yard, to Walt Jr. being handed the keys to a PT Cruiser after his tricked out Dodge Challenger is sent back to the dealership (but never makes it), to Mike coolly dispatching enemies with a small piece of his ear dangling off his head (a narrow gunshot miss), and Andrea's little brother, wheeling in circles telling Combo to "bounce" right before shooting him. Gilligan's pacing is pitch perfect and also keeps viewers on their toes. At times, the show feels like it will careen off the tracks, bombarding viewers with verbal and visual stimuli that barely lets you catch your breath, and at other times, is so deliberate in its story telling that it feels like non-fiction.
While much of Season Four found Walt impotently raging against the world, against his ex-wife, who spirited away the money that would have allowed them to escape, against Hank, as he slowly put the pieces together of Gus's criminal enterprise, and against Jesse, for, alternately, being in a drug induced fog and then becoming Gus's trainee, he desperately wanted to be "THE DANGER" he warned Skylar he was. Now, having killed off Gus, who had himself killed off their Mexican rivals, Walt has no enemy or peer, what is left is just his own darkened soul. This will not end well.