Fans of AMC’s Breaking Bad are on the edge of their seats, biting their fingernails and waiting with bated breath for the show’s final eight episodes. Meth-dealing ne’er-do-well Jesse Pinkman would probably say, “Chill, dudes,” but the show’s just too much of a rush, and they’ve been craving their next hit too long already. One can only imagine how awful the withdrawal is going to be after the series finale.
Breaking Bad is the story of an on-again, off-again romance—not between Walter White and his wife, Skyler, though their marriage has rocky patches aplenty. No, the real love affair in Breaking Bad is between Walter (Bryan Cranston) and his young partner in crime, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). There’s no hint of sex, but the two of them are incredibly, even oedipally intimate, alternating between mutual concern and misunderstanding, respect and recrimination, dependency and distrust. They get under each other’s skin—physically, they’re as apt to trade punches as hugs. Over the course of the series, Walter and Jesse undergo opposite but equally profound ethical transformations, Walt falling from respectable paterfamilias to badass down to moral monster, even as Jesse—a good-for-nothing delinquent when the show opens—gradually learns to shoulder responsibility and even to love. Breaking Bad has lots of other fascinating characters, including Gustavo Fring, the meticulous drug kingpin played by Giancarlo Esposito. But it’s Walt and Jesse’s show. Both actors have won multiple Emmys: Cranston three best actor awards and Paul two for best supporting actor—an unequal ranking that seems unfair, given how essential both are to Breaking Bad’s addictive plot.
In Breaking Bad’s backstory, Jesse is a former student—a lazy, unmotivated one—of the man he continues to call “Mr. White.” In the show’s first season, Jesse rifles through his abandoned toys and papers at his parents’ house and unearths an old chemistry quiz: The letter grade is F, and across the bottom Mr. White has written, “Ridiculous! Apply yourself.” Jesse didn’t learn anything in Mr. White’s chemistry classroom. Or maybe just enough to become, by the time Walter White reencounters him, a low-level meth cook producing garbage-grade crystal. But under Mr. White’s renewed tutelage, he eventually absorbs enough science to operate a lab producing premium meth all by himself. Over Breaking Bad’s run, viewers have likewise absorbed lessons in chemistry and physics: how, for example, to make thermite explosives from the powdered metal in an Etch A Sketch, derive ricin poison from castor beans and use a powerful magnet to wipe clean a laptop computer’s hard drive. They’ve also learned about dissolving human bodies, teeth and bones and all, with hydrofluoric acid. If you’re trying that last trick at home, don’t do it in your bathtub.
It’s often remarked that we’re living through a new golden age of television—even if many people no longer watch television on TV. The era was inaugurated by HBO’s Sopranos, which began airing in 1999—and whose success ushered in a host of acclaimed long-form dramas featuring narratives with multiple plotlines, psychologically complex characters and precipitous season-end cliffhangers. Less often noted is how good these shows’ main title sequences usually are—the visuals as well as the music. Ingeniously communicating a show’s story line and mood, main-title masterpieces include those for HBO’s Game of Thrones (design: Elastic; music: Ramin Djawadi), Showtime’s Homeland (sound-and-image collage by TCG Studio), AMC’s Mad Men (design: Imaginary Forces; music: RJD2) and HBO’s Six Feet Under (design: Danny Yount; music: Thomas Newman). Compared to these, Breaking Bad’s 18-second title sequence is spare: A periodic table appears amid a dissolving cloud of chemical-compound formulas, then quickly fades to a swirl of acid-green smoke and the series title, its typography incorporating element symbols from the periodic table. The visuals establish the centrality of chemistry in Breaking Bad’s plot, while composer Dave Porter’s twanging Dobro guitar theme evokes the show’s Southwestern setting—as well as its danger.
During the third season, Jesse is briefly replaced in Walter’s affections by a new protégé, Gale Boetticher (David Costabile), who unlike Jesse is a skilled chemist—and the seemingly perfect partner for Walt as they cook together in drug lord Gustavo Fring’s state-of-the-art meth lab. Gale is a bit of a Renaissance man: Beyond his passion for X-ray crystallography, his interests extend to world music, perfectly brewed Sumatran coffee and Walt Whitman. He recites Whitman’s poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” for Walter at the end of a workday. Later, Gale presents Walter with a copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, inscribed “To my other favorite W.W.”
Walter and Gale’s relationship is fated to end badly—for Gale. But Gale will posthumously exact a sort of poetic revenge. His confiscated lab notebooks, in which the initials W.W. repeatedly appear, are examined by Walt’s brother-in-law, Drug Enforcement Administration agent Hank Schrader. The notebooks don’t rouse Hank’s suspicions—that is, not until the conclusion to the first part of season five. At his in-laws’ house, Hank finds that inscribed copy of Leaves of Grass on the top of the toilet tank. Whitman’s book is, it seems, always a revelation.
Innocence runs in short supply in the worlds of contemporary long-form television dramas, whether they’re The Wire’s mean streets of Baltimore or the castle keeps of Westeros in Game of Thrones. On Breaking Bad, even the less morally compromised characters are seriously flawed: Walter’s wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), commits adultery; her sister, Marie (Betsy Brandt), is a shoplifter; and Marie’s husband, Hank (Dean Norris)—who comes closest to being a hero—is a bragging, intolerant oaf. Even the villains are drawn in shades of gray: Drug lord Gustavo Fring is capable of bone-chilling violence, but he has a cruel backstory that renders him understandable if not exactly sympathetic. Addicted viewers do, however, feel guilty sympathy for Breaking Bad’s main characters, Walter and Jesse, even when they’re behaving badly. It’s the same mixed emotion Sopranos fans felt for Mafia boss Tony Soprano (played by the late James Gandolfini), a man we watch commit murder repeatedly but who nonetheless possesses a rich, often tender interior life. That show taught us, to our enjoyable discomfort, that sociopaths can be lovable—a lesson since reinforced by Breaking Bad. We somehow continue to root for Walter even when his moral compass heads straight south.
“Blue Sky” is the street name for the crystal meth that Walter and Jesse produce—so dubbed because of its pale blue color, resulting from slight imperfections in the 99.1 percent chemically pure crystal Walt’s formula yields. From the first batch they cook—in an RV “rolling lab” parked in the New Mexico desert—the ultrapotent Blue Sky proves wildly popular among the speed freaks of Albuquerque. Later, when Walt and Jesse are cooking industrial-size batches for drug kingpin Gus Fring, Blue Sky’s market expands throughout the Southwest and into Mexico—drawing unwelcome attention from drug lords. Historically, Mexican cartels controlled much of the meth distributed in the U.S. But by the mid-1990s, methamphetamine manufacturing had become a cottage industry throughout large sections of the U.S. because it’s relatively easy to synthesize and the chemicals used to make it—including pseudoephedrine, a component of over-the-counter decongestants—were readily available. That changed as federal and state governments began regulating pseudoephedrine sales. The difficulty of obtaining adequate amounts of pseudoephedrine leads Walt, in the opening season, to substitute a different precursor chemical, methylamine. Of course, the Blue Sky appearing on Breaking Bad isn’t really meth. It’s crystallized sugar, a.k.a. rock candy.
With an annual budget of nearly $2.5 billion and thousands of agents, the Drug Enforcement Administration is the chief army in the United States’ war on drugs, battling foreign cartels and domestic distributors of controlled substances. These include heroin, LSD, marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine—i.e., crystal meth, the highly addictive “superstimulant” that, by flooding a user’s brain with dopamine, causes euphoria but over time wrecks addicts’ bodies. Breaking Bad doesn’t pull punches when it comes to meth’s depredations—showing, for example, the rotting mouths and lesion-scarred faces of “bag whore” users. Nor does the series underplay the dangers faced by DEA agents fighting drug lords who control the flow of meth. Agent Hank Schrader loses some of his cockiness when, on assignment near El Paso, Texas, he witnesses a gag-inducing drug-cartel atrocity: An informant’s severed head, strapped to a tortoise and with a bomb planted inside it, blows up, injuring several incautious DEA colleagues. Later, Hank is severely injured in a parking-lot shootout with two look-alike assassins; the cartel sent them to Albuquerque to avenge the death of their cousin Tuco Salamanca, a local dealer Hank had previously killed.
One of the greatest dangers Walter White faces as he morphs from high school chemistry teacher to lord of his own drug empire is his brother-in-law, DEA agent Hank Schrader. There are many close calls, but not until the final moments of the first half of season five does Hank realize that the elusive “Heisenberg”—maker of an ultrapure, blue-hued variety of crystal meth, and a DEA target for years—is none other than his relative and close friend, Walt. The intimacy of that cop-criminal relationship was, however, surpassed in the second season of Showtime’s long-running black comedy Weeds, when widowed suburban mom–cum–marijuana dealer Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) falls for DEA lieutenant Peter Scottson (Martin Donovan). Nancy and Peter wed, but theirs is a marriage of convenience as much as one of love: Peter, knowing how Nancy earns her living, starts assisting her business by busting rival pot dealers. It’s anybody’s guess as to how Hank will react to his discovery of Heisenberg’s identity. Will he bust Walt? Help him? The suspense is excruciating—and exhilarating.
Weeds and Breaking Bad have strikingly similar premises. In each, an upstanding suburbanite secretly turns to the drug trade as a means of earning money: Soccer mom Nancy Botwin becomes a pot dealer after her husband suddenly dies and she’s forced to find some way of supporting herself and her two boys. High school chemistry teacher Walter White becomes a meth cook after he’s diagnosed with advanced lung cancer and needs to accumulate a pile of cash to support his family—wife Skyler, disabled son Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) and a baby daughter on the way—after he’s gone. This out-of-character turn is so radical that Walt’s soon-to-be collaborator, lowlife Jesse Pinkman, can’t believe it: “Man, some straight like you, giant stick up his ass, all the sudden at age what?—60?—he’s just gonna break bad?” Equally hard to believe is that Breaking Bad ever got made. Creator Vince Gilligan had a tough time pitching it: TNT and HBO turned it down. Astonishingly, Gilligan was unaware of Weeds when he came up with the concept for Breaking Bad, and he has said he almost shelved the idea when he heard about the Showtime series’ analogous plotline.