Just Why Exactly Is Breaking Bad Great?
Aside from the fact that this post’s title implies other possibilities, I think - no, declare, with what tiny speck of authority I have - that Breaking Bad is worthy of the label of “great show.” Since this blog started, I’ve never questioned its status on the consensus Mount Rushmore of Golden Age television, along with The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men.
But of the four pantheon shows of the post-Sopranos era, Breaking Bad is easily the one that seems the most peculiar. The other three have come to somewhat define what high class television is now, mainly cerebral, oblique and dense.
In contrast, Breaking Bad is far less literary. If we equate the modern television with the New Hollywood era, people like David Chase and Matthew Weiner would be its Scorsese and Bogdanovich, while Vince Gilligan would be more akin to its William Friedkin, which is really a roundabout way of saying that the adventures and evils of Walter White are relayed to us in a much more straightforward way.
That isn’t a bad thing by any means. Walter White is unlikely to ever venture off into a Test Dream, ponderously stare down an empty elevator shaft or largely abandon us for an entire season so we can explore the life of some dock workers or middle school students. But the pulpy nature of Breaking Bad, along with Gilligan’s knack for visual quirk, allows the show to embrace a very effective style over subtlety approach that has been incredibly successful for many filmmakers (Quentin Tarantino is probably the most notable of late).
This pulpy aspect can also result in flaws - the convoluted Lily of the Valley twist at the end of the last season was a good example of how the show can overly stress its Rube Goldberg style chaos when it tries to apply some method to it - but more often it allows Breaking Bad to embrace the ways of traditional television but elevate it to much more rarefied territory.
So why is Breaking Bad a great show? Look no further than two of the key scenes from this week’s episode “Madrigal,” featuring emerging go-to character Mike Ehrmantraut, cleaning up messes the way only Mike the Cleaner can. In the scenes at the home of Mr. Chao and in front of the pleading Lydia, Mike is every bit the traditional badass that any viewer can appreciate. But the scenes are filmed in such a way to orchestrate the tension and dread to operatic levels. The vengeful hitman is about as pulpy a storyline as you can get, but when filmed with that level of skill, it transcends pulp. It’s just great.