Arts & Culture, Featured

After the End: Reflections on Breaking Bad

*Warning: spoilers about Crime and Punishment, for anyone who cares. I think you’re safe from BB spoilers.

I can count on one hand the TV shows I’ve followed episode-to-episode in my life. Although I like a good silver screen as much as the next person, I’m the type who has always preferred the Grammys to the Emmys, the library to the local DVD rental store. But one night the summer before last, a friend coerced me into watching an episode of Breaking Bad. It was immediately not my style – too much blood, dark humor if any, heavy subject matter that didn’t let my mind drift for a minute. And yet somehow this chemistry teacher gone rogue didn’t leave my mind for months, and I binge-watched four seasons on Netflix over my freshman year Christmas break. Who was this girl giving up so much time to a TV show, and what had she done with the Melissa Warten I knew?

breaking bad

But then I would watch just one more episode and I’d be on the edge of my seat. Walter White would kill in cold blood and then go kiss his baby daughter, and it would still bring tears to my eyes. Jesse Pinkman could label everyone and their brother a “bitch,” and I’d still root for him to get out of his whole mess. There was enough blood and murder to make the most avid SVU fan blanch, and enough subtleties and nuances to make my head spin – but I kept coming back. When season five, part two was airing this fall, I would put off reading and homework to watch the newest episode, shouting at the TV, always thinking what if Walt does this, what if it ends like that, what if…?

Flash forward to a week before the Breaking Bad finale: my sophomore Modernism and the Arts class, discussing Crime and Punishment. In the 19th-century Russian novel, Raskolnikov kills two women for what he sees as the betterment of society – this pawnbroker was a blight, a cheat, and ridding the world of her would be a small blip on the way to improving everyone else’s state. But by the novel’s end, he realizes that he is no different from anyone else, in that he has no ability to decide who deserves or does not deserve to live. Every prick of his subconscious has been a signal that he is not this “overman” who can be placed above the law. By the novel’s end, he has moved towards redemption, but we as readers find it hard to be fully satisfied: with so much cruelty behind him and years of hard labor ahead, Raskolnikov seems far from saved.

The Breaking Bad finale brought all of these points home. Walter White became a drug kingpin for reasons that he sees as familial – he was dying from cancer, his family was financially insecure, and cooking methamphetamine would just be a quick little sidenote to make sure his loved ones were safe. But as his empire rises up and crashes to its fall, he looks his wife in the eye and admits what we as viewers have known all along: “I did it for me.” The move for forgiveness feels maybe a little trite, and even as the loose ends are tied up, we know it’s just a matter of time until the episode ends, so it’s difficult to feel fully at peace with Walt’s admission of guilt. But for us, and for me, it feels familiar – it is an American saga reminiscent of themes that have been explored since Dostoevsky and before. It is an end that we recognize, an end we knew at our core was coming, little as we wanted to admit it.

Breaking Bad was good to me because it wasn’t just about aesthetics; the show was more than its drugs and its violence, more than moving a story from point A to point B and racking up ratings along the way. Breaking Bad made themes of the classroom relevant, even addictive. It forced me to look at plot in the context of history and culture. It made discussions about symbolism, tone and character development cool. And as someone who has only ever wanted to tell stories, it proved that stories come to life in more ways than words – there are stories in setting, in music, in glances between two people. There are stories in the most evil of deeds. There are stories in exaggerations of reality. There are stories that novels might not be able to contain. And these are stories that matter.

I don’t think a show like Breaking Bad comes around too often, and I count myself lucky to have experienced it. It will be missed. My Sundays will be one hour emptier. But maybe in those hours, I’ll find the time to make stories of my own.

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