I found myself trying to describe what I loved about Breaking Bad to someone the other day and realised that it probably sounded really horrible. Whenever you wind up watching one a show that is so unrelenting dark, something so determined to keep hurting its audience, it's hard not to focus on the horrible things going on, and how horrible everyone is, and then, suddenly, you realise that you probably sound like one of those people that slow down for car accidents to check if they can see the blood. I'm not sure that that is Breaking Bad's attraction - I think I've got a certain intolerance for media that revels in it's own grimness, hence not watching (for example) The Walking Dead - but its swirling darkness is potent and tangible. So what, then, is it?
For starters I suspect it's fair to say that you don't need me to tell you that Breaking Bad is excellent. It has been one of the most feted TV shows of the last decade, seemingly immune from the inevitable backlash that follows these things, and lauded where-ever it has gone. Some of it's imagery has become iconic, recognizable beyond fans of the show itself, and it's gone onto claim the title of "best TV show ever made" in the critical consensus, whatever that means. So yes, its is pretty much all of what it is praised for - the acting, the writing, the direction - my god, the direction alone is breathtaking at times - and yes, probably one of the greatest TV dramas ever made.
For me, one of the most interesting things about Breaking Bad, however, is its positioning as a morality tale. I know there is a population out there that seem to see Walt as the trangressive hero he self-justifies his actions as, but seriously, what is wrong with you people? By the end of the show, and for a long time before, Walt is a monster, a repellent, amoral force of corruption that tears down everything around him, and I think there may be an interesting test of any given individual by making them watch the show start to finish and see when they actually turn on him as a character. Walt's journey is compelling, mesmerising, and revolting. He's Faust and Mephistopheles rolled together, a portrait of a man slowing burning away his own soul, leaving nothing beneath.
The downside of this focus on one man and his journey to damnation and beyond is that most of the rest of the cast end up shortchanged. Few of the supporting team get anything approaching their own story, or sense of agency, and whilst they do get arcs, they always serve to either fold back to Walt or reflect upon him. Its particularly apparent for the women, with Marie and Skyler badly shortchanged at times, and I would loved an episode to see more into their relationship, something that largely exists in subtext. It's not that they don't get some lovely, and ultimately heart-breaking scenes as real people, there is nothing like Hanks transformation from semi-comic also-ran to pure force of awesome, or Gus' long, meticulous quest for revenge. Marie, Skyler, Jane and Andrea all exist as adjuncts to their men, who exist as adjusts to Walt, whose story this is.
And in many ways thats fine, because this is Walt's story, and the show benefits from that purity of vision in other ways. For a start, a bit like this year's True Detective, this becomes a show about men, and masculinity. Walt always justifies himself in the old school, pater familias mold, the protector and provider and only authority for his family, literal or otherwise. The wide-skies, Western-inflected direction only adds to the picture, as does the heightened, operatic nature of the plot as it winds forward like clockwork, with hardly a loose cog in sight.
Yes, it is dark. After all, its a show about a man who choses to become a drug dealer, and finds he likes the power that that brings, and the exercise of it. By the end of Breaking Bad nothing stands, no-one is left with anything, and mere survival feels like a victory for those that manage it. But that journey is, frankly, an amazing piece of art that if you have any taste in quality television you should see, although I should warn you it can leave you with an intolerance for the messy ways of lesser imitators.