Why did the “worst idea ever for a TV show” prove so popular, and end its run acclaimed as the best show in TV history?
By the time it finished in September, Breaking Bad was nothing less than a full-blown cultural phenomenon, which, considering its solid if unremarkable ratings figures when it started, is a pretty remarkable accomplishment. This was a TV series which, according to conventional studio logic, shouldn’t have worked: a middle-aged man, dying of lung cancer, turning to cooking methamphetamine to secure his family’s financial future after he died. When he pitched it, Vince Gilligan was told that it was the “worst idea for a TV show” the exec had ever heard. So how did this unlikely crime drama go on to become the biggest thing on television?
Breaking Bad is much more than a crime drama – at its core, Breaking Bad is a grand, almost Shakespearean tragedy
Well, because Breaking Bad is much more than a crime drama, even the crime epic that later seasons turned into. At its core, Breaking Bad is a grand, almost Shakespearean tragedy, as Anthony Hopkins observed in his fan letter to Bryan Cranston. The overarching story of the series showed us Walt’s rise to power as a ruthless meth kingpin, establishing and building on the flaws in his character which would be his undoing, before mercilessly tearing down everything he has built in the episode aptly titled Ozymandias. The theme of Shelley’s poem is that, no matter how powerful you are and how great your empire, eventually all that you did will crumble to dust – rich material for a tragic story like Breaking Bad.
Breaking Bad was that rare TV show that had the guts to explore big ideas and complicated themes, and it obviously paid off very well for all concerned. To have a main character as morally murky as Walter White, who gradually transformed from hero to villain over the course of the series, was a big risk: people aren’t too likely to root for a character as evil as Walt becomes in the later seasons. But then, morally questionable characters are some of the most enduring in all fiction, and Walt has been favourably compared to Macbeth, in that both characters’ ambition drives them to do terrible things for the supposed benefit of their family. We are fascinated by Macbeth, in the same way that we are fascinated by Walt – how does such an initially unassuming person become so monstrous?
Themes and ideas, which are major parts of Shakespeare’s tragedies (as well as the even older classical Greek ones), are likewise hugely important in Breaking Bad. Walter White may not be a ‘great man’ per se, as the traditional tragic hero should be, but he is a Nobel Prize-winning chemist who has since gone to seed, so we know he at least used to be a person of some importance. His driving motivation, throughout the series, was his pride – just like any number of Greek tragic heroes laid low by their hubris. As Mike would say to him, the collapse of the empire Gus Fring built only happened because of Walt’s pride and ego, his need to expand the business at any cost.
It’s not surprising how popular Breaking Bad became – the show dealt with some of the longest-lasting themes in Western culture
Walt was also driven by his resentment for not getting what he deserved from Gray Matter, the multi-billion dollar company he co-founded, and by the desire to be remembered for something notable after spending most of his life as a high school chemistry teacher. These character traits go back even further than Greek tragedy – they are precisely what motivate Achilles, the protagonist of Homer’s Iliad, the oldest work of Western literature. This is not to say that Vince Gilligan was directly inspired by Homer – he almost certainly wasn’t – but rather that stories dealing with these themes are some of the best-known and longest-lasting in all Western culture. It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, that a show with this kind of character at its heart should have become as wildly popular as it did.
It all ties in to one of the overarching questions of the show, another big idea which television doesn’t tend to touch on: what does it mean to be a man in the modern world? In fiction, pride tends to be a male characteristic, and Walt’s pride could not allow him to be anything less than a ‘real man’. The examination of Walt’s masculinity was one of the show’s main themes. The female characters weren’t sidelined by any means, but this was still very much a show about male friendships and male ego.
It came up over and over again: when Gus Fring convinced Walt to carry on cooking, essentially playing Mephistopheles to Walt’s Dr. Faustus, he did so by saying, “What does a man do? A man provides.” Mike accused Walt of bringing down Gus’s business because he “had to be the Man,” and couldn’t let anyone else share control. And when Hank learned Walt’s secret, he tried to extract a confession from him by telling him to “be a man and admit” what he did.
Not many shows are willing or able to take on big ideas like these, which are generally seen as the preserve of classic literature
Not many TV shows – traditionally considered a lesser medium to film, despite the huge potential for depth of characterisation that such long-form storytelling allows – would have been willing or able to take on big ideas like these, which are generally seen as the preserve of classic literature. It is admirable and remarkable that Breaking Bad was willing to take the risk of tackling such weighty themes. It proved that you don’t need to talk down to your audience to achieve huge success and popularity. It remains to be seen whether this story will survive as long as the tragedies it descends from, but it certainly deserves to.
Shelley’s Ozymandias could easily be Vince Gilligan laying down the challenge to all TV shows following in Breaking Bad’s wake. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”, indeed.
All images: Sony Pictures Television