A timid, discomfited high school science teacher stands in front of his students. Daydreams are abundant, and boredom permeates the air. The classroom windows serve as a cruel gateway to an unreachable paradise, a seemingly effortless escape from endless monotony and struggle. “Chemistry,” he declares, “is about transformation.”
Little did we know just how true those feelings of boredom and despair were – not from the students, but from the teacher. As it prepares for its final episode Sunday, Breaking Bad has been a tragic journey of transformation; a harrowing portrayal of a middle-aged suburbanite who is driven to madness by his own ego, greed and rancor.
Although it was decently well-received initially, Breaking Bad was by no means a hit off the bat – eventual success on Netflix was the precursor to what has now become gargantuan popularity. It’s lack of instant impact can largely be attributed to its rather bromidic and distressing plot – a teacher turned meth king seems like a cliched version of The Wire on the surface. Moreover, many people hesitate to associate with the drug-ridden lower-middle class New Mexico wasteland that the show is so eager for us to see.
But as with most memorable stories, Breaking Bad‘s greatness lies not in the story itself, but in its uniquely compelling characters. The show, fitting with its setting, relies on despondence and desperation to connect us to its often fatally flawed players – many of whom have already met their demise. The writing is gimmick-free; it is frequently painfully straightforward and never shies from its looming conflicts. Despite its intrinsic darkness, it is unafraid to put humor as dry as the desert air in the middle of tension and suspense. It appears indifferent to our investment; we’re often asked to maintain our solemnity as the show’s lead scolds a drug addict a quarter-century his junior in nothing but his skivvies. Distractions, not unlike places to hide in the wide-open desert, are nowhere to be found.
When we are first introduced to Walter White, the aforementioned chemistry teacher, we meet a man who is fed up with his life. Disgusted with his job and income, yearning to escape his staid surroundings, and resentful over a missed business opportunity in his past, it is finally a cancer diagnosis that sends him over the edge. Teaming up with former student and current drug pawn/addict Jesse Pinkman, Walt uses his chemical expertise and Jesse’s connections to produce methamphetamine at an unmatched quality and purity. They enter the drug world and reap all it has to offer: its massive profits, its sketchy lifestyle, and its omnipresent danger.
Breaking Bad, at its essence, is about the price of change. We witness a character in Walt who is pushed around in every way imaginable, and soon becomes a manic manipulative murderer who rises to the top of his profession, and starts to do the pushing. He has become so greedy, so selfish, so evil that we have lost sympathy for a man who we refuse to believe can have any similarities to ourselves.
But part of any classic antihero is not just inner conflict within themselves, but within us as the audience as well. He is driven by money on the surface, but as we all are, by his deepest insecurities underneath. It is his lack of control, his vulnerability, that gradually sends him down his dark path, a weakness he will now avoid at any cost. He refuses to be afraid.
To prevent fear and helplessness, Walt sold every last piece of humanity he had left. Now, he has lost his family, almost all his money, and what appears to be all hope. We have seen first hand the price of his transformation. Could this be our fate should we decide to change? Are our humanities for sale? What value does fear have in our own lives?
Perhaps what we can learn most from Breaking Bad is the power of choice. The show laughs in the face of destiny; it is morbidly committed to the ideal of free will. It has remarkable faith in people’s ability to create new possibilities, to resurrect their identity, to push the boundaries of their very existence.
Breaking Bad teaches us we all have the power to transform ourselves, to change our lives – our own narratives are composed by the choices we make. Just as Walter White was at the beginning, we’re all stuck in some kind of classroom, as we stare out the windows to our perceived salvation. Is it worth it to make a daring and dangerous escape?
As Breaking Bad has so brilliantly shown, it’s up to you.