The story of a humble, checked-out everyman who becomes self-actualized in the wake of a trauma (he's diagnosed with terminal cancer), Breaking Bad finds its brilliance in subverting the usual Bucket List-style soul awakening story. Walter White doesn't get his groove back by going skydiving or joining the Big Brother program. No, Walter's deliverance, and perhaps ultimate undoing, comes from his choice to do bad things, increasingly awful things. He's a drug maker and a drug dealer and a killer and a sneak and a vicious liar. But we love him, root for him with fervor, because he's more fully alive in bad mode than he ever was when he was on the straight and narrow. It's a moral conundrum that seems germane to, well, the entire human condition. Why do bad things feel good? And why are they bad in the first place? Obviously the show isn't arguing that we should be going around killing and drugging at will, but it does some prodding at the bedrock idea of universal morality that rattles the mind in a way that it hasn't quite been rattled before.
The Sopranos traded in that same kind of moral ambiguity, but we never quite got to the root of it, for a couple of reasons. One, we met Tony in medias res, we didn't get to witness the birth of the gangster, of the killer, of the duplicitous animal. And two, he was, by the show's own diagnosis, a true sociopath. Someone who was not likely to ever change, who was less responding to the external stimuli of modern America than he was guided by some innate inner wiring. Tony had conflict and confusion and he was assuredly our hero, but he always felt removed, othered. Walter White, though, is a creation that hits startlingly close to home. We may not all be in the same particular pickle as he is, but who can't relate to feeling stuck, helpless, muted? And presumably we've all had a moment or two of giddy abandon, we've felt life go off the rails, or at least go down an unexpected track, and experienced the strange and thrilling sensation of feeling more alive than we ever knew we could. Breaking Bad, for all its grit and technical coolness, is a very humane show. It warmly offers many points of connection, as if nodding its head and saying, "Yeah, us too."
Plus the show is just so exciting! Every episode has at least one bracing set piece that pushes the limits of what we think TV can do. It has a cast of characters that, while not quite as expansive as The Wire, offers a rich sampling of the breadth of the spectrum. We have a fully fleshed-out family dynamic, a twisty and knotty crime cabal, and the fringe denizens of sun-bleached Albuquerque who exist somewhere between good and bad, between legit and illicit. Particular standouts are Anna Gunn as Walter's surprisingly wily wife Skyler and Walter's partner/sidekick Jesse, played with squirmy tenderness by the great Aaron Paul. The world of Breaking Bad is as vividly and thoroughly imagined as Game of Thrones, it's an entire ecosystem with ever-expanding borders and boundaries that feels wholly individual. And yet it's also accessible, inviting. The world of Breaking Bad is somehow both familiar and surprising. We may not see it in front of us in our own lives, but it exists somewhere nearby, we can feel it. There's a sense we might find it if we look under the right rock. The immediacy and relatability occasionally giving way to shock and intrigue is a really tricky balance to strike, and yet Breaking Bad does it masterfully, as if it was nothing. It's not a showy, jazz-handsing kind of television series, but it is confident and assured and fully in touch with its own staggering abilities.