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Saying Goodbye to Breaking Bad

It’s easy enough to underestimate the value of a significant work of art to its contemporary culture without retrospect. Ironically, at a time when the medium itself – television – is in a very difficult transitional phase, it’s rather easy to find a good television program.

Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad is widely considered to be one of the best drama series in the history of television, and in just a week, the final eight episodes will begin to air. It’s a series that has followed on from other genre-defining series such as The Sopranos and The Wire in combining an intriguing plot with gritty detail, artful construction, complexity, and maturity. Its premise – a high school chemistry teacher dying of cancer teams up with a former student to manufacture and sell crystal meth to secure his family’s future – is both uncomforting and fanciful, and although the story itself remains true to this core mission in a very simple and succinct way, the series is also so much more than that.

Perhaps the most immediately striking and strongest feature of Breaking Bad is its creation of a library full of deep, interesting and multi-faceted characters: Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), Skylar White (Anna Gunn), Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) are just a few of the characters we meet on Walter White’s journey from good to bad. What I find most interesting about these characters, however, is not just that they are written naturally and avoid the obvious clichés, but is that their exploration is treated more like an important plot thread than a necessary annoyance for the sake of legitimacy.

Without spoiling too many details, Skylar’s past with her old employer is a piece of the puzzle that could easily have been touched on and forgotten; instead this detail is woven into the fabric of the plot, and really feels like a factor, however small, in Walter White’s descent to badness.

The brilliance of the work behind the scenes – editing, scoring and cinematography – is also worth a mention. Although the minimalistic score composed by David Porter has been solid since the show’s premiere, the editing and cinematography have become increasingly complex and daring. In particular, certain fifth season episodes such as “Fifty-One” and “Dead Freight”, with the latter a heist episode, which contains one of the most gripping and nerve-wracking television sequences I’ve ever experienced.

Currently, the effect of Breaking Bad on popular culture is limited to core members of the show’s fan base. However, its effect on newer drama series, such as David Fincher’s House of Cards, FX’s Justified, and The Walking Dead is obvious. These shows, much like Breaking Bad, assume that the audience has a high level of intellect, meaning that intelligent plots can be constructed quickly, simply, and with inference from the viewer. It means that subtler elements can be introduced to colour the story, without becoming blindingly overbearing.

Overall, however, the series is primarily responsible for furthering the maturity of television as a medium for adult-oriented stories. As TV begins its possible shift to the Internet, a series such as Breaking Bad, at the very least, proves just how much television has evolved and developed over its relatively short lifetime. If it really does mark the end of an era, then it will be considered, in retrospect, a brilliant bookend.

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