10 Reasons to Watch: “Breaking Bad”

The final eight episodes of this beloved series were recently released onto Netflix, and if for some reason you haven’t watched them yet, I’m here to set you straight.

Note: this list is largely spoiler-free, but watch the embedded videos and click on links directing you elsewhere at your own risk.

If you haven’t heard of Breaking Bad, then you’ve clearly been lost to the world over the past year or so. Breaking Bad is arguably AMC’s most critically acclaimed show, although sadly not its most watched. Its creator, Vince Gilligan, cites streaming services and the capacity of viewers to “binge watch” as the source of the show’s great success, particularly in its final season when loads of viewers scrambled to catch up in time for the finale.

So what’s it all about?

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Jesse (left) and Walt (right) in their gear, knocking back a few brews in your living room while their meth cooks in your dining room

Breaking Bad is the story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a master chemist whose mundane and unfulfilled life as an undervalued high school chemistry teacher is, quite frankly, downright depressing. He has an award for contributing to Nobel Prize-winning research, yet he has to scrub down tires at his second job. Walter seems primed to accept his pathetic life for what it is, passively letting his frustrations eat away at what little dignity he has left. But after being diagnosed with cancer, Walt “breaks bad” and enlists the help of a former student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), to start cooking methamphetamine so he can provide for his family.

You could sum up a recommendation for the show by saying that it is one of the most brilliantly and meticulously written and produced shows in modern history – with an obnoxiously intelligent level of detail and adventurous cinematography – but to make all our lives simpler, here are ten reasons for you to watch Breaking Bad:

The show offers a look at the world of crime and drugs from the outside in

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“You two suck at peddling meth!” – Saul Goodman

It will come as no surprise that Breaking Bad deals heavily with drug use and all the crimes that come attached. In a time when shows like Weeds make light of drug use and films like The Wolf of Wall Street make it seem appealing, Breaking Bad gives us the opposite end of the spectrum; it will never let you forget that drugs are bad. While Walt embarks upon his life of crime in order to preserve his family, much of what he winds up doing is downright terrible, and  they only worsen over time. It all begins with an ineffective chemistry teacher whose brother-in-law, Hank, is a DEA agent. One day on a lark, Walt goes with him on a meth lab bust. We enter the world of drugs alongside the largely ignorant Walt after he recognizes Jesse, a former student, fleeing the scene. For Walt, Jesse becomes is his way into unfamiliar territory. We’re all – Walt included – on the outside looking in.

Jesse is an addict that dabbles in various drugs throughout the course of the series. Take a look at the below scene, where he shoots up heroin for the first time with his more experienced girlfriend. The sound and visuals convey something a bit more honest about the experience of getting high; between the close up shots of Jane’s ritualistic preparation and Jesse’s out-of-body experience, it’s sort of horrifying.

Beyond these interesting scenes conveying the direct effects of drugs, a lot of screen time in Breaking Bad is spent delving into the lifestyle surrounding drug use. You will see meth labs in varying states of filth and decay. You will see a crack den or two and how filthy an addict’s house can get. You will see how low people will sink in the pursuit of that next high or the money that will get them there. The terrible things that Jesse and Walt do time and time again to save themselves from danger take a deep emotional toll on both the characters and the viewer. You’re looking at how things really are out there for users and abusers. It’s bad. Real bad. It’s gonna break you it’s so bad.

Bryan Cranston’s butt

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Walt’s half-naked outfit from the pilot episode is perhaps one of the most iconic images from the show.

I joke, but Bryan Cranston’s butt is something that will be exposed to you on more than several occasions. Walt’s nakedness – beyond being a motif we come to laugh at every now and then – is a brilliant symbol meant to represent the harsh reality of humanity (heavy-handed, I know). Breaking Bad strives for well-rounded characters and a tone of realism. Everyone on the show is deliberately cast as average-looking. Nobody is a knockout. Don’t get me wrong, nobody is downright ugly either, this is show business after all. But in straddling that line targeting imperfection, the full cast is a collection of people you might bump into at the supermarket – or maybe even at your favorite crack den. Aaron Paul is the closest anybody in the cast gets to being a Hollywood hottie, but even then he’s on the shorter side at 5’8″ and has impressively thin arms.

The point here is that the physical imperfections are as common as the numerous character faults. Walt’s bald head, pale legs, sagging gut, and flabby ass are constant reminders that the human form can be an ugly thing. All of the characters on Breaking Bad are regular, everyday people. More often than not, their insides are just as ugly, but that human aspect makes most of them that much more enjoyable to watch in action.

Breaking Bad will violate your emotional stability

There was a lot of thought paid to casting the right troupe of actors, but even more thought went in to scripting out how those characters would behave. In the first few episodes, each character seems to fill a sort of stereotype. As viewers, we are trained to apply these subconsciously:

“Oh okay, Walt is the weak, passive, unfulfilled intellectual type. Yup, alright. So his wife Skyler is the overbearing, passive-aggressive house wife? He finds her interests inane and her demeanor boring? Got it. Walt secretly hates his macho, ball-busting brother-in-law Hank for being pound-for-pound twice the man he is? Seems simple enough.”

Seems simple, right? It’s not. You’re so sure that you have the dynamics figured out, but over time, the assumptions you make and the stereotypes you have are constantly subverted. Relationships are fluid and changing up until the very end; nobody does what you expect them to! But even when they do surprise you, their behavior remains true to the well-drawn characters. Sure it’s exciting, but it’s also downright traumatic. One minute you hate Skyler for being so annoying and controlling, but then the next you feel sorry for her. You start out kind of despising Jesse for being a punk who talks and dresses ridiculously, but then he grows on you with his sad, battered puppy dog ways. Then he goes and does something stupid, and you just shake your head. And Hank? A total douche when you first meet him, particularly for those hyper-intellectuals that identify with Walt initially. You think, “I wouldn’t like Hank if he gave me a million dollars!” Then somehow, his earnestness transforms him into somebody to admire. Reasons like this make it impossible to pin down a favorite character.

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When you hear me say, “Breaking Bad is a surprising show,” you probably think, “So is Game of Thrones! Ahh! Red Wedding!” Stop it. Listen to me: no single show is going to be as frustrating, traumatic, and emotionally taxing from start to finish as Breaking Bad, especially once you experience the climactic final few episodes that will tear you asunder.

While watching, I got into the habit of imagining, “What is the WORST possible thing that could happen right now?” and oftentimes I was at least close to right. I’m not even talking mildly bad. I’m talking horrendous. Foul. Violent. Crazy. Nobody is safe, and nothing is sacred. Watch this show with a friend or spouse and your conversations in between binge sessions will always be, “I can’t believe they went THERE!!”

The character arcs are astounding

Walt and Jesse start their empire out of a crappy old RV; working in nothing but underwear, aprons, and gas masks.. Just the two of them and that beat up old girl. Even their equipment – while commendable – is cheap and used. Over time they pick up accomplices, associates, business partners, millions of dollars, plenty of enemies, and much better lab equipment.

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A startling contrast of Walter at the beginning and end of the show – the gradual transformation over a few short years as Walter White becomes Heisenberg

I cannot emphasize the magnitude of how well-planned the ongoing character arcs in this show are. Initially, Jesse just wants to get “fat stacks” (translates loosely to “a lot of money”) so he can “smoke dope,” but as the series progresses, his heart of gold – buried by a dozen layers of grimy substance abuse – is exposed and he comes to care about not only Walt, but his other companions as well. Even high-minded values like honor and justice find their way into Jesse’s heart. Walt, who begins his venture as a means to provide for his family in the event of his death, is progressively overtaken by his ego and, despite making a lot of money producing drugs, more often than not gets himself into trouble due to arrogance and/or rage. His darker side is best represented by his famous hat worn throughout the show, a symbol for his pseudonym persona: Heisenberg.

Characters in every story grow, but once you finish Breaking Bad and look back, you will absolutely marvel at how much characters change over time and reminisce about everything you they went through.

Breaking Bad functions on shock value but it thrives on these grand, sprawling character arcs. Walt is always Walter White, but he isn’t always Heisenberg. It’s a bizarre thing to watch your hero become the villain. Whether we are talking about the flabby chemistry teacher turned kingpin or the stay-at-home mom turned money-laundering queen, characters are transformed over time into people that are shockingly different but startlingly similar.

Here’s typical Jesse attire earlier on in his junkie days and then him again when he cleans up his act. Then towards the end. Such a transformation! From Eminem, to Jay-Z, to Bon Iver all in five seasons. Wow!

“Yeah, Science!”

Get to know the meme.

Breaking Bad embodies the collision of intelligence and hard science with the world of crime and drugs. That dynamic is personified by Walt and Jesse’s relationship, which makes it even funnier to think that Jesse was once Walt’s failing chemistry student. In their initial partnership, Walt makes the product using his scientific expertise, and Jesse sells it using his drug connections. As Walt learns the art of crime and Jesse the art of science, the lines begin to blur between criminal and chemist in each, but one thing remains clear: science can solve all your problems.

In the entire first season, hilariously little actual meth cooking is done; instead, Walt and Jesse have to spend most of their time and energy coming up with amateur, creative ways to stay out of trouble. For two years of their lives, nothing ever really changes. There are no quiet periods of calmly cooking meth and “slinging crystal”; there’s always some death threat or looming conflict. Who is there to meet it? Heisenberg. In every circumstance, Walt is forced to devise some wild solution. Every plan is incredibly scientific, ridiculously complex, and somehow always successful. The intelligent application of science in the show makes for entertaining television. It’s like Mythbusters-cool but with actual stakes involved.

Without giving too much away, (**mild spoiler inbound**) one of Walt’s science tricks involves an exploding piece of fake meth (if you’d like to spoil this one for yourself, feel free). HOW COOL IS THAT?

As time progresses and the stakes get higher, the problems get more threatening and the plans more complicated. Maybe they’ll rob a bank or something?

Just kidding. They don’t.

Or do they…?

Even at its darkest, Breaking Bad maintains a sense of humor 

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From left to right: Mike, Jesse, Walt, Saul on the prowl.

Breaking Bad is an intense drama, but even in its darkest episodes it still saves some time to maintain some humor and just have fun. Most shows can only do one or the other really well. Other overly grim and gritty shows struggle to include humor, but Bad does it with ease.

Breaking Bad begins as a show about Walt – for the most part, it ends the same – but over the course of five seasons, Heisenberg’s list of accomplices grows with his empire. Breaking Bad is at its most fun to watch when it transforms into a ridiculous heist show with a wonderfully full ensemble cast; when it transforms into a meth-infused Ocean’s Eleven.

There’s a whole slew of supporting characters that help make these ventures happen. Jesse’s long-time buddies and fellow druggies, Badger, Combo, and Skinny Pete make frequent appearances. Mike Ehrmantraut, a retired cop turned cleaner, hitman, and private investigator, is a no-nonsense character that will forever be my personal favorite. Then there is of course dirty attorney Saul Goodman who is the fan-favorite character getting his own spin-off series (promo site here). Saul is comical, colorful, and a delight to watch on screen.

Many of the scenes in your average episode are tense one-on-one encounters between characters, but every now and then a group of them get together to hatch some schemes and pull off some ridiculous maneuver that is just thrilling to watch. Wrapped up in one episode might be a ridiculous outburst from Jesse, a grisly murder, and a mundane argument between Walt and his wife after a family dinner party. What more could you want?

Exhaustive attention to detail and symbolism

You can take a deep dive into the Breaking Bad Wiki if you want to, but take it from me: this show is probably the most intricately detailed and exhaustively well-thought out program you will ever watch.

Can you guess what Marie's favorite color is?

Can you guess what Marie’s favorite color is?

Even something as unobtrusive as the color schemes on sets and wardrobes are deliberately chosen. The most obvious example of this is Hank’s wife (Skyler’s sister), Marie, who quite clearly has some fetish with being drowned in the color purple. If you dig really deep, you’ll find the Breaking Bad color wheel.

You could just casually watch Breaking Bad – with Marie’s mildly irritating purple color scheme – and enjoy the series for what it is at face value: a drug laden drama about one man’s hubris. Or you can recognize that creator Vince Gilligan and his team worked tirelessly to infuse every detail of the show with meaning. Marie is drowning in purple because as the only main character with no connection to drugs, her color is opposite on the color wheel to that which represents methamphetamine: yellow.

Beyond color as a theme, there are a whole slew of symbols and motifs, be it the Heisenberg hat or Walt’s nakedness. Just take a look at this sampling of articles that dive a bit deeper (but again, beware of spoilers):

The cinematography is adventurous and astounding

While the thematic storytelling of Breaking Bad is impeccable, one of my favorite aspects is its adventurous style of cinematography. They do a lot of weird things with the sound and the camera sometimes to either make the viewer feel uncomfortable when a character is distressed (like Jesse having a breakdown at a party) or just to glorify a cool moment (like when Walt, Jr. gets a new car). Excellent montage sequences are used alongside really prime music to make the viewing experience an absolute pleasure.

The camera angles are dramatic and oftentimes enhance the tension of a moment in just the perfect way. There are a lot of longer, slow, and quiet scenes that are used to amplify dramatic tension too. Some of the series’ best moments use menacing degrees of silence. When things begin to spiral out of control near a season’s end, or if there’s repetitive or time-consuming action, a lot of time lapses are used. Here’s a collection of time lapses from the show that might include minor spoilers.

Flashbacks and flash-forwards also frequent the show. Sometimes we don’t know which we are seeing, but these almost always appear at the start of an episode before the opening credits. Oftentimes they’ll be confusing or ambiguous with some symbol or objective correlative, and you’ll be completely confused. Then the object or person will reappear by episode’s end and it will all make sense. Cyclical storytelling, eh?

By far my favorite technical aspect of Breaking Bad are the transitions that they use. The editors do a lot of “match cuts,” which are basically symbolic transitions that link together two scenes using similar objects or items to help keep the action fluid. Say for instance, a gruesome murder just happened. You see a close shot of a bunch of blood dripping. Then plop: you see some ketchup squirting onto somebody’s plate. Now you’re in a diner instead of back at the murder scene. It’s a way to simultaneously keep that horror and disgust present in your mind while still pulling you forward through the narrative. Breaking Bad is very good at dragging your anxiety through the mud like this and not letting it move on even when your mind does.

I can’t even remember how many times a creative transition like this literally “wow”-ed me. Sometimes a door or trunk will close and then open to somewhere completely different. Or maybe somebody just leans over like this:

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An actual transition from the show. Isn’t that cool?

The bromance of Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul is the best thing ever

I am a sucker for off-camera romances with the actors from my favorite shows and movies. Like with my beloved CHUCK, it’s one thing to see Chuck and Sarah’s on-screen chemistry but another to see Zack and Yvonne still flirting and laughing in interviews together.

The relationship between the actors that play Walt and Jessie is one of the most charming bromances to ever grace the limelight. It speaks volumes about a show and all of the people involved when every actor speaks so graciously about their experiences. Above all, when the two leads develop such an earnest bond with one another, despite a pretty significant age difference, you can’t help but call it magic. Here’s just a taste of the bromance of Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul:

“Just watch it, BITCH!”

Jesse’s character is basically a meme sensation and social phenomenon with how much gusto he puts behind every utterance of the word, “Bitch!” Take a look at the below supercut to see every instance:

In an interview, the actor who plays Jesse, Aaron Paul, revealed that fans are constantly shouting the word at him and even elderly women request that he call them bitch.

If people can get so obsessed over a show that they are begging one of its actors to call them bitch, then it’s gotta be good, right? Take the time to start watching today!

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