Why Breaking Bad is a wickedly moral tale for our times
I never watch television any more," said a friend in the film business. "We see everything now on box sets. Or via the computer." For drama, that is now the trend. The box set – where the whole series is delivered to you in one go – is king.
And that's how I have caught up with the American TV drama which has come to dominate my life. I set aside time every week to view episodes from it. When days are trying or vexatious, I look forward to drowning my worries in another episode at nightfall.
To me, Breaking Bad is simply the best TV drama that has ever been made. And I'm not alone in this judgment: it has been voted "the highest rated show of all time" by the Guinness Book of Records. It's been the most watched cable TV show ever in America, and has garnered more than 20 awards for excellence. All deserved.
The peerless Bryan Cranston, the show's lead, is now rightly considered as one of the finest actors in the world (he is currently playing President Johnson in a big Broadway production, All The Way).
Initially, I didn't think I'd like Breaking Bad. I've heard many people of my age say they dislike the violence and gratuitous cruelty of so many crime thrillers on TV, and I am inclined to agree: too many murders, too many dead bodies, too many grisly portrayals of victims being tortured to death.
Yet I was urged to keep an open mind and persist with the first series. I am now almost at the end of Series 3, and I've come to believe that BB is as important a drama as Macbeth or Othello.
Because it's not just about crime and the wages of crime. It is about moral values. It's about the choices we make – and the consequences that follow.
We talk a lot about "choices" today: we seldom add the word "consequence" to "choice". But there will be consequences to any choice – sometimes predictable, sometimes unintended – and we will have to face them.
This matchless narrative illuminates an immortal truth as well as any Greek tragedy or mediaeval morality play.
BB is gruesome at times. And yet it is profoundly moral. I think it's very much about the way we screw up our lives when our motives are venal, self-serving, proud or corrupt. It is also about the role that luck and opportunity can play in any life.
The basic concept is brilliant: Walter White, an under-paid chemistry teacher in New Mexico, is diagnosed with lung cancer. So he worries about the cost of treatment – there's an implied, and justified, critique of the American health care system – and that his family will be left penniless after his death.
Yet, since he's a chemistry expert, he has a unique skill. He knows, technically, how to cook up the drug methamphetamine. A chance encounter with a former student, who has drug-dealing connections, gives him the opportunity.
Here's the first moral dilemma for the viewer: in Walt's place, would we do the same? We very well might.
Walter now has the chance to make millions of dollars by fabricating illegal drugs. He has a handicapped son, and a baby on the way. Taking care of his family is responsible, right? And thus he enters into his pact with the devil: he'll cook up the crystal meth, assisted by his flaky sidekick, Jesse.
But, for sure, there will be a price to pay for getting involved with the unsavoury characters who run the criminal drugs trade. And gradually, Walt himself will change from a teacher who cares about his family, to someone who has become corrupted by his own choices.
Pride comes into the story too: his pride is initially dented because his college peers are much richer than he, having taken jobs with Big Pharma. Subsequently, he develops an arrogant pride in his own "product" – the meth which he provides to gangsters.
The story, as BB fans will know, is interwoven with the dynamics of Walt's marriage, his wider family, and the tragic events in Jesse's life – as well as the darkly comical antics of his shyster lawyer, Saul Goodman, commissioned to launder the profits. I don't think I've been so involved with a set of fictional characters since I cried at Little Women at the age of 10.
TV drama is entertainment, but BB goes well beyond entertainment. The creator, writer and director, Vince Gilligan, conceived it as a morality tale. He wanted to show that "there is a difference between right and wrong". He wanted to demonstrate that "actions have consequences". And he wanted to explore the role of family: a man may do heroic things for his family – but he may also take wrong and immoral actions for the sake of his family.
Gilligan, aged 47, was raised a Catholic, but describes himself as an agnostic. He may be agnostic in faith, but his moral compass firmly underpins his writing. And he is able to do that without ever seeming to preach: it is all in the story, in the characters and their motives.
Perhaps for some people, the question prompted by Breaking Bad is that the drug trade should simply be legalised, just as Colorado state has legalised marijuana. Cut out the criminals and allow clever chemistry teachers to cook up crystal meth legitimately.
That's a viewpoint, but it's not what the story is about: good and bad, right and wrong, choice and consequence, innocence and corruption will always be issues that affect our lives and our values.