New Season: Breaking Bad

ACCORDING to Walter White, “technically, chemistry is the study of matter”, but he prefers to see it “as the study of change.” It’s also fascinating to watch the growth, decay and transformation of Breaking Bad’s anti-hero, a sad-sack chemistry teacher who, reacting to a diagnosis of terminal cancer, becomes Heisenberg, vicious criminal and meth chef extraordinaire. It’s probably the best thing on telly, so please go and watch the first four seasons before I spoil it all for you.

Done? Good.

Season five finds Walt’s metamorphosis almost complete. Having graduated from the Gus Fring school of hard knocks, his CV boasts the best crystal meth recipe in town, a newfound ruthless streak, and the ability to work well as part of a team. Our wallflower has become a warlord, but at what cost? Silly old bum has only gone and lost his soul. All the clawing and scratching his way to the top has taken its toll on his psyche.
Each individual episode has a recognisable structure. Usually, an episode begins with a summary of some problem standing in the way of the Heisenberg crime train, and the show will, from some devious plan, follow Walt’s tenacious efforts to overcome this obstacle. We have come to expect him to succeed in one way or another, but we also know that a by-product of his masterplan will be the formation of some new problem, some deeper descent into strife. Maybe his relationship with Jesse, his foul-mouthed sidekick, will be jeopardised, or his wife will learn some new detail of his depravity, or he will leave a trace of evidence for his boisterous brother-in-law the policeman to pick up on. In the next episode, this germ of a problem will sprout legs, run about for a bit and be dealt with in turn, only to create newer, scarier problems. It’s solution, dissolution. Just over and over and over.

The cumulative effect of all of these misadventures leaves Walt unrecognisable. He’s now like a grizzled old war veteran, senseless to the suffering he creates and even that which he inflicts upon himself. There is a particularly gross scene in which he mutilates himself to escape capture which really brings home the central irony of Walt’s character. Heisenberg, the persona he created to grant himself a bit more agency, has only served to make him a rat in a trap. The only means of escape is to dig deeper. Like Dr. Jekyll, he has lost control of his Mr. Hyde. And yet, despite portraying a man with no choice but to step into the devil’s shoes, Breaking Bad pulls off the masterstroke of making us root for him. A twisted little part of us wants to see him become the emperor, to get away with all of his crimes. Personally, I’m chained to the set. I just hope it’s because I’m fascinated by the study of change, and not tempted by the desire to break bad myself.