‘Breaking Bad': The Case for Why It Isn't Good

'Breaking Bad': The Case for Why It Isn't Good

The Onion's AV Club offers a contrarian argument about "Breaking Bad"

What if "Breaking Bad" isn't as good as everyone thinks? Amid near universal acclaim for the show's return, one contrarian is making the case that we should all calm down.

The Onion AV Club's Stephen Bowie argues that Vince Gilligan's meth drama favors jokes over character development, features particulary weak female characters, and, worst of all, has an "absence of humanism at the core… a curious, regrettable flaw in a show that, undeniably, strives toward thoughtful contemplation of the nature of good and evil."

See video: "Breaking Bad" Theme, as Played in a Meth Lab

"Breaking Bad" is my favorite show, and the last point got to me. We'll get to why. But first, Bowie's other big complaints.

He's right that the show goes for comedy at odd times. Badger's long "Star Trek" monologue in last night's kickoff to the final eight episodes is one obvious example. But the comedy might be a necessary evil to keep the show from becoming even more grimly intense than it actually is. (Curiously, my cable provider, Comcast, listed last night's episode as "comedy/drama." Someone there has a dark sense of humor.)

Also read: 'Breaking Bad's' Aaron Paul on Last Script Read: 'The Moment We'd Been Dreading'

As for female characters… hmm. Some "Breaking Bad" fans have long despised Walter White's wife, Skyler, who initially served as the main obstacle to his building a meth empire. But how much stock do you put in the opinions of people who are rooting for a meth empire? I've always liked Skyler. She got off on the wrong foot with lots of people by making Walt eat veggie bacon on his birthday, but I thought it was sweet. She cares about him. Still, as Bowie's editor, Todd VanDerWerff, put it in the comments, "his argument about how the show is unduly harsh toward Skyler is… troubling, and I'll have to see what I think on my next rewatch."

But now, to what I think is Bowie's most interesting complaint about "Breaking Bad": a lack of humanism. This one hit a little close to the bone. "Breaking Bad" is perhaps the most ruthlessly scripted show ever. Like the old saw about Native Americans and buffalo, nothing is wasted. Every small detail seems to eventually pay off. That's the good kind of ruthlessness. The show is a marvelously constructed machine.

Also read: 'Breaking Bad': Is This How It Ends?

But is does feel possible that the show squeezes out some humanity in the making of that machine. Perhaps that's why the writers include bits like the Badger monologue — to prove that there's enough air in the show for humans to breathe. But for the most part, the show does a beautiful job of finding places where characters can gasp for air. Most involve Walter Jr.

When he found out last night that he didn't have to go on a family outing, his immediate response was to see if he could have a late curfew. At another point, Walt asked Skyler if Walter Jr. may have taken his copy of "Leaves of Grass." Be serious, she said. I laughed.

But those moments aren't the show's core. It's true: The show's main character is a brutal monster, and we're following him. Jesse Pinkman, often considered the show's moral center, often vaccilates between being manipulated, cowering, and just hiding out, stoned. Walt is the driving force in the action.

Also read'Breaking Bad' Review – Is This What Meth Is Like?

Still, here's why I don't think I'm just watching a bad guy do bad things. The show has a sense of morality, outside of Walt. You could say whether justice ultimately wins out depends on whether Walt is finally punished. It doesn't. As Time's James Poniewozik points out, it isn't the show's job to punish Walter White. It's up to us to derive meaning from his story.

Here's the moral I've drawn: Actions have consequences. As Walt once put it, he prefers to think of chemistry as the study of change. But I prefer to think of it as the study of reactions. The moment "Breaking Bad" became a truly great show for me was in the Season 2 finale, when Walt's small, selfish decision not to save a young woman from dying led to a hellish plane crash. The small ways we abdicate moral responsibility — in what we eat, who we allow to die, what we manufacture — has a big payoff, usually for someone else, far away, who we never have to see.

There's usually no punishment. Sometimes we, like Walt, don't even know how much damage we've done. "Breaking Bad" asks us to think about it. It doesn't force us to do anything. It's just a TV show.

But it is very, very human. It argues that even though many if not most people are never punished for the bad things they do, they — we — do lose some humanity. Selfishness replaces empathy and love. Is that punishment enough? Walter White has directly or indirectly endangered or killed people's children. He incinerated three people in a nursing home, only to declare, "I've won."

He's less human. But we're more human for seeing what he's made himself. And maybe we protect our humanity more in the real world, where it matters. That's the human core of "Breaking Bad."

  • jedi757

    There is absolutely NOTHING human about this show. I don't know where you live but I don't know any one who acts or thinks like any of the characters on this show. The show is disguisting and I don't see a glimce of morality.

    • therainmaker

      Neither do I. The show began with a glimpse of humanity, but is ending with a whimper of evil and sheer vacancy. Nothing to see or gain here, so let us all just move on…

      • cerealspiller

        If you say so. The bulk of humanity disagrees.

    • sandyvagina

      aw, buddy, I think you meant ‘glimpse'.

  • therainmaker

    The writing fell apart in the ‘gasoline episode’ – Season 5, Episode 12. No longer believable, or relevant, Breaking Bad has taken such a long break from the public eye that it no longer pertains even to its former self. The writing is so off that the character actors no longer carry the show. Such a waste of potential, such a lack of carryover or thrust into what should have been a firecracker of a finale season.

    • BB has fallen

      THANK YOU. I'm so tired of everybody fawning over the corpse. The show was brilliant the first three seasons, still worthwhile but growing weaker in season 4, and then completely outgrew itself in subsequent seasons. The writing is awful, for the most part. As you said, it bares little resemblance or clear connection to the past seasons. There are so many absurd action sequences in place of rich character and plot development.

      I wish the series had ended with the conclusion of season 4. It really has overreached. Lydia, Todd and his uncle's crew are silly and unnecessary characters, especially when compared with compelling characters from earlier seasons. I miss characters like Tuco, Mike, Gus, etc, they were so much more interesting than these new twits.

      • Brian Douglas Macleod

        Sorry, but it's clear that you did not get the show. At all. Todd's crew served to show what the consequences of Walt's empire were. Season five is the most necessary and also the best season in my opinion, because it shows the fall after the Pride. It's SUPPOSED to seem different from earlier seasons, to show how much the central character has warped.

  • christian

    Good article. I'm kind of annoyed at the fact something an article like this should even be necessary, what kinds of morons are writing the things you're debating against? Wow, way to miss common sense guys…

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    Neither do I. The show began with a glimpse of humanity, but is ending with a whimper of evil and sheer vacancy. Nothing to see or gain here, so let us all just move on…

  • Jeremy Vincent Shaw

    I think there seems to be some confusion between morality and humanity. If anything, this show dives very deeply into the core of humanity. What Walt has become has become is not what he started as. None of them are. We've seen these characters change and develop in what, to me, is such a precise way that humans would, given the circumstances. Keep in mind, that the story itself only really takes places over a year or so. A human's mind and mentality can only handle so much at any given time and all that these people have gone through in such a short time would not only drastically change a person, but crack them entirely. This show does a great job of showing that progression. It's a show which is based around drugs. Of course what happens isn't going to be pleasant. It's a what-if story of a simple family man that thought he was going to die and didn't want to leave his family with nothing. As in real, human life things got messed up. The vision turned into a nightmare. Now he's a “monster” but we've watched him and all the other characters become what they've become step-by-step. We've seen how real people would likely react to such things. I just don't get any argument about the lack of humanity. Morality, perhaps. But again, it's a show about drugs. What does anyone expect?

    • hkkk

      You tell us that it's understandable that Walt acts/reacts the way he does
      (meaning that the humanity of the show resides there)
      but the fact that alll the show happen on a so short time lapse (on 1 year for the first 4 seasons!) make it even more unrealistic.
      And it was already unrealistic way beyond acceptable.

  • Becky Mercier

    @therainmaker: I never watched the show because I thought it was believable, or relevant. I watch this show because it is in the handful of very shows that are just great. the writing has not gotten worse, it has gotten even better. the characters are just great. you get comic relief with saul, you see love between hank and marie, you see love between walter and his children. skyler has never been a favorite of mine, but she has improved, and evolved since the show started. jesse is all too true, a throwaway kid who is looking for a family, and in a sick way, he at first found it with walter, but that has changed, thanks to the writing, and jesse maturing. I just don't see where the writing has fallen apart….the only thing fallen apart is all of the dynamics between the different characters.

  • Genetica97

    I don't like the show not because it's wrong or whatever.
    But the thing for me is, the characters all suck. I don't have anyone to root for. I mean, I hate Hank, I hate Walter, I hate Skyler. Jesse's ok, but he just bends over for Walt. I mean, why should I really like anyone? Walt, because he's a high-school teacher who is fighting for his family? Lots of people have cancer; you don't kill close to 15 people now just for that. And poison kids. And think that killing kids is ok, because that's the only option. If he was a decent man, then he would have thought that the kid spoiling their operation was ok, because the kid deserved to live more. But no. And he's the most selfish b@st@rd ever, but nobody seems to care about that.
    As for hank or anyone else, I know they're gonna lose and Walt's gonna win. Point of rooting for them? Plus, they are so boring.
    And the one thing for me is, how do people let things go so easily?
    Skyler : What did you do?
    Walt : Doesn't matter, we're safe now/Trust me.
    One time is ok, even 5, but the same thing plays over and over again. I just wanna slap Skyler in the face. Press on b!tch. And don't say she's scared or whatever. That's not a good enough answer.
    It's just mediocre writing, with hate-able characters. Honestly, I can't see the point of this show. I assume Walt is gonna win in the end, so killing/manipulating people is correct, and looking out only for yourself has rewards? And don't say that it is awesome because he's bad@ss. He is a p u ss y. He hasn't done anything bad@ss for me in this show yet. He's such a coward.
    Conclusion : This show sucks big-time and I have no idea why it's rated 9.4 on IMDB. Just like GOT. Two boring shows.

    • Kimmode

      The characters are phenomenal.

  • anonymous

    eh its not a show really about the meth is it? Could have replaced it with another criminal substance and it wouldn't have made a difference.

  • El RV

    I'm sorry most of you don't see the greatness of the show. It's the old story of gaining all and losing your soul in the process….so what have you really gained? The greed and mooney and acclaim have all cost these characters their humanity, some more than others. In Walt's case almost all. Walter's flaws have always been there, they were evident in the first episodes, the greed and money just exploded them all over everyone that has any connec tion with him. Just like in life he may pay for his mistakes or he may not.

  • Kimmode

    This show is perfect – writing, acting, casting, cinematography, direction. EVERYTHING. Only an imbecile who lacks the ability to understand quality cannot appreciate art.