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.)
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.
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."