Breaking Down 'Bad' - The Secrets to the AMC's Show's Success

Some television shows have a fan base. Other shows have a rabid fan base. AMC’s Breaking Bad, created by Vince Gilligan, has a fan base that goes beyond rabid and into the realm of fanatic. It’s well-deserved. The show is one of the best examples of programming in American television history. But why are the show’s fans so in love with it? What spell has this program cast? What are people finding in this world that has so captivated them?

It’s a combination of several factors, but most importantly, the series is reaching us at a very primal symbolic level. We are being presented with an epic story we have seen in various forms before, but never like this.

1)    The World

The most successful content has routinely been stories that take us into a world we’ve never seen before.  Whether it’s Boyz n the Hood, Jurassic Park or Deadwood, anytime we are transported to a place we haven’t been, we are less likely to want to leave. That’s because this journey is touching something primal and archetypal within us--the journey into the unknown mirrors a journey of self-discovery. Just as in life, the journey to discover who we are and what we’re about is fraught with confusion and dangers. With Breaking Bad, as with life, we don’t always know the rules of this world. Danger lurks around every corner. Loyalties can shift.  Things are not what they seem. Things that might normally be mundane--a turtle, a car wash, a commercial laundry--can be made to have different, sinister purposes.

Breaking Bad may use the familiar geographical landscape of New Mexico, but there is nothing familiar about the activities in this neo-frontier. Chicken restaurants are fronts for dangerous drug distributors. Multi-national corporations produce an obscure chemical used for meth. Planes crash in mid-air, sending body parts careening across the suburbs.  Meth addicts sit in homes without furniture. The landscape is untamed. Brutal assassins roam the desert. Turtles carry severed heads laced with explosives. Poisonous flowers can kill a child. If your RV’s battery dies, and you’re in the middle of the desert with no cel phone battery, and nobody knows where you are, you may just die.

What world is this? Why, it’s no different than any fairy tale landscape. It’s the dark forest of Hansel and Gretel.  It’s Middle Earth. It’s the wide-open desert that contains its own evils, and reflects the barren souls of those who inhabit it.

2)    The Mythical Characters

Breaking Bad is inhabited with characters that embody different aspects of various physical and psychological archetypes. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) represents our basest instincts, our most distasteful behaviors, which we repress because they are not acceptable to society. He is, at his core, a ferociously bitter man. He was not only spurned by a lover, but made an emotionally rash decision and sold out of a billion dollar company too early. The result is that he’s had to live a milquetoast life, with a milquetoast wife, a disabled son, and a second job at a car wash. On top of all that, he gets cancer. The anger that infuses his character is self-hate: he feels responsible for permitting his own life to become worthless. He was a loser. We’ve all felt that way from time to time. 

Whereas most popular culture would find a way for Walter to experience good fortune and use his better qualities to rise up, Breaking Bad…well…breaks bad. Walter dives deep into his own psyche, and emerges as the manifestation of his own Jungian Shadow. This is Red Riding Hood killing the wolf, donning his severed head as her own, and terrorizing the forest. And we’ve all felt that way, too. There are those moments of anger, or even rage, when we want to make someone pay who wronged us. Rarely, however, do we act on it. Walter is the manifestation of that devious monster that lies very deep within all of us that we ourselves fear. We hate to admit it, but that’s why we like him. Plus, he’s not as bad as some of the other characters he’s faced.

Any role he plays--soft-spoken husband, wussy brother-in-law, even Heisenberg--are all in service of the Shadow Self. 

Jesse, in contrast, has become the Ego voice. We like Aaron Paul's character because he’s a kid that was on the wrong path, and has slowly developed a conscience and in the process, literally become “conscious” of who he is and what he’s doing. We like him because he is unflinchingly loyal to Walt and has become, in effect, a surrogate son.  Contrast this with his doppelganger (German for “double”), the taciturn and cold-blooded Todd, the boy that Jesse might have become. It seems poetic justice that Walt gets what he wants--a ruthlessly efficient partner with no conscience whatsoever.

Skyler (Anna Gunn) isn’t mentioned much, but she’s actually a rather bold character. I believe she represents many women, in that she has been required to wear many masks (what Jung calls “personas”)--wife, mother, business partner, keeper of secrets, sexual partner, sister--that her own individual identity doesn’t really exist.  It’s just a parade of masks. It’s reflective of a deep discontent in some marriages, and she makes all the necessary sacrifices to maintain the world she’s created, however bereft of true emotion it is. She’s the most tragic figure in that regard. She also represents the Jungian Anima, the unconscious feminine component of Walt, and the guide to the unconscious, wherein one is able to unify into a complete being (the Jungian Self).  Because Walt had lied to her so much and shut her out, he has never been able to truly connect with her, and thus has no contact with the deeper parts of his psyche that would allow him to find any kind of individuation or redemption. As a result of his own behavior, Skyler has kind of shriveled up into a purely functional machine that serves Walt’s Shadow Self.

Hank (Dean Norris) is a doppelganger to Walt, but also another side of the same coin. Hank’s persona is that of the macho lawman, all masculine energy. Yet that persona cracks easily, such as when he witnesses the turtle explode and kill a fellow lawman. When he himself is shot, he is bedridden, and reduced to doting over mail-order rocks like an elderly man fusses over a jigsaw puzzle. Hank is very uncertain of himself, emotionally underdeveloped, and his masculine persona is all he has to hang onto. It’s thus not much of a surprise that his wife Marie is riddled with neuroses and insecurity, sensing her own husband is hanging by a thread.

Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) represents the Anti-Self. If we all are on our journey of self-discovery in which all the components of our psyche come together and we become a whole person, Gus is that person--or rather, the Darth Vader version of it. He is a complete person, but just happens to be the most evil and calculating version one might imagine. Gus has also succumbed to all our worst instincts, yet unlike Walt, he began as an entrepreneurial, optimistic, respectful young man. When the cartel killed his brother, it seems as if his life work was not to become known at all, but to become so powerful that he could exact revenge. We don’t like Gus exactly, but we understand his vendetta. Unfortunately, he’s worse than Walt, so he become a villain.

Saul (Bob Odenkirk) is more than a Jester. He’s bizarrely ethical in his own way, a survivor and perhaps the archetypal Trickster of the series. He’s a facilitator, an almost Hermes-like deliverer of messages to our characters.

Gale (David Costabile) was Walt’s kindred spirit, a geeky quasi-effeminate lover of science and able to find the poetry within a perfect batch of meth. If there was one person who might have been able to reach Walt, it might have been Gale. 

3)    The Inventive Storylines

Gilligan had to work, at least initially, with a smaller budget than most TV shows. As a result, he managed to ratchet up the tension in many episodes by creating small, self-contained set pieces that had massive dramatic consequences. It might the methylamine heist, the plot to kill Gus, the reviving of a dead RV battery, the erasing of a videotape, the simultaneous murder of Mike’s Guys, or the swatting of a fly. Gilligan has created the most inventive series of set pieces, one after the other, in service not only to each episode, but to the series as a whole. Every one of these storylines has repercussions, and every one reveals something about a character.

Sometimes we are privy to the plan like the heist. Other times we are left in suspense, wondering what Gus has up his sleeve as he meets with the cartel. We love Breaking Bad because we literally have no idea what is coming next.

4)    The Battle of Masculinity

It’s no coincidence that there is a distinct lack of women in the show. This is a show about masculinity on the frontier, a neo-Western. Women are given functional roles, and often reflect some kind of nervous neurosis--Marie’s shoplifting, Jane’s addiction, Lydia’s anxiety. Only Skyler had any kind of femininity associated with her, and that’s been stamped out of her. 

The subtext underlying every conflict in the show is about which man will prevail in any given conflict. Walter began the show as a feminized, emasculated male. Since then, he’s squared off with a host of pretty bad-ass men: Mike, Gus, Hank, Tuco, the Salamanca’s, Victor and a host of others. Underlying many scenes is the subtext of power--who has it, who wants it, and what someone will do for it. This is resonating with men and women who watch the show, as it is operating on a primal level.

How Will It End?

Can any of these insights help predict how the series will end? Thus far, Gilligan has consistently amazed in his ability to keep us guessing. I never, ever know where any episode is headed. I wouldn't expect the outcome to be in any way predictable. I think what’s less important is what will happen in terms of plot, then what matters most to our characters.

Walter only wants one thing: to be remembered. Someone has to know. That’s why I think he left the book in the bathroom hoping Hank would find it. For most of us, we want to be remembered for the positive things we accomplish. For a man who has permitted his Shadow to consume him, Walter will want to be remembered in other ways.  

I write, “he’ll want to be remembered” because he will likely end up dead. I don’t see how he can’t. He may even have a shot at getting away clean with all the money he needs, and maybe even be free of cancer. But he’ll get called back into the fray, either because Jesse or Skyler will be at risk, or because someone else will get the credit for all his misdeeds. And he cannot have that!

In the drug community, he’ll want to live on as the notorious Heisenberg. To everyone else, he’ll want to be remembered as the “quiet man who lived a double life as America’s most successful drug dealer, who wiped out the Mexican cartel, and produced the highest grade meth ever…and fooled everyone. And made more money than if he’d stayed with that silly biotech company.”

Conclusion

Breaking Bad is one of the great triumphs in American television, due in no small part to the vision of Gilligan.  He deserves to be lauded along with those few other contemporary visionaries--David Milch comes to mind--that have created something unforgettable for audiences. Kudos are also due to his writing staff, the extraordinary actors who have brought these characters to life and the astonishing work of the production staff, who took this bizarre world from script to physical reality.


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