Film/TV » Film Features

Breaking Bad and The Triumph of Death



This Sunday night sees the final episode of Breaking Bad, one of TV's great accomplishments. Since January 2008, Breaking Bad has been feeding on America's darkest fantasies and death wishes. It's high concept art: A high school chemistry teacher gets cancer, uses his scientific expertise to cook meth to pay his medical bills and leave something for his family, gets caught up in increasingly desperate criminal activities, involves or implicates everyone he knows in his deeds, and then "things fall apart ... mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned."

The last decade or so has seen the second coming of the Golden Age of TV. The best of the medium seems to have coalesced into a shape with multiple seasons but with an ending in mind. This allows for characters to change — a lack of dynamism being the drawback of many lesser shows, though there are notable exceptions. When television puts it all together to the highest degree, it borrows the cinematics of film, adapts the attention to detail of literature, and distills the narrative strengths of each.

Breaking Bad sculpts a form that is the new canonic narrative ideal for TV. It's flawless, in perfect proportion to itself, airtight in its logic, with no loose strings. Each character's step begets the next, and every cause leads to its plausible effect.

If you haven't watched Breaking Bad, it's not too late, technically, to catch up in time for the finale: Beginning Wednesday, September 25th, at 7 p.m., AMC is re-airing every episode in order — 61 hours, with a few breaks for The Three Stooges and paid programming, culminating on Sunday, September 29th, at 8 p.m. with the last ep. Or send the kids to grandma's, fire up Netflix, and marathon the sucker.

Contemporary scripted TV is our equivalent of masterpieces of fine art, albeit more accessible in a spatial sense: TV is enjoyed democratically and publicly rather than a painting owned and sequestered by a plutocrat or aristocrat. Our museums and galleries are HBO, AMC, Showtime, the basic networks, FX, Netflix, and Hulu. Mad Men is an Edward Hopper; The Sopranos a Caravaggio; Parks and Recreation a Keith Haring.

Breaking Bad is The Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder's masterpiece that's housed in the Museo del Prado in Spain. Breaking Bad hangs in AMC and Netflix.

Breaking Bad and The Triumph of Death both depict the hellish consequences of mankind's sins. Though the TV show isn't religious, it is as exceedingly moral as the painting. Everyone reaps what is sown.

It isn't really that fun to gaze upon the show or painting, it must be said. Breaking Bad is continually horrifying and rarely enjoyable to watch, though it's underpinned by a considerable gallows humor. The Triumph of Death, too, isn't something you'd want to put up in your dining room. But you keep looking at them because there's so much story being conveyed on such a large scale, about familiar people realizing their unavoidable fate. Every square inch is employed, each tiny plotline telling the bigger story. Breaking Bad is The Triumph of Death, except its characters don't know they're already dead and on the rack.

So, why recommend the show? Because it tells an exacting, instructive story audaciously, with brilliant, woebegotten performances. It's good that one Breaking Bad exists, so that no others like it have to.

Breaking Bad
Series finale airs Sunday, September 29th

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