5 Ways Breaking Bad Changed Television Forever

On the fifth anniversary of its finale, we look back at a legendary show that successfully spawned a prequel and earned a blockbuster-sized fanbase.

by | September 28, 2018 | Comments

Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) - Breaking Bad _Season 5 - Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels/AMC
(Photo by Frank Ockenfels/AMC)

Breaking Bad ended on September 29, 2013, after five groundbreaking, Certified Fresh seasons, four of which have a 100% Tomatometer score. Five years have gone by since Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) hung up their hazmat suits for good, and after all this time and all those Emmys — over the course of the series, it was nominated for 58 and won 18 — the show’s impact can still be felt across the TV landscape.

Over the course of its run, the Vince Gilligan–created series redefined great TV, catapulting character actors Cranston and Paul to superstar status while piecing together an intricately detailed story, presenting a sympathetic protagonist to audiences everywhere, and flipping the TV script formula on its proverbial head.

From epic performances by the show’s ensemble cast to its thought-provoking writing, Breaking Bad changed the game. Here are the five biggest ways the series has transformed the way we watch television, forever.

1. Breaking Bad was a savage exercise in character transformation

When Breaking Bad came along, TV’s episodic formula existed within specific parameters: As bad as things ended up getting in any show’s story, more often than not, the program’s lead characters would experience a soft reboot once the next episode aired. Basically, audiences wanted reliable characters to connect with, and no matter how challenging the events within their prospective worlds would become, it was understood that your Matlocks, Sherlocks, and Dr. Houses of the world would never change.

Then Breaking Bad‘s Walter White came along and evolved from “Mr. Chips into Scarface,” per Gilligan’s master plan.

This wasn’t the first time a television show made an antihero its focal point, of course; exceptional series like The Wire, Deadwood, and The Sopranos all dug into the lives of characters that, quite regularly, made sinister life choices. But as those shows, each in its own way, did their best to explore shades of morality, none of them ever really led their character’s lives down a path to ultimate change.

Tony Soprano, for example, was an especially flawed human who was constantly trying to become better — attempting to find some semblance of good within his life of crime. David Simon used The Wire as a method of exploring the struggle for change throughout the show’s five-season run. And yet, the main characters on both of these shows never fundamentally changed.

Gilligan threw the old rules out the window for Breaking Bad, and Walter White’s transformation from cancer-stricken science teacher to murderous drug lord took the audience on an epic journey usually reserved for icons of cinema and literature.

When all was said and done, pretty much every important character in the series — from Walt’s metamorphosis to Jesse and Mike’s (Jonathan Banks) individual redemptions to Skyler’s (Anna Gunn) criminal enabling, and Saul’s (Bob Odenkirk) downfall — experienced a beginning, middle, and satisfying end to their stories.

2. And a master-class in visual storytelling

The Wire and Breaking Bad have undergone many comparisons since both shows came to an end. While the two series explore the impact drugs and crime have on their characters and respective locales, they’ve got another overarching element in common: each program gives the viewer a cinematic exploration of the city their story takes place in. Breaking Bad excels here by elevating the importance of cinematography in episodic drama.

Originally, Breaking Bad was supposed to take place in Riverside, California. If the story remained there, it’s quite possible the series wouldn’t have become the groundbreaking hit we know it to be. The story ended up being set in New Mexico, allowing Gilligan and crew to take full advantage of the city’s desert color palette to bring Walt’s desolate, dry existence to life.

The natural scenery of Albuquerque not only gave the show a unique aesthetic previously not seen by TV audiences, but Gilligan’s attention to story detail regularly went beyond the written word, using color cues and tiny tidbits — from the ongoing use of yellow to signify Walt’s evolving relationship with the danger around him until he notoriously becomes the danger, to recurring motifs like the pink teddy bear’s eye that represents Walt’s past catching up with him — to formulate the world and story as the series progressed. With just seven episodes in the first season and 13 in each subsequent one (except the final 16-episode season, which was split in two halves) that’s quite the achievement.

3. Even the bottle episodes were must-watch television

Breaking Bad pushed the boundaries on so many fronts and won many accolades, but its acting and writing regularly took home awards. Nowhere did these two facets shine brighter than in the show’s various bottle episodes.

Every TV series has bottle episodes — their main purpose is to push the story forward with as little money spent as possible. This type of programming usually focuses on a small number of cast members in a single setting. The problem with this part of the television production formula is that most bottle episodes can come off as pointless, or as cheap tricks. That’s not the case on Breaking Bad.

Take, for instance, the Rian Johnson–directed episode, “Fly.” As they neared production of the 10th episode of the show’s third season, Gilligan and crew found themselves massively overbudget. To deal with this issue, they created an episode that focused solely on the evolving work relationship between blue-meth Jedi White and his young Padawan, Jesse. The occasional cinematic trick of filming from a roaming housefly’s POV gave the series a little cinéma vérité perspective on the duo, changing up the expected tone and pacing the show’s audience had become accustomed to. And while the claustrophobic episode ended up polarizing viewers for those same reasons, many critics and fans point to the episode as one of the show’s best.

4. Fandom that rivaled the biggest in the world

Conflict came at Walt and Jesse around every corner on Breaking Bad. From Walt’s own family drama to the constant, murderous politics our characters regularly faced with Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and the Salamanca Family, the series explored a multitude of challenges and struggles for each character on the show. As the program grew, so did its fan base, and once Walt’s villainous alter ego Heisenberg was created, Breaking Bad took on a whole new life.

Usually, in a story such as this, the audience is expected to root for a clearly defined hero. But in Breaking Bad, even the best-intentioned person had demons to confront. A morality play of the highest order, AMC’s landmark hit worked best when it explored the darkest corners of humanity through the trials and tribulations of its leads like Walt, Jesse, Hank (Dean Norris), Skyler, and Gus. While the show began as a dark comedy, it slowly headed down a spiral of blood, greed, and despair. And it was through that journey, and the introduction of a whole cartel of characters, that Breaking Bad‘s passionate audience was built.

The cast and crew of the series appeared three times at San Diego Comic-Con to masses of Heisenberg shirt–wearing fans. What made it all so attractive? The no-brainer answer would point to the stellar performances of the cast, the epic writing, and top-notch cinematography. But when you add in Albuquerque’s unique locale, Vince Gilligan’s quirky narrative talents, and the steady dose of Heisenberg and Gus Fring’s bad guy-vs-bad guy boss battle, Breaking Bad stood out from the prime-time pack.

5. It spawned a prequel series that keeps the Breaking Bad dream alive

With Better Call Saul, a new backstory trend has begun to unfold on the small screen, including HBO’s Game of Thrones projects.

Now four seasons in, Better Call Saul successfully crawled out of the shadow of its predecessor and did so by dialing back the clock to a time before Saul was Saul. Goodman’s introduction to Breaking Bad helped add some necessary levity during a tonal shift for the series, allowing Walt and Jesse to fully embrace the darkness this new partnership brought into their lives. Recognizing there was more to the Breaking Bad world than met the eye, Gilligan and Peter Gould dipped back into their universe and brought to life earnest yet damaged struggling lawyer Jimmy McGill.

Better Call Saul continues Gilligan’s Breaking Bad‘s Mr. Chips–Scarface mission, showing audiences the story before the story — all while giving Odenkirk’s Jimmy even more rich layers to work with. Through Breaking Bad‘s run, it became evident that Walt’s end would be a tragic one. Knowing where Saul ends up gives the audience haunting knowledge of the show’s end-point: How does Jimmy become Saul? The answer to that question is just the beginning of another epic chapter called Breaking Bad.

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