Maybe you didn’t have AMC at the time — or perhaps you weren’t sure you could wait a week between each episode — but now, with every season of Breaking Bad available on DVD and streaming, you have no excuse not to marathon one of the most binge-able shows in the history of television.
Here’s what you need to know before you start Breaking Bad.
What’s the premise? Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a high school chemistry teacher, uses his expertise to produce crystal meth with a former flunky student (Aaron Paul) in order to finance treatment for advanced lung cancer in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
What’s it like? In his pitch to AMC, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan described Walter White as “Mr. Chips turning into Scarface” — a premise which Gilligan sticks to throughout the series’ five seasons. Part fish-out-of-water story, part midlife-crisis-to-end-all-midlife-crises, Walter White’s journey from good guy to bad guy captures as much of the themes and styles of a spaghetti western as it does a gangster film. The darkly comical cast of side characters could have easily been imported from a Coen Brothers movie, and when Breaking Bad does suspense, it’s in the same league as Quentin Tarantino’s most intense and memorable scenes.
How long will it take? Breaking Bad is 62 highly-addictive episodes, running about 48 minutes each. If you do two episodes a day, it’ll take you a month — but you may find it difficult to watch Breaking Bad in moderation.
What do the critics think? All five seasons of Breaking Bad are Certified Fresh on the Tomatometer, and seasons two through five notched perfect scores of 100 percent each. It doesn’t get much better than this. In 2011, Verne Gay of Newsday called Breaking Bad “TV’s best series” and Tim Goodman of the Hollywood Reporter wrote, “One of television’s greatest dramas… It’s one of the most fearless and selfless gambits ever hatched in the name of enduring art.” At the beginning of season five, David Wiegand of the San Francisco Chronicle said, “There are so many reasons the show stands out from virtually any other series on TV: the performances, the writing, the direction and, most of all, the creative vision of Vince Gilligan.” And David Hiltbrand of the Philadelphia Inquirer said, “Breaking Bad is the quintessential series of our binge-watching TV era.” So, what are you waiting for?
Why should I watch this? With Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan poses a provocative question: If you knew you could die soon, would you make a bold change to your life — and would it be bad? To answer that question, Gilligan created a character whose gradual transformation from protagonist to villain is a fascinating study in power, ego, success, greed, intelligence, manipulation, identity, and mortality. Bryan Cranston is riveting as Walter White, and his relationships with his wife (Anna Gunn), his son (RJ Mitte), his brother-in-law (Dean Norris), and most of all, his protege (Aaron Paul), give glimpses into a character who otherwise won’t reveal what he’s thinking — except that he’s in complete control. Have trust in Walter White, and you will be in for one of the most exciting adventures of your TV-watching life.
What’s my next step? Breaking Bad draws on a number of films for inspiration that you should consider adding to your queue. In particular, Ikiru, a 1952 film by Akira Kurosawa, tells the story of a Tokyo man with terminal cancer and how his life changes after his diagnoses (Ikiru is based on Leo Tolstoy’s novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which might also interest you). Also, no comparative analysis of Breaking Bad is complete without a screening of the 1968 Sergio Leone film, Once Upon a Time in the West. Gilligan is heavily influenced by westerns and Leone in general, and had potential Breaking Bad directors screen the first fifteen minutes of Once Upon a Time in the West as a primer on how the show should look and feel. Other classics such as Cool Hand Luke, The French Connection, and The Godfather (Parts I and II) leave their fingerprints on Breaking Bad — from quick allusions to entire character arcs. If you’re interested in binging another TV series with an antihero focus, try The Sopranos or The Shield, the latter of which has a carefully constructed narrative to satisfy the most nit-picky viewers. For a lighter look at an unlikely drug dealer, check out Showtime’s Weeds, starring Mary-Louise Parker and Kevin Nealon.