The Dark Art of ‘Breaking Bad’

Mag-10Bad-t_CA1-articleInline David Segal in the NYT Magazine:

In its first season, “Breaking Bad” seemed like the story of the nuttiest midlife crisis ever, told with elements that felt vaguely familiar. The structure — felonious dad copes with stress of work and family; complications ensue — owed an obvious debt to “The Sopranos,” and the collision of regular people and colorfully violent thugs nodded to Tarantino. The story and setting were an update of the spaghetti Western, minus the cowboys and set in the present.

But it was soon clear that “Breaking Bad” was something much more satisfying and complex: a revolutionary take on the serial drama. What sets the show apart from its small-screen peers is a subtle metaphysical layer all its own. As Walter inches toward damnation, Gilligan and his writers have posed some large questions about good and evil, questions with implications for every kind of malefactor you can imagine, from Ponzi schemers to terrorists. Questions like: Do we live in a world where terrible people go unpunished for their misdeeds? Or do the wicked ultimately suffer for their sins?

Gilligan has the nerve to provide his own hopeful answer. “Breaking Bad” takes place in a universe where nobody gets away with anything and karma is the great uncredited player in the cast. This moral dimension might explain why “Breaking Bad” has yet to achieve pop cultural breakthrough status, at least on the scale of other cable hits set in decidedly amoral universes, like “True Blood” or “Mad Men,” AMC’s far-more-buzzed-about series that takes place in an ad agency in the ’60s. The total audience for “Breaking Bad” is only slightly smaller than that of “Mad Men” — 19.5 million versus 22.4 million cumulative viewers in their respective third seasons — but the top three markets for “Breaking Bad” are Albuquerque/Santa Fe, Kansas City and Memphis; neither New York nor Los Angeles are in its top 10. The show, in other words, doesn’t play on the coasts. It gets chatter, just not among what has long been considered the chattering class.