By Hugo Camps-Harris
It’s now been over a year since Breaking Bad finally concluded with the dulcet tones of Badfinger’s ‘Baby Blue’ ringing out. Yet despite the passage of time, the tale of Walter White’s descent into moral callousness is still regarded by many as the TV event of a generation.
Yes, there have been shows with higher ratings. The new series of The Walking Dead has just seen to that by raking in a record 22.4 million viewers for its season premiere in America; an astonishing feat. Yes, there have been shows with greater critical acclaim. Breaking Bad’s 16 Emmys, the last of which was only awarded in August, are still dwarfed by The West Wing’s 26. But, although hardly lacking in both those areas, Breaking Bad was markedly distinct in another way that surpasses the individual successes of other shows; moreover it departed our screens with an unparalleled cultural impact for a TV show of our age. Some shows can be great, however the legacy of Breaking Bad’s stratospheric rise to the top proves some can be a phenomenon.
Although it’s difficult to forget the show’s pulsating first few minutes as the soon to be ‘Heisenberg’ contemplates ending his story before it even really begins, it’s easy to forget now that Breaking Bad was often left fighting for its very survival. The 2007 Writer’s Guild of America strike immediately hampered production by limiting the first season’s number of episodes to only seven; and whilst the show did initially garner some positive attention, its late night TV slot, at least theoretically, always meant a mass audience was off the cards.
Even more symptomatic of Breaking Bad’s then fragility was the fact that that in the U.K. itself the show was dropped from Channel 5 and FX respectively. Clearly these are not issues you would have expected a show, now facing greater problems concerning the suitability of its own toy range, to have had to confront; so what fundamentally changed for Breaking Bad and where does the significance lie in the way that it did change?
Skipping to August 2013 and the start of the Breaking Bad’s final mini-season, it had by then become very palpable that what had in fact fundamentally changed was the entrance of online streaming services into the mainstream consumer market; and specifically to Breaking Bad, the emergence of Netflix. Cleverly offering a month’s free trial when signing up, a great new wave of people could now watch the show for the first time and this policy immediately paid dividends. For, in a way that resulted in Netflix and Breaking Bad becoming mutual beneficiaries of Breaking Bad’s original failure, a convoluted cycle was now occurring whereby those who hadn’t already seen the show were suddenly being recommended it by their friends in such high numbers that, having consumed the show themselves in such strident ‘binge-watching’ fashion, they were in turn indorsing and discussing it with others to remain at all socially acceptable. With the number of Netflix subscribers then sky-rocketing, there were now the perfect conditions for a combined cultural storm where internet ‘binge-watching’ and Breaking Bad could symbiotically lay waste to anything that was preventing members of the public from already indulging in the hysteria of its own creation.
Was that last paragraph a tad over the top – without doubt yes; but it nonetheless tries to illustrate that, due to the unprecedented momentum the series picked up during its last season, everything about Breaking Bad, including the way it was watched, was suddenly absorbed into popular culture and sensationalised. But that isn’t to say all this publicity is necessarily always a good thing. As long as ‘Los Pollos Hermanos’ shirts inundate our streets, new episodes of ‘Better Call Saul’ get pumped out and the press continue to stylise certain criminals as ‘London’s Walter White,’ there is a very real danger that the heart of Breaking Bad could be consumed by its very own hype; soon considered more of a franchise than an artistic achievement. This would be a tragedy when it’s so evident its creator’s initial brief to turn ‘Mr. Chips into Scarface’ was perhaps one of the most skilfully executed plots on TV.
So whilst much this article has focused on the fact Breaking Bad’s historical importance rests upon its cultural impact, in light of the TV revolution it helped initiate, it must be remembered that these factors were not what made the show great in itself. Instead I feel that a year on that the legacy of Breaking Bad, the TV show, should be shining through, even if this means the phenomenal element of Breaking Bad can’t be gliding over all in the process.