The Ten Percent: Breaking Bad
“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Hello, and welcome to the first installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column where every other week we’ll look at the corollary of Sturgeon’s Law: ten percent of everything is not crud. In terms of television and film, Sturgeon’s Law and its corollary have been operative even before Georges Méliès built his glass-walled studio in 1897, and continue to hold true today. For every film or television show that gets people talking years or even decades after its premiere, there are probably a thousand others that may have been seen once, and never thought of again. To be clear, we’re not talking high culture and low culture here. In fact, we think those categories are complete BS. What we are talking about are the works which last, be they drama or comedy, animation or live-action, documentary or wildest fiction. They last because they are high quality productions, even – dare we say it – works of art which demand more of their viewer than passive reception. They are the “Ten Percent.”
With all of that in mind, where better to start than AMC’s incredible Breaking Bad? Roughly a year after the final episode aired, Breaking Bad is still making headlines, still winning awards (at the time of writing, Breaking Bad has been nominated for 162 awards, has won eighty, and remains a front-runner in the 2014 Emmys with thirteen nominations for its final eight episodes), and remains the most binged-watched television show out there. In fact, AMC will begin its own Breaking Bad Binge event this Sunday, 10 August, airing episodes from 5pm – 1am ET/PT every Sunday through 5 October. In addition, AMC will be airing unreleased interviews with cast and crew, “making of” spots, and even a look into the evolution of Breaking Bad fandom and trends on social media, where some 10 million-plus fans of the show participate every week. Breaking Bad has become a phenomenon and not just in the United States. The series is enormously successful in Canada, the UK, Germany, Colombia, and Brazil just to name a few countries that seem to love Breaking Bad. There is something more than just the power of the American pop culture industry at work here.
For one thing, Breaking Bad was lightning in a bottle, something that comes together so perfectly that the odds of being able to do the same thing again, deliberately, are cosmic. As series cinematographer Michael Slovis told us, “I call it the storytelling because it’s not the photography, it’s not the writing, it’s not the acting, it’s not the performances, it’s not the art direction stuff, the makeup, it’s the amalgam of everything… sometimes it’s all in place and every single stone is supporting the arch like a wonderful, philharmonic that’s doing some great piece of music and it all just comes together and that’s when the sum of the individual elements is much greater as a single entity… Breaking Bad was kind of a perfect storm.” Those gorgeous wide shots of the New Mexico scrub desert were only possible because HD wide-screen TVs had become widely affordable and HD viewing on computers and tablets was on the rise. New Mexico’s film initiative, which gives production companies significant tax credits for filming in the state, was also a key factor without which, according to series creator Vince Gilligan, filming the show on location in Albuquerque would have been impossible. The fact that the show was shot entirely on actual film stock rather than digitally recorded not only gives it a cinematic look, but also allows it to be upgraded to new technologies with ease, so now you can stream Breaking Bad in 4K from Netflix, and 6K won’t be a problem either. In short, everything came together to tell this story and to keep it fresh when it was done. It is that totality, that story that makes Breaking Bad something which we think will last for decades to come – at least.
Breaking Bad tells a tale that overcomes social, cultural, and political differences to become a universal tale of human nature. It is a tragedy in the grandest sense, as we join a man who in the beginning has everything – loving wife and family; friends (friends who are even willing to pay for cancer treatments when his crappy insurance won’t!); a well-loved home; a steady, if lower-middle-class, income – but is completely blinded to that fact by his own pride and self-loathing. In seasons 4 and 5 (counting the final sixteen episodes as one season) it was baffling to some that the “Team Walt” fandom was still so loud in their support after watching Walter White descend deeper and deeper into irredeemable darkness. Yet the same factors that had most of us at least partially on Walt’s side in seasons 1 and 2 were still in play. Walt was all of us, which meant that his inner demons and darkness were also ours. Who among the human race has not felt undervalued, passed over, powerless, and frustrated by life at one time or another? Who among us has not dreamed of doing something to show them all just who and how important we are? Pride is a tick latched on to each of us in a spot we can never quite reach, that robs us all of reason from time to time.
Walt just gave into that itch. Walt was every power fantasy come to life, no matter how miserably things tended to turn out for him, no matter how much money he made and lost and made again. When Walt confronted the wanna-be meth cooks in the parking lot in “Over” (2.10), looked them in the eyes and rasped “stay out of my territory,” we were with him, riding that juice, that electric charge that came with the way those guys backed down and ran. That, that right there — that ugly, feral, and all too human joy that comes from being not just respected, not just valued, but feared – that was why we followed Walt, why we joined him on that long, horrific road, why we found ourselves rooting for a murderer and poisoner of children, even when we knew we shouldn’t. Because that darkness is in us as well – all of us. Breaking Bad allowed us to go down that path, to look at a part of our own humanity that many of us refuse to acknowledge, but which we all know lies within us, scratching at the doors we lock it behind, waiting for a moment of weakness or rage or fear to be unleashed. How many shows have ever done that? How many ever will? Too few. Breaking Bad went there. That’s why it’s part of the Ten Percent.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.