As the broken-down, orange-painted RV barreled down the desert road, with Walter White’s khakis billowing in the breeze against the bright blue New Mexico sky, it became clear that Breaking Bad was unlike anything we had ever seen on television.
The plot wasn’t just original, it was innovative: a struggling high school teacher turned drug kingpin? Right.
But as the show developed, White’s character transformation became realistic, even reasonable, and, ultimately, relatable. Relatable not because Breaking Bad’s viewers had their own secret criminal life to hide, but because White was a compelling protagonist whose flaws seemed somehow honest in the context of his normal, complicated family life.
By the show’s final seasons, Breaking Bad had completely changed television. So it’s no wonder that El Camino, the sequel to the show’s finale, received so much hype this year (even if it didn’t live up to it). We were eager to root for Jesse Pinkman one more time, to cheer for the broken young man who always seemed to fight unfair odds even while holding himself back.
I used the El Camino premiere as an excuse to rewatch the entire series and was struck once again by the masterpiece director Vince Gilligan had created. You can’t help but root for White, the ailing genius who missed his chance at greatness and settled for mediocrity. Even when White watches Jane, Pinkman’s drug-addict girlfriend, overdose as she sleeps; or when he tosses a Lily of the Valley plant in his trunk, revealing he had poisoned a 10-year-old boy; the viewer watches and hopes that things will work out.
It’s an attachment unlike anything else. At first, it’s easy to blame White’s wrongdoings on his circumstances.
He’s staring down death. Faced with the prospect of leaving his wife and kids with nothing, he does what he has to do. As his hair falls out, he becomes a new person — one with secrets, as his wife, Skyler, soon realizes. Still, the viewer cheers him on and condemns Skyler for chasing him out of his own house, filing for divorce, and threatening to send his kids away.
Even after his cancer retreats and his drug business booms, White continues to shave his head and don the black fedora. Into the third and fourth seasons, it becomes clear that this is who White was all along. These weren’t new desires or new faults — they were always there. Heisenberg, White’s pseudonym, gave them life.
In the end, he finally admits this. He didn’t just do it for his family — he did it for himself.
That’s what makes him relatable. He wasn’t just motivated by greed — although it would be easy to assume this since money pushed him into the drug world in the first place, and it was greed that allowed Hank, his law enforcement-affiliated brother-in-law, to trap him.
For White, it was much more than that: It was all about control. He wanted to control how much he’d leave his family if his cancer accelerated, and he wanted to control how much meth he produced and how much money he received from it. This, more than the chemistry or the money, made him feel alive. Any time something or someone threatened his control, he eliminated them from the equation. The desire for control drove him to do terrible things, but the viewer didn’t care because at least he was doing something to retake what life had stolen from him.
Through White, Breaking Bad did what few television shows have ever done: It took an unrealistic idea and an epic journey and made it relatable to the everyday viewer, to someone who would never think of entering a danger-laden criminal conspiracy, no matter how dire the circumstance. And yet, somehow, White’s actions seemed perfectly normal.
There are, of course, the awards. Breaking Bad has more than just about any other television show, except a few — and with good reason. It is a triumph and a tragedy; a show that makes a profound statement about human beings, what they want, and why, through the trials of one man. It is the best this decade had to offer. Hopefully, the next will have more like it.