Like many of its fans, I came late to Breaking Bad. My daughters and their friends had been watching it for years, making a Sunday-night ritual of getting together for the latest episode.
Then they persuaded me to take a look at the pilot episode, in which high school chemistry teacher Walter White learns he has lung cancer and embarks on a life of crime. By the third installment, I was hooked – and I iPadded my way through the five-year story in time to be current for the concluding episodes.
The series was engrossing on many levels. The acting was superb; there was some groundbreaking videography; and the scenery – it was filmed in Albuquerque, N.M., and the surrounding desert – was fresh and fascinating.
But the story itself was what kept you coming back. Somehow, within an ever-twisting plot line that mixed suspense, violence and humor, Breaking Bad managed to create nuanced portraits of complex characters.
Chemistry is about transformation, Walt told his students, and indeed there was much about laboratories and chemical reactions. But the most powerful reagents in Breaking Bad were greed, fear, pride and family loyalty. And the most fascinating transformations were in the characters themselves.
When the series started, Walt was a sympathetic figure, a caring father, husband and teacher driven desperate by circumstances beyond his control. And as the end was near, he made various inadequate efforts to redeem himself.
But by Sunday night, I think I was with most Breaking Bad fans in feeling that Walt’s death in a final Shakespearean round of violence was not just dramatically correct but karmically predictable. Most of the good in Walter White had been eaten away by the bad, as surely as acid corrodes metal. Great stories are about transformation, too.