Bad dads: American TV is full of them, from the philandering Don Draper in Mad Men to turncoat soldier Nicholas Brody in Homeland. Worst of all is Walter White, the drug-dealing protagonist of Breaking Bad.
The father in modern US fiction is a very different animal to the wholesome provider of Norman Rockwell paintings. Now he has a secret life that threatens to destroy his family and ruin the lives of his children.
Partly this is for dramatic effect. When someone is as bad as Brody in Homeland, we are aware that he has made his own decisions and must accept the consequences. As viewers, our sympathy lies with his teenage children, who will become unwilling victims of his actions. There is a huge store of dramatic irony as we watch the children idolise their parent, all the while knowing that he is a very different man from the one he shows to his nearest and dearest.
Breaking Bad is no different.
The elevator pitch for the series is perfect. Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher, contracts lung cancer. Already struggling financially, with one teenage son and a baby on the way, he faces financial ruin from the medical bills he will have to pay. Learning of the huge demand for crystal meth (a type of amphetamine), he hooks up with Jesse Pinkman, one of his old students, to manufacture the drug. Walter will ‘cook’ meth. Jesse will help him and sell it on the streets of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
There’s just one fly in the ointment. Walter’s brother-in-law, Hank, is a police officer with the local DEA (the US Drugs Enforcement Agency). So begins a complex game of cat and mouse. These enemies duck and dive, one in pursuit of the other, Hank never realising that the drug manufacturer he is hunting is a member of his own family.
‘Breaking bad’ by the way is apparently US slang for ‘going bad’, or turning to the dark side.
Over its five seasons, Breaking Bad never once stumbles into cliché. It’s almost impossible to guess what will happen next, right up to the final moments. It’s a masterpiece of storytelling.
There’s only one thing the viewer can be sure of: when a crime is committed in Breaking Bad, it always has consequences. In a lot of TV drama, people commit crimes and then disappear. In Breaking Bad, disposing of bodies is a messy business, but dealing with families set on revenge for their loved ones is even dirtier.
A large part of the fascination in the series comes from the fact that these grisly deeds are happening on ordinary streets in neighbourhoods that anyone would recognise. Its juxtaposition of suburban life with extreme violence and terror is reminiscent of Twin Peaks.
Breaking Bad also casts a grim look over modern America. This is a place where hard-working teachers can be bankrupted by cancer, where lawyers are more corrupt than the criminals they represent, and where humdrum businesses conceal back-office operations of vast criminal intent.
Alongside that, it also gives us a glimpse of the life of a DEA officer. It’s impossible not to respect the bravery of these law enforcement professionals as they combat extremely dangerous individuals at great personal risk.
Breaking Bad is a shocking portrait of the drugs trade, showing how so many people are caught up in the chaos it creates, their lives destroyed as little more than collateral damage. As a series, it’s also utterly addictive.