In most ways, the debate regarding TV’s big four–The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men–will rage on as each team makes their case for why their show is superior. In many cases, this really will come down to individual taste. But there’s one way in which Breaking Bad, which returns this Sunday night for its final eight episodes, is clearly unique amongst the four. Breaking Bad is a show based on the wholesale rejection of a definitive element of most TV dramas. In conventional TV dramas, characters basically stay the same and the drama comes from watching their true colors emerge over time and seeing what happens as a result, or perhaps seeing what happens as they try to change but prove unable to do so.
The conflict between Lee Adama and his father William Adama in Battlestar Galactica is a perfect example of this. Neither Adama changes in some dramatic and undeniable way during the series, it’s simply that eventually certain events conspire to make their differences more apparent and throw them into conflict. You could say the same thing about the fights between Tim Riggins and Smash Williams in Friday Night Lights or the conflict between Toby Ziegler and the other senior staffers in The West Wing. The characters don’t change, but their surroundings do. (A similar thing happens with Don Draper in Mad Men, although it is made more complex by the fact that Don keeps trying to change but so far has struggled to do so, although the end of season 6 suggests that perhaps he’s finally made a breakthrough.) Typically though, when the surroundings change, differences that have always existed bubble up into conflict. The story isn’t about change, therefore, but simply about how events can come together to make what’s been there all along suddenly seem more apparent. But Breaking Bad is different. In Breaking Bad, the entire drama is based around seeing how characters change–something foreshadowed masterfully in the series pilot when Walt gives the following speech to his high-school chemistry students:
“Chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change: Electrons change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements combine and change into compounds. But that’s all of life, right? It’s the constant, it’s the cycle. It’s solution, dissolution. Just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation. It’s fascinating really. It’s a shame so many of us never take time to consider its implications.”
You could say, therefore, that the entire series is about chemistry. Viewed this way, Walt’s occupation as a chemistry teacher isn’t simply a convenient plot device to explain how he learned to make such a superior version of meth. It’s actually a clue that explains the entire series. Breaking Bad is the story of how a person who has given their life to understanding change is himself changed and how those changes in turn change the people closest to him.