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'Breaking Bad' is watching you

By Gene Seymour, Special to CNN
updated 9:23 AM EDT, Fri September 27, 2013
Bryan Cranston has had a slow but steady rise to stardom. Here are some of the stops along the way to "Breaking Bad's" Walter White. Bryan Cranston has had a slow but steady rise to stardom. Here are some of the stops along the way to "Breaking Bad's" Walter White.
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Bryan Cranston's 'Bad' career
Bryan Cranston's 'Bad' career
Bryan Cranston's 'Bad' career
Bryan Cranston's 'Bad' career
Bryan Cranston's 'Bad' career
Bryan Cranston's 'Bad' career
Bryan Cranston's 'Bad' career
Bryan Cranston's 'Bad' career
Bryan Cranston's 'Bad' career
Bryan Cranston's 'Bad' career
Bryan Cranston's 'Bad' career
Bryan Cranston's 'Bad' career
Bryan Cranston's 'Bad' career
Bryan Cranston's 'Bad' career
Bryan Cranston's 'Bad' career
Bryan Cranston's 'Bad' career
Bryan Cranston's 'Bad' career
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gene Seymour: "Breaking Bad's" focus on an anti-hero challenges viewers' normal stances
  • He says we are torn between pity and scorn for the main character, played by Bryan Cranston
  • Seymour: Walter White is the dreaded specter of our era, making one bad choice after another

Editor's note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post.

(CNN) -- Now that it's almost over, let's remember how the whole thing started.

"Breaking Bad" is the story of a high school chemistry teacher who found out he had lung cancer. Not that there's ever a good time for this news, but for this guy, the timing couldn't have been worse: A pregnant wife, a handicapped son and financial circumstances so dire (did I mention he was a public high school teacher?) that his wife and children will be impoverished when he dies. So he did exactly what you or I would do under the circumstances: Get into the burgeoning market for crystal methamphetamine.

Among the many things you wonder: What kind of country, especially one as supposedly civilized and technologically advanced as this, would put any of its citizens in such a predicament?

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour

And there are duly elected representatives still willing to put this country's government into a coma until they force repeal of the relatively meager measures enacted into law to widen its citizens' access to health care.

Granted this teacher's situation is that of an imaginary character, a sad little man who becomes enlarged by the kind of situational barbarism that can rationalize anything. But long before Obamacare became a buzzword, every American could recognize this fellow's desperate cornering as something that could happen to her or him.

Ah, but imagine a more libertarian sensibility making this case. While dealing crystal meth is a very bad thing, the fact that this poor sap could use his resources as a chemist to secure enough money for treatment only proves that you don't need any government-subsidized medical care. And if the casualties of this shake-and-bake encompass dead law enforcement officers, garroted convicts, innocent passengers and crews on two commercial jets along with thousands of hapless addicts on two continents, well, these are what we call the breaks. And anyway, there are many ways for an American to exert initiative, to figure his own way out of such dilemmas that don't involve violent death and self-destruction. At least, not necessarily.

Which, as everyone who's paid close attention of "Breaking Bad" will tell you, sounds exactly like something Walter White would say.

No matter where you stand on health care -- or on anything else -- "Breaking Bad" has been able to make the ground beneath your feet softer and shakier than you think. Not since "The Sopranos" (to my mind, its one true peer in this golden age for cable television series) has there been a TV drama that watches us as intensely -- and almost as balefully -- as we watch it.

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Remember how we were pulled every which way on how to feel about the psychologically wounded Tony Soprano's struggle to reconcile being both a dedicated family man and ruthless criminal entrepreneur in the thick of the turn-of-the-century economic boom?

So are we now torn between pity and scorn for the morally crippled Walter White's fumbling and now crumbling attempts to keep everybody close to him alive, well and happy in the midst of his sordid machinations? Is his dismal negotiation of narrowing options a hint of what the "New Normal" has in store for us?

Maybe, maybe not. Such a question would never occur to us if we were watching a television crime show 50, 40, even 30 years ago when "Hill Street Blues" assumed credit for introducing black comedy and moral ambiguity to police melodrama. "Breaking Bad" has never overtly claimed to explain the way we live now. The finest works of art and literature never have to. They only connect.

When we watch Bryan Cranston (whom I've been proclaiming our greatest living actor since roughly the second of this show's five seasons) inhabit the rotting soul of Walter White as he keeps trying to explain away everything, we are both riveted and appalled by his cluelessness, his monstrousness and his plausibility.

Whether it's passively watching a junkie choking to death on her own vomit, engineering a nursing home's explosion to eliminate a threat to his survival or manipulating his partner Jesse (Aaron Paul, who will someday revive the heroic private detective genre by himself) away from suspecting him of attempted child murder, Walt is able to explain away all of it, to convince himself, if no one else (the viewers least of all), that he's doing it all to make the best out of a bad situation.

Call this impulse what you want, making excuses or, better still, total denial. Denial is Walt's true addiction. More than the "crystal blue persuasion" Walt's been cooking or the ricin he threatens to use, denial is the toxic, satanic brew permeating "Breaking Bad's" narrative. Deniers are worse than explainers when they facilitate or validate gruesome activities.

And yet, there have been times in the five-season run of Breaking Bad when a small part of us rooted for Walt to make the best of things somehow, even in his own twisted fashion, as though we couldn't quite believe or accept that anyone in his situation would submit to an alter ego as forbidding and deadly as Heisenberg the Meth King.

From a safe distance, we judge him as we would any sociopath. But that's too easy given what a complicated mess he is. And it's the seeming normality of Walter White that makes us interrogate ourselves more than he interrogates himself.

The honest, overpowering question: How much of this jerk's disease is carried in us? How much are we willing to pass by or let go just to make the best of our generally imperfect lives? I like to think I wouldn't go anywhere near Walt's dark side -- and I'm sure most of "Breaking Bad's" audience feels the same way. But just as Tony Soprano became our perverse surrogate in lunging for the goodies of the boom years, Walter White is the dreaded specter of the bust era, making one terrible choice after another as the legacy of dead bodies and dread excuses slowly close in on him for what promises to be a shattering revelation.

No wonder we can't wait to see how it all comes out.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.

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