The final eight episodes of Breaking Bad will begin Sunday. Over the course of five seasons, the series has established itself not just as one of the best shows now on TV, but as one of the best ever -- maybe the best ever. On the eve of this final stretch, we decided to look back over the series as a whole and identify some of what made it so great (which also provided a good excuse to rewatch it all...). Before you sit down to catch the start of the final half-season (say, with a bunch of fellow fans at a Breaking Bad watch party at Sidewinder), take a minute to reflect on these eight reasons the show is such a brilliant tour de force. (Spoiler warning: There are more than a few plot details that you'll want to avoid if you aren't caught up on the entire show, so proceed at your own risk.)
Albuquerque, New Mexico With its mix of wide-open vistas and sketchy industrial parks, Albuquerque and the surrounding desert have become as much a part of the show as blue meth and Walt's hubris. Beautiful and bleak by turns, just like the show set there, Albuquerque has revealed itself to be the ideal setting over the course of five seasons. Of course, a lot of the credit for that goes to cinematographer Michael Slovis, who's managed to capture all of the area's majesty and squalor and translate it to the screen. You don't have to notice the surroundings to enjoy the show, but once you do it becomes abundantly clear that they contribute significantly to its greatness.
Montage Breaking Bad makes more frequent use of montage than anything this side of an '80s comedy film. Whether it's cooking meth or slinging it, or even prison murders, the show has used montages to help control the pace and flow of episodes, allowing them to both show minute detail and big swathes of time in the same episode. Plus, most of them were set to fantastic music. If the montage sees a renaissance in the next few years, you'll be able to thank Breaking Bad for sparking it.
Humor It can be hard to remember from time to time, what with all the murdering and meth slinging and tension-fraught drama, but Breaking Bad can be a damn funny show. It's throttled things back from the black comedy-laced first season, which frequently seemed to mine its situations for the darkest possible humor, but the show still manages to hit just enough humorous notes to keep things from getting too bleak. From the inspired casting of Bob Odenkirk as the sleazebag lawyer Saul to little visual gags like the infamous pizza on the roof, Breaking Bad offers more laughs than any show about the making and unmaking of a murderous meth kingpin has any right to.
Beginnings and endings If you start strong and finish strong, it frequently hardly matters what the hell you do in between. Not that Breaking Bad's mid-season episodes are ever less than stellar, but it's mastered the art of strong season premieres and finales. It's hard to go wrong with seasons that are bracketed by episodes like the pilot and "A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal," much less "Box Cutter" and "Face Off." It would be an exaggeration to say that all of the show's best episodes are its season openers and closers, but they are all among the best. Of course, the creators still have to stick the landing, but seeing the work they've done so far wrapping up individual seasons, it's not hard to believe they will.
The relationships Great drama is fueled by great relationships, and Breaking Bad is rife with them. The weird father/son dynamic between Walt and Jesse, for example, or the tired, slightly dysfunctional and wholly realistic marriage of Walt and Skyler (well, slightly dysfunctional until Walt's meth cooking burns it to the ground). Hell, the ever-shifting dynamic between Walt and Gus drove some of the strongest episodes of the entire series. Even relationships that are almost entirely peripheral to the main action, like that between sisters Skyler and Marie, are well rendered, internally consistent and grounded in reality in a way that helps the world of Breaking Bad seem real.
Believability Realism? Forget about it! From Walt's superhero chemistry tricks in the early days of the series to the ease at which he succeeds Fring as Albuquerque's meth kingpin with barely a hitch, the show has always been full of convenient coincidences and barely disguised plot contrivances. But you know what? None of that matters a damn bit, because realism doesn't mean shit as long as things are believable -- and Breaking Bad feels real, even as a strict accounting of the facts makes it hard to believe anything of the sort could happen in the real world. The characters and relationships ring true and the excellent writing and direction smoothly paper over any "Hey, wait a minute!" moments in the execution of riveting stories, so who cares if in the real world Walt would have probably blown himself up with that fulminated mercury in season one?
Bryan Cranston Rarely in the history of film and television has there been casting as perfect as Bryan Cranston as Walter White. Maybe never. It was hard to imagine "the dad from Malcolm in the Middle" -- Cranston's best-known pre-Breaking Bad role -- as a teacher-turned-meth cook when the show was first announced. At this point, it is much, much harder to imagine anyone else in the role that's earned him three Emmys. Series creator Vince Gilligan reportedly knew it from the start, but AMC executives pushed for someone else. Thankfully, fate or the fact that Matthew Broderick couldn't see himself as a meth cook intervened. Seriously, just try to picture Broderick or John Cusack -- two actors who were offered the role and turned it down -- as Walter White. You can't do it, can you? That's because Bryan Cranston is Walter White, just as sure as Walt is the danger.
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Vince Gilligan Fans of The X-Files were the first to get a chance to appreciate the greatness of Vince Gilligan. His work on that show produced some of its finest, not to mention most distinctive, episodes, including "Pusher," "Folie à Deux" and "Unusual Suspects." In Breaking Bad, it's easy to see the same mix of intense drama and loopy humor that propelled his best episodes working at an even higher level. Gilligan is quick to point out that the show is an ensemble effort that reflects the work of many other writers, and while that is undoubtedly true, it's just as true that it's his show -- he brought the pitch to AMC, he's the one who's run it ever since -- so he's just going to have to accept being singled out here.