Every week, Lilian Min muses on reality + sci-fi/fantasy fiction narrative and fantastical world building in her column “Chasing the Unicorn.”
If you haven’t been on the Internet for a couple of, I don’t know, years, then maybe you won’t care that the saga of Walter White, aka the protagonist of the critically acclaimed, culturally pervasive “Breaking Bad,” is donning his pork pie hat (whether physically or metaphorically) for the last time tonight.
Before I get into this, Wait!, you cry, But “Breaking Bad” is grounded in reality! This isn’t sci-fi or fantasy; this is cold hard science, and as such should be treated strictly within the realm of realistic drama e.g. “Mad Men,” “Homeland,” and other comparable stories!
Here’s the thing though: out of all the TV I watch (and boy, do I watch a lot……….), it’s not traditionally sci-fi shows like “Battlestar Galactica” or “Firefly” that experiment the most with the ways in which a story is told. Like, I watched the pilot for “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and it was okay, but it wasn’t anything particularly bold in its storytelling. Sure, there was cool tech! and superpowers! and all that stuff, but all of that was grounded within the story’s reality, which, while supernatural, was normal for what it was. There’s logic within the madness.
But on a show like “Breaking Bad,” precisely because everything’s grounded in a reality that we can all recognize as of this world (though the show’s gorgeous cinematography often renders these earthly landscapes as alien tableaus) (close your eyes and imagine the dusty deep oranges of the New Mexico desert), there’s more of a challenge in keeping viewers’ attention, in separating the wheat from the chaff. And for that very reason, the show creates fact out of fantasy, but frames it in things we can recognize.
Because yes, there’s very real science in “Breaking Bad,” but a lot of its most iconic science isn’t very, uh, scientific. Like, the show’s now iconic Blue Sky meth? Not possible, at least without food coloring. And that early episode in which Walt and Jesse melt a body in a bathtub of hydrofluoric acid? Yeah, HF wouldn’t have eaten through the tub and the floor of a house. But those are the things that hook the viewer, both because of their intense visuals (the dripping red of a melted carcass; the uncanny clarity of icy transparent blue) and also because they serve to elevate what could’ve just been a story about a man meeting death, answering his self-internalized feelings of emasculation and regret in a most improbable, yet genius, way.
“Breaking Bad” is Walter White’s (or rather, Vince Gilligan’s) beautiful dark twisted fantasy, and it’s taken the fairy tale-esque narrative of redemptive success and spun it on its twisted, box cutter-slashed neck. There are other modern shows that do this well. There will definitely be shows in the future that do this well. But right here, right now, we wait for the closing chapter of one of television’s greatest villain origin stories.
Murky and marvelous, horrific and hilarious, “Breaking Bad” and the saga of Walter White officially end tonight. This is drama at its highest. This is fantasy at its richest. And it all happens here, in a world we call home. There’s something quite fantastic about that.