Coming off one of its best episodes yet, AMC's Breaking Bad, in its fifth and final season, seems poised to cement its legacy as one of the decade's best dramas. If you haven't yet caught up on Breaking Bad through Netflix, here are the top five things you're missing:
5. Troubled Masculinity
TV shows that define the "Golden Era of Television" have one theme in common: troubled masculinity.The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Friday Night Lights all hit the same moving target. But no TV show explores contemporary masculinity quite like Breaking Bad.
Tony Soprano was one of TV's most satisfying arguments against the notion that people can change. Don Draper adapts to the changing times, but painfully—always a few steps behind his female coworkers. Coach Taylor, star of Friday Night Lights, was a poster child for the "strong but flexible" father figure and husband. He was always anchored to a moral center, but able to recognize the shortcomings of a male-dominated worldview. (Of course we loved watching him finish first.)
Then there's Breaking Bad's Walter White, named both fittingly and ironically, like a comic book hero. He started out as a heroic anti-hero: a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with cancer who fights tooth and nail to create an inheritance that will sustain his family. But, as a meth cooker supreme and drug lord of the Southwest, he's quickly becoming a darker shade of villain than even the mob bosses in The Sopranos.
Despite his Dockers and windbreaker, Walt is one of the most intriguing TV symbols of contemporary masculinity. Even in his modern world, his tragic flaw matches that of the heroes of Greek and Shakespearean drama. Oh, the hubris!
By the time 2008 rolled around, we thought we'd seen everything. It wasn't enough to introduce a new twist to a classic story, but the local DEA agent is Walt's brother-in-law! It's thrilling to watch director Vince Gilligan prove that the only thing he can make us want more than timid, sensitive Mr. White to succeed is for monstrous, self-obsessed "Heisenberg" to fail.
If the masters of American entertainment love one theme, it's a good underdog story.
Walt's brains versus Hank's brawn, Walt versus horrible boss, Walt and Jesse versus Tuco, Jesse versus Hank, Hank versus the Salamanca twins, then Walt, Jesse and Hector Salamanca versus Gus Fring? Yes, please. The stakes have gotten progressively higher, but now we're back where we started: Walt vs. Hank. Good old family drama.
By now the brains-versus-brawn tension has almost reversed, and Hank is assuming the role of the (more) moral underdog. There's incredible tension around who will be left standing in the series finale. Walter White is now playing the comic-book villain.
We've seen the lines between hero and anti-hero blurred on TV before, but by Season 5 of Breaking Bad, the audience is rooting for the antagonist over the protagonist.
TV fans haven't been treated to this caliber of dark comedy since Six Feet Under. In the fifth episode of the fifth season, it's almost a treat to hear traces of the old Mr. White's dry humor. When his wife, half-jokingly, accuses him of burying dead bodies, he responds with the straight-faced truth: "No, I'm robbing a train."
Breaking Bad has it all.