*May contain spoilers* The ‘cold open’ is a tradition of American television. A brief scene that takes place before the opening credits, it offers a tantalising glimpse of what’s to come. AMC’s Breaking Bad turned the cold open into an art, with impressionistic, often obtuse images that captured the show’s essence. At the beginning of the fifth season, it’s protagonist Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) birthday. He’s miles from home. He’s buying a machine gun. It’s an ominous note for what will prove to be a shattering, nail-biting downfall for the crystal meth kingpin who was once a mild-mannered Albuquerque chemistry teacher.
Breaking Bad is a masterpiece of television; a programme that forged its own distinct personality and rhythms, and re-defined the potential of the medium in the process. After Walter’s reign at the top of the meth industry in the Southwest, the final season is the walls of the kingdom crumbling in on itself. Where once it basked in the illicit glow of Western outlaw imagery (“just because you shot Jesse James don’t make you Jesse James”), it goes out in ruminations of tragedy; the end of an empire; the death of a king. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias was used in the trailer for the season, and it captures the tone of what followed: “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare”.
The genius of Breaking Bad is that it retained every single aspect that made it great while constantly innovating and subverting its own mythology. It was exciting, moving and darkly comic, and these tenets were pervasive throughout the boundless set-piece driven episodes like season four’s Dead Freight to the intimate, philosophical Fly from the third season. It’s a programme that could match the dramatic and structural intelligence of The Wire and combine it with visceral, thrillingly tense actions scenes. The performances are astonishing from top to bottom, with Cranston and Aaron Paul now joining James Gandolfini in the TV acting pantheon. The word ‘cinematic’ is often used to describe ambitious television; almost as if it’s an ideal which the medium should strive for.
Rather than assimilating cinematic storytelling and dramatic techniques, Breaking Bad mastered its own format. Seasons inevitably followed an arc, but the episodes felt tonally self-contained. In some instalments, the scale and sweep can be breathtaking, then it can all close in on two characters for the following episode; it’s clearly a show that was plotted on both a micro and macro level. The final season ratchets the tension to an almost unbearable degree, with the rug constantly being pulled from under the audience. The last episode slams the breaks; it feels like a dream. It’s a slow, heartbreaking realisation of hubris and pain. It’s too late for atonement, but the scraps of redemption seem within reach; the legacy is a bloody handprint in a New Mexico laboratory.