A train heist. A melted body falling through a ceiling. A severed head on a turtle. When you click “play” on Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad for the first time, I guarantee that you have utterly no idea what you’re in for.
It’s difficult to name another show that has had such an influence. Besides not being able to walk down my high school hallway without hearing lines quoted in passing — “it’s science, bitch,” or maybe the classic “tread lightly” — the series, which debuted in 2008, paved the way for what is now common: the high-concept show that centers around the likable antihero. We see it in so much that is streaming these days: Marty Byrde in Ozark, for example, Frank Underwood in House of Cards, Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder. To put it simply, Breaking Bad is the gold standard of contemporary television.
It’s not a bad idea to binge-watch something that is undoubtedly a cornerstone of modern American culture, but that’s far from the only reason you should do so. And if my objective is to set out to convince you to watch it, then the way I see it, likable and interesting characters are at the very top of the list of the most important components of a TV show. That’s why comedies such as The Office and Friends had such a consistent and overwhelmingly successful run: we like the characters. It didn’t really matter what happened in the episodes, as long as we got to spend some time with Jim and Pam, or Ross and Rachel.
Breaking Bad is just as binge-worthy (and I think more so!) because it tops the good-characters meter and also has a story that keeps you at the edge of your seat for all 3,720 minutes it runs for. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with the characters. First, we have Walter White (Bryan Cranston), who is probably the most likable villain in the history of the moving image. I mean, we are really with him from the beginning. So, when he commits bone-chilling atrocities — the least of which is cold-blooded murder! — we kinda… get it. We’ve already signed on. No time to be moralistic. There’s no turning back now.
And then we have the side characters. The ones that are introduced for comic relief, but then become so much more than that. The most important example is, of course, the completely beloved Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), young drug-dealing burnout and former chemistry student of Walt — or, as Jesse calls him, “Mr. White.” Jesse enters the series for a laugh. When we first see him, he is falling out of a window, pants half down, during a drug bust. In the later seasons, though, he becomes one of the most emotionally raw and haunted characters in the show.
And he’s not the only character who undergoes a stunning transformation throughout the course of the show. Hank (Dean Norris), Walt’s crass, DEA agent brother-in-law (dramatic irony, anyone?), enters Breaking Bad as a loud-mouthed, obnoxious contrast to Walt’s quiet and humble intelligence. He becomes the star of the later seasons, though, as he gets closer and closer to the truth of Walt’s real identity. And the questions of family and loyalty make this transformation just as crushing as Jesse’s.
For every “good” character, there is an equally awesome villain. Breaking Bad is stock-piled with literally every kind of bad-ass bad guy (and girl) you could possibly ask for. We have Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz), the sociopathic drug kingpin who interrupts his every sentence to snort some crystal. We have “the cousins,” identical twin brothers who are also hitmen for the cartel. They wield axes and razor-sharp boot tips. Need I say more?
In the later seasons, we have Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser), a high-power meth supplier who wears five-inch heels and will not eat anything that’s been artificially processed! And, probably the show’s most exciting villain is Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), a mega meth dealer who uses a fast-food restaurant to launder his money. Fring is quiet, polite, gentle, and, of course, utterly fucking ruthless.
Okay, so we’ve established that the characters are awesome. But, what about the story? I mean, even if a show has a slam-dunk high-concept elevator pitch, who’s to say it will deliver? The good news is, one does not have to look any further than the pilot episode to answer that question. It begins with Walt wearing nothing but his underwear and a gas mask as sirens howl in the background and he says goodbye to his family on a handheld camcorder. He pulls out his gun. If you’re not hooked at that point, I don’t know what to say to you.
As the pilot continues, the momentum only picks up. It’s crafted like a film with a perfect three-act structure and character arc. First, Walt is established in his frustrating, limiting life. Then, he is thrown a curveball: he has terminal cancer. Finally, he’s cooking meth. And we still have 61 episodes left.
So, now that we’ve established that the story is killer, we’re almost 100 percent of the way to scientifically proving that Breaking Bad is the most binge-worthy show out there. But there’s another secret component to making you click that “continue watching” button on Netflix: the cliffhanger. The show doesn’t give you a chance to breathe as each episode essentially ends in nail-biting suspense. For the sake of spoilers, I’ll use an early episode to explain exactly why. At the end of Season 1, Episode 2: “The Cat’s in the Bag,” Jesse tells Walt he’s melted the body of a dangerous drug dealer in the bathtub upstairs. Walt looks up with an expression of dread as the body parts — pieces of brain, blood, bone-fragments, all that good stuff — plunge through the ceiling. This cliffhanger is great because not only is the event itself both hilarious and dramatic, but it essentially tells us all we need to know about the show. Walt and Jesse are amateurs, and they are bound to continue making silly mistakes that put them at major risk. They are running against the clock here; if they don’t clean up this mess in time, they could be discovered and go to jail. That, and there’s still another captured drug dealer in the basement. Alive.
As someone who has watched the show five times through, I can promise you that it just becomes more binge-worthy with each watch. The jaw-dropping moments of the show are equally jaw-dropping on second, (or third or fourth or fifth), watch, but it’s even more satisfying to go back, knowing what terrible thing is going to happen, and watch the web be woven seasons before.
In short, Breaking Bad is, by far, the most binge-worthy show out there. It’s science, bitch.