‘Breaking Bad’ Was the Last Great Antihero TV Show

Breaking Bad 10th Anniversary

Breaking Bad, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this week, was far from the first TV drama focusing on an antihero. Bland chemistry teacher-turned-meth chef and eventual kingpin Walter White followed in the footsteps of mobster Tony Soprano, bad cop Vic Mackey, enigmatic ad man Don Draper, and other dark leading characters of television in the 2000s. What makes Breaking Bad so remarkable to consider now, after a decade, is twofold: it’s arguably the best of the antihero dramas and marked the beginning of the end of the subgenre’s heights.

For a certain time, AMC aired two of the best dramas on television: Mad Men and Breaking Bad, which managed to be tonally different even as they each displayed the power of the televisual medium. Each show was focused on antiheroic characters (Mad Men’s ostensible lead was Jon Hamm’s Don Draper, but it boasted a massive ensemble with plenty of other complex characters), but Walter White was the apotheosis of the TV bad guy people loved to hate or, in some cases, emulate. As deftly portrayed by Bryan Cranston, Walter White wasn’t like Tony Soprano or Vic Mackey or even Don, the latter of whom we meet years after he had taken someone else’s identity for his own aims. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan always defined the show’s arc as taking Mr. Chips and turning him into Scarface. So many other shows start and end with the latter half of that equation, with the main character starting and ending as a nasty type; Breaking Bad walks the character from one extreme to the other.

Breaking Bad has only been off the air for four-plus years, its explosive finale airing in September 2013. But its impact on newer shows was felt much sooner, and only served to heighten just how impressive a tight-wire act the show walked, where others felt like pretenders at best. AMC tried to recapture the antiheroic spirit of its two best shows, with the cult favorite Halt and Catch Fire (which eventually became a critical darling, but never got impressive ratings) and grim cop dramas like The Killing and Low Winter Sun. That latter show, a remake, was so comically grim that it was parodied on network shows like The Good Wife as an example of how dark TV had gotten.

Dark dramas like Breaking Bad have, of course, not vanished; later this year, AMC will be airing the fourth season of the show’s spin-off, Better Call Saul, a show that has been widely praised in spite of not being quite as popular with audiences. That show, in at least one respect, follows its predecessor’s footsteps: where Breaking Bad showed us how one man went from Mr. Chips to Scarface, Better Call Saul shows how one man goes from Jimmy McGill to Saul Goodman, from a somewhat good-hearted lawyer to a shameless ambulance chaser who’s tight with the drug lords of Albuquerque.

breaking bad ozymandias

The gradual patience that marked Breaking Bad — the seeds for Walter White’s villainy are present in the first season, but still mostly dormant — is something that’s missing from most of the antihero shows airing now. Walter White didn’t pull out massive machine guns to take down his rivals in the first season; he didn’t even encounter his greatest antagonist, Gustavo Fring, until the end of season two. More recent shows almost can’t afford to wait to get to the proverbial fireworks factory.

Moreover, when shows like Breaking Bad themselves feel somewhat indebted to earlier programs like The Shield and The Sopranos, which broke ground for how mature and adult small-screen drama could be, those that come even later simply feel like they’re repeating something we’ve already seen. In the last few years especially, networks have leaned further into genre-based high-concept shows, from AMC’s most viewed drama The Walking Dead to HBO epics like Game of Thrones and Westworld. These high concepts have led to massive popularity — Game of Thrones has, like Mad Men and Breaking Bad before it, won a couple of Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series — but also rely on sprawling ensembles that gain new members as frequently as they lose them to zombies or dragons or androids.

Another part of what made Breaking Bad so special was its ability to leave the party at the right time. AMC’s The Walking Dead is still a very successful show and, unlike Game of Thrones, seems to have no sense of closure ahead. There are always zombies, and there are always people to brain them something fierce. The problem with such visceral nastiness is that it gets tiresome after a while. Breaking Bad, by the very nature of its premise, could only last for so long. (Scarface is a gruesome gangster, but he also doesn’t last long once he’s on the top of the criminal pyramid.) The show lasted five intense and, by the end, exceedingly grim seasons, ending — spoilers ahoy — with the lead character dying just like Scarface does, after he reached the top of the heap in ABQ.

Breaking Bad didn’t last as long as The Sopranos or The Shield, and didn’t gain quite as many Emmys as its fellow AMC drama Mad Men did. But 10 years after its premiere episode, which began with the absurd image of a pasty middle-aged man in white underwear and little else in the middle of the desert, Breaking Bad stands apart from other TV dramas; it married an unbeatable concept with deliberation and savvy innovation that’s hard to find in other shows in the Peak TV era. Breaking Bad’s lead character did exactly what the title portended, but refused to wallow for too long, unlike a lot of other antihero shows.

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