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The Frightening—But Biblical—Moral Logic of 'Breaking Bad'
Image: Frank Ockenfels / AMC

You might not expect an Emmy-nominated tastemaker to tell The New York Times, "I want to believe there's a heaven. But I can't not believe there's a hell." Yet that's exactly how Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, summed up his personal philosophy in 2011. The quote should not surprise anyone familiar with the show, which makes its final, infernal push Sunday night.

For four and a half seasons, Gilligan has told the story of Walter White, a docile chemistry teacher who, after receiving a terminal diagnosis, turns to cooking methamphetamine (crystal meth) to provide for his family. As he develops a taste for the trade, Walt discovers a gift for deception—and self-deception—taking him down a path that turns "Mr. Chips into Scarface," as Gilligan's original pitch put it. Filter that premise through the severity of Cormac McCarthy and the dry humor of the Coen Brothers, and you're in for a compelling ride.

AMC debuted Breaking Bad when the cable network was fresh off the success of their first foray into original programming, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad appeared to be cast from the same mold. These were television series as serialized novels, exploring both grand visions and intimate corners of characters' inner and outer lives.

It's no coincidence that the revitalized format features antiheroes like Tony Soprano and Don Draper. The extended run time lends itself to complicated protagonists, whose humanity is never in question but whose behavior keeps viewers guessing. As both perpetrators and victims, they can be reprehensible one moment, vulnerable the next, capable of premeditated malice and violence as well as tenderness and charity.

Breaking Bad ...

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July/August 2013

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