Bond pulls the handbrake and dips his DB7 into a shimmying 180, suddenly accelerating again in a squeal of smoking rubber around the corner, where he’s just caught a glimpse of the villain’s tail-lights. But wouldn’t you know it – there’s a fruit stand in the way. Stolidly gripping the gear shift, Bond slams through it, no time to spare, grapefruits and plums ripped flying from their lovingly-packed cases into the cloudless Adriatic sky, two green and white striped umbrellas flail over sideways, screams are heard. The grocer’s jumped, but whether he’s clear of the damage is not known.

I have a fantasy – surely shared by others – of seeing an entire movie based on the aftermath of this scene. First the stillness of the street and the exclamations of bystanders. Someone’s writing down the license plate number. A peach rolls a few feet and stops. In a room where light cuts through wooden shutters, we see photographs arranged on a mantle, and an old black telephone. It rings. A woman answers. The news isn’t good.

OK, maybe it shouldn’t be feature-length. But I luxuriate in these sorts of details when they appear in movies and on TV, and they’re a big reason why I like Breaking Bad.


Breaking Bad isn’t some totally new kind of show; it borrows the anxious rubbing together of organized crime and middle-class suburban family life from the Sopranos. But our hero isn’t an illustrious boss with hired muscle and a license to do whatever the fuck. Tony Soprano isn’t bound by the rules that apply to you and me. Neither is Jimmy McNulty. Nor Stringer Bell. Nor anybody on Lost, or Heroes. Nor Buffy. Nor anyone in the lawless town of Deadwood. Nor the doctors on ER, who are deputized to cut you open with a saw if they think that’s the way things are heading.

There’s a good reason why the protagonists in so many dramas (including all of Shakespeare’s) belong to a special caste. If you’re above the law, you can confront high stakes dilemmas without the tedious impingement of finances or a buzz-harshing call to 911. Sure, movie screens teem with ordinary people tapped to save the day. But almost always, they’ve been granted some sovereign dispensation to make it happen. Frodo’s just a hobbit – but he’s got the Ring of Power. Neo’s just a computer addict living in an untidy apartment – but hey presto! He’s The One.

In Breaking Bad we get Walter White. Like all main characters, he sees a big difficulty looming and realizes that all else must be hurdled in order to confront it. But Walt’s an underachieving high school chemistry teacher with shitty health insurance (which is part of his problem). So he takes one big, hare-brained step outside the rules, and his world – public and private – collapses on him like sliding debris. The show works backward from this one decision to dramatize every mental and material consequence that a more privileged protagonist would barely notice, much less have to actually deal with. It’s brilliant.