The Case Against “The Case Against Breaking Bad”

Image: AMC

As AMC’s hit series Breaking Bad builds toward its conclusion, the hype builds right along with it. Fans and critics alike are lighting up the internet with all manner of adulation and, of course, goofy fandom. In fact it’s difficult to find negative reactions to Breaking Bad anywhere right now, as the show rides a wave of almost universal acclaim.

In the elevated tradition of critical thought, then, Stephen Bowie over at AV Club has put together “The Case Against Breaking Bad“, and it’s worth a read, whatever your final opinion of it. Bowie pulls no punches, lambasting Breaking Bad as “the most over-praised entry in television’s present golden age.” It actually took me a few stupefied paragraphs to think anything besides, “Wait, this guy doesn’t like Breaking Bad?”

You can make up your own mind about Bowie’s specific beefs with the show. Personally, I don’t know that the show is “sexist” just because its female characters lack full autonomy, or that it’s “derivative and obvious” because it makes use of age-old aesthetic conventions. I did find Bowie’s contention interesting that Breaking Bad is “a plot-driven series frequently mistaken for a character-driven one.” While Bowie is probably overstating it (ok, he is), it’s an interesting point to reflect on.

Breaking Bad is more of a morality tale than realist shows like The Wire or The Sopranos, and its characters’ actions are more explicitly tied to their moral function in the show’s plot, in the way that, say, Dostoyevsky’s characters are as opposed to Tolstoy’s. Does that necessarily make it flawed art, though? I’m not so sure.

Bowie overreached himself the moment he set out to pan a good show so completely. It’s possible that he’s well aware of it, and was intentionally overstating his case in his role as devil’s advocate. A more balanced approach would have served his purpose better. Given that as believers we ought to think critically about what we consume, Bowie’s piece is a prime example of how not to do that, pitched from its opening salvo to alienate the Breaking Bad fans he knew would be reading it and refusing to acknowledge any of the show’s strong points (apart from his brief lip-service to Bryan Cranston’s performance). Bowie would likely contend that he is just offering the timeless critical service of “stirring the pot,” but there are more and less constructive ways to do that. Breaking Bad deserves more thoughtful and nuanced criticism than this.

Maybe the real takeaway here is that the best case against Breaking Bad this guy could build is really not very good at all. Enjoy the show, everyone.

About Ethan McCarthy

Ethan McCarthy lives in Highwood, Illinois, with his wife Jenni and their two children. They like literature, music, and listening to the Atlanta Braves on the radio. He currently works in an elementary school special education classroom.