For most TV addicts, waiting for a program to return from hiatus between seasons generally leads to a case of prolonged mild anxiety akin to holding in a sneeze. However, for those enthusiasts of a select number of indelible series that brand upon their brains, the accrued anticipation produces a sensation more along the lines of having a big toe flattened by an anvil.
One such program is AMC’s seminal Breaking Bad, which has both captivated audiences and redefined what is considered possible for modern episodic dramas. Boasting unbridled energy and conflict tightly compressed into each episode, the series has, in four short seasons, elevated television from time-killing fare to lyrical and breathtaking art, thereby rivaling even the most stunning achievements in cinema.
Entering its last season (which will be divided into two eight-epiode segments), Breaking Bad has enraptured audiences with its harrowing look into the life of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a high school chemistry teacher who, after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, resorts to producing the highest grade of methamphetamine in New Mexico in order to provide money for his wife and two children. Working alongside his burnout former pupil, Jesse (Aaron Paul), Walt grapples with his own mortality as his body gradually begins to deteriorate. Attracting attention as the talk of the drug world, Walt and Jesse are forced to navigate an increasingly unfamiliar and dangerous terrain populated by suspicious DEA agents and rival dealers, who threaten to expose their illicit dealings.
Providing some of the most compelling storylines ever committed to prime time, Breaking Bad has become a consummate fan favorite. With three agonizing weeks left until the fifth and final season premiers July 15, impatient fans will continue to twist in the wind as they pine for Walt’s shaved dome and Jesse’s trademark eloquence (“ . . . bitch”). For these sad souls stuck in a state of TV limbo, here are ten works that will satisfy every craving.
1. My Life: Despite impacting every segment of modern society as the leading cause of death worldwide, cancer (the bane of Walter White’s existence) still remains a relatively untouched subject for mainstream Hollywood, with the most notable successes coming in the form of light-hearted yarns (The Bucket List) and inspirational weepers (50/50). Now, criminally forgotten, the most insightful film on the subject is My Life, which chronicles the final months of Bob Jones, a man diagnosed with a terminal case of kidney cancer. Despite struggling to endure both the physical toll and emotional anguish that accompanies his slow decline to death, Bob (vividly brought to life by Michael Keaton in a career performance) devotes the majority of his energy to cataloging the lessons he learned in his life into a video journal for his unborn child, whom he will likely never meet. In this paternal obligation, Bob’s mortal odyssey parallels that of Walt, who turns to the most profitable use of his gifts to provide for a family he will be abruptly leaving.
2. Dexter: Initially burning up television sets in its first four seasons before plummeting in recent years, Showtime’s flagship series has become the closest thing to Breaking Bad’s spiritual sister. Featuring protagonists obsessed with hiding dark secrets that, if discovered, would unravel their lives, both works share similar pitch-black tones and central themes of paranoia. Unlike the drug manufacturing escapades of Walt, Dexter indulges his disturbed impulses by murdering serial killers. Both anti-heroes maneuver through myriad challenges that result from their illegal doings by maintaining close relationships with their potential captors, their family members (Dexter’s sister Deb and Walt’s brother-in-law Hank). Descending deeper into the void, both characters become increasingly transformed by their “dark passengers,” as their normal selves become mere theatrical façades.
3. Straw Dogs: Much of Breaking Bad’s success comes as a result of the progressive evolution of Walter White from an archetype of institutional meekness into an agent of aggressive liberation. A perpetually exploited loser, Walt infuses every menacing stare and brooding physical threat with a primal bestiality long denied in his white-bread world. This theme of embraced, cathartic hyper-masculinity was also the emotional engine for Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film, Straw Dogs, wherein bespectacled mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) is best remembered gloriously muttering “Jesus, I got ’em all,” after killing off a bevy of villagers intent on raping his wife. By reclaiming a powerful impulse he had lost (or never had), David provides the prototype for Walt, who similarly sheds his timidity like a skin.
4. Frontline: The Meth Epidemic: The award-winning PBS documentary series, Frontline, continues to shape and enrich public awareness of social issues. This is particularly the case with their informative 2011 episode on the meteoric rise of Crystal Meth in America, which provides a comprehensive examination into the genesis of the drug (beginning with its surge to prominence in the early 1990s), its effect on the increasing number of addicts (including telltale facial deterioration), and the growing number of challenges encountered by Drug Enforcement Officials in combating it (both due to the relative ease of acquiring its primary component, Pseudoephedrine, and the immense amount of resources devoted by large pharmaceutical companies to opposing future legislation). By illustrating the myriad of complexities involved in the meth crisis, Frontline gives viewers a sense of the massive web that Walt and Jesse find themselves entangled in. Watch it here.
5. Repo Man: Awarded an Emmy in 2010, Aaron Paul captured the hearts of viewers by vividly breathing life into the small-time thug turned big-time badass, Jesse. Overflowing with nuance and conflict, Jesse’s evolution proves to be one of the most fascinating of the entire series, as the perpetual loser finally finds his calling in questionable enterprises. This central theme recalls that of Alex Cox’s pivotal cult film, Repo Man, wherein desperate young punk Otto (Emilio Estevez) discovers a natural talent at repossessing cars while working for the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation. Blinded by his newfound wealth, Otto (like Jesse) quickly finds his occupation to be fraught with peril. While descending into a fantastical tale involving alien eggs and flying cars by the third act, Repo Man shares with Breaking Bada chief fascination with how the alienated youth of the country, left without opportunities, are forced to construct their own twisted version of the American Dream. Here’s hoping for Paul’s sake that his character type is the only thing shared with Estevez, and not a future career path.
6. X-Files: BB creator/show runner Vince Gilligan has a varied and odd resume. With only two film scripts in his portfolio (the dark romantic comedy Home Fries and the anti-superhero yarn Hancock), Gilligan’s home remains in TV. While he has become a powerful force since conceiving Breaking Bad, the new golden standard by which all television is judged, Gilligan’s first foray into the world of boob tube scribing came on a similarly impactful series—the immensely influential X-Files. Starting as a creative consultant before being promoted to executive producer, Gilligan’s written work produced some of the most enduring entries into the legendary sci-fi series (including the vampire-inspired “Bad Blood” and the mysterious “Small Potatoes,” in which a small-town is plagued by an abundance of infants born with tails).
7. Weeds: While often compared, Breaking Bad and Weeds share few similarities outside of their mutual interest in white, upper-middle class suburbanites dabbling in the illicit enterprise of narcotics. Weeds, a pithy comedy, lacks anything resembling the dark core of Breaking Bad, which is precisely why it is a worthy companion. With such similar subject matter covered on the dual ends of the comedy/tragedy spectrum, watching Weeds and Breaking Bad proves to be a study in contrasting styles. After you’re done comparing, feel free to move on to other diametric duos like Seinfeld and Prometheus(which are both about nothing).
8. The Godfather: In many ways, Walt’s fate parallels that of one of the most enduring tragic heroes in modern cinematic history, Michael Corleone. Initially morally righteous and upstanding citizens, both protagonists are forced to inherit criminal empires due to familial obligations. Embracing their positions after proving adept at them, both consolidate their power by eliminating their enemies through violence and destruction, leading to a life of constant paranoia and fear.Yet despite being immutably corrupted by power, both men continue to conceal their new “true selves” from their families and even delude themselves into thinking their malevolence is a justifiable aspect of their businesses.
9. Eyes Wide Shut: Cinema master Stanley Kubrick’s swan song features a core conceit that, despite being packaged differently, bears similarities to Breaking Bad. These works center on the exploits of family men journeying down a shadowy spiral of immorality (drugs and violence for Walt, sex in a strange, ritualistic underground for Dr. Bill (Tom Cruise)). With protagonists risking the safety and security of their families in their quests for the forbidden, these works not only address the primal urges shared among “civilized” men, but more importantly illustrate the effects these indulged fantasies have on their relationships with their equally repressed and tempted wives.
10. Beowulf: One of BB’s most enduring attributes is its indelible cast of characters, particularly the bombastic villains that endeavor to either kill or enslave Walt for his unrivaled skill at “cooking.” Similar to video games, each phase of the show’s narrative provides a new central adversary that must be overcome, which only paves the way for a new, more formidable foe to emerge. This pattern of escalating opposition developed roots in the infamous epic poem, Beowulf. In it, the eponymous protagonist, a great warrior, journeys to a far land in order to vanquish a scourge monster, Grendel. Destroying the abomination, though, incites the ire of more daunting challengers—Grendel’s serpentine mother and a massive dragon. Despite often relying on others to do his dirty work, Walt’s narrative charts out identically to the epic poem, as it finds him compelled to fight similarly imposing villains. As if divided into stages, Walt must first defeat the bestial, uncontrollable lunatic Tuco (Grendel), before next contending with his enraged kin, manifested as silent twin cousins instead of his mother. Earning attention for these victories, Walt is eventually forced to contend with the grand master of the West Coast drug trade, fast food restaurant magnate Gustavo Fring. With this established pattern of intensifying dangers, fans are clamoring as much for a final, ultimate villain as they are for the resolution of any hanging story lines.