Created by former X-Files writer Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad is one of the most audacious TV dramas ever conceived.
It has now soaked deeply into our culture (you can buy Heisenberg tee-shirts and fridge magnets) and the view of it as a masterpiece of television has become such a widespread cliché that I'd begun to somewhat look down my nose at this show, and discount it.
However, that opinion was challenged when I finally caught up with the final season.
In preparation for this climactic binge, I backed up and watched the preceding series, Season 4, which gave me a chance to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of this excellent — indeed, great — television drama.
In case you're not aware of the story of Breaking Bad, it's about a good and decent man, a high school chemistry teacher called Walter White (the great Bryan Cranston) who is forced to become corrupt and turn to crime. That is what the title means. Walter White's gradual transformation from a bumbling, apologetic victim of fate to a full blown evil villain is the great joy of the show.
Unfortunately it is undermined by the unending whining and wallowing in regret of Walter's wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and his chief accomplice Jesse (Aaron Paul). The viewer gets so sick of this that one begins to long for the good old compliant mob spouse and unquestioning sidekick.
The other flaw in the show is that some of the hero's stratagems are just too wildly elaborate. You'd have to be god or the devil to anticipate that they'd play out exactly the way they do. I won't give any spoilers here, but I'm talking about what we'll call the "Lily of the Valley" subplot. Worse yet, this wildly implausible subplot resurfaces in the final season as a ludicrously unlikely trigger to create a falling out between Walter and Jesse. It's just so contrived it could never happen.
Worse yet is the way Walter finally falls under suspicion with his DEA brother in law Hank (Dean Norris). I just couldn't believe that a man as clever and careful as our hero would leave an incriminating piece of evidence like that lying around.
But those considerations aside...
The final season of Breaking Bad is a joy. It is set up wonderfully by the deeply satisfying climax of Season 4 where Walter finally deals with the satanic Gus Fring. That was hard to top, but the show manages it by introducing some terrific new characters, notably the wonderful Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser) and the astonishing Todd (Jesse Plemons, who was also excellent in the recent film Bridge of Spies).
Highlights of the final season include an amazing train robbery, a bravura and bloodthirsty sequence eliminating witnesses, a dazzling meth-cooking setpiece featuring the song 'On a Clear Day You Can See Forever' by the British jazz trio the Peddlers (you can watch it, and listen to it, here) and the final apocalyptic reckoning between Walter and those who have wronged him.
Still, I don't think that Breaking Bad is, as many claim, the greatest television show of all time. For my money that title currently goes to Game of Thrones.
(Image credits: All the posters are from Imp Awards.)