“Breaking Bad: A Cultural History” by Lara C. Stache; Rowman & Littlefield (236 pages, $38).
AMC’s Breaking Bad spent five years presenting its audience with the tale of Walter White, a brilliant but unfulfilled high school chemistry teacher, husband, father of two, and recently diagnosed cancer patient who would go on to slowly but surely become the meth kingpin of the American Southwest. As Mr. White and former student turned partner Jesse Pinkman become deeply entwined in the deadly underworld of making and selling narcotics, their narrative leaves a trail of bodies strewn across the show’s five seasons, marking a story that resulted in more than 15 Emmy awards as it developed into one of the most critically acclaimed TV shows ever made.
In Breaking Bad: A Cultural History, author Lara Stache offers her readers an engaging analysis of the program, focusing on the show’s fascinating characters and complex story lines. Stache gives the show its due reverence, but also suggests new ways of understanding and critiquing the series as a part of the larger culture in which it exists. The author looks at how the program challenges viewers to think about choices made in the narrative, analyzes what design choices did and did not work, and determines the program’s cultural significance both before and after the show’s conclusion.
Stache also explores how Breaking Bad grappled with themes of morality, legality, and anti-drug rhetoric and looks at how the marketing of the series influenced the ways in which television shows are now promoted. Key scenes from Breaking Bad are retold within this book along the way, often to celebrate the fantastic story threads or engaging scenes of the show, and other times for the sake of the critical analysis of the inner workings of Breaking Bad’s narrative. Either way, it makes for a fun way for fans to revisit their favorite scenes from a new perspective or for not-yet-fans to enjoy a little appetizer of the show.
Setting aside the thrilling character-driven plots of Breaking Bad, very subtle but intentional symbolism is often used in the show’s set design and character actions. These artistic flairs by the show makers always fascinated me, and I’m glad this book elaborates upon them in detail, quoting interviews with the show creators to help solve the mysteries behind these interpretive design choices.
The use of symbolism in Breaking Bad is so barely focused on that you can easily miss it, but once you’re aware of it you’ll begin to see it in every dramatic scene! One example is the set designers carefully using the color of environmental lighting or a character’s clothing to symbolize morality and intent prevalent in the scene. Certain hues of color represented lawful society, other hues represented the criminal underworld, and some colors represented morally gray areas in-between or other concepts like greed or despair.
Aside from color, many other subtle artistic symbolic choices are made in the show. Walter White often visits his family’s seldom used backyard pool when he wants to be alone with his thoughts, where the state of the pool itself will give the audience a peek into his state of mind. Walter also picks up subtle but distinct mannerisms from those who die due to his actions throughout the story, as though he’s taking a little piece of their soul with him on his descent ever deeper into the criminal underworld.
A few Biblical themes even manifest themselves in the characters towards the end of the series, fitting with the show’s heavy themes which explore the vices and virtues of its character cast. It’s wonderfully creative design choices like this that help the show be a treat to watch even on second or third viewing. You’ll always spot a new detail you missed on last viewing!
Lara Stache is clearly a big time Breaking Bad fan, and her book does a fantastic job of exploring the show’s narrative from both the perspective of the audience and of the writers. Breaking Bad: A Cultural History captures the spirit of the series and examines how the show had an impact on viewers like nothing before it. This book will be of interest to fans of the show as well as to scholars and students of television, media, and American pop culture.
Donavon Anderson is a reference library assistant at May Memorial Library. He can be reached at email@example.com.