In recent weeks, my friends and I have developed a ritual for watching Breaking Bad. When Sunday night finally arrives, my roommate Floyd cues up the latest episode on his laptop and hooks it up to his TV via HDMI. As the stream buffers, the remaining four or five of us prepare the chairs, gathering in a neat circle around the screen. Behind us hangs the room’s requisite “Breaking Bad” poster, which features a troubled Walter White sitting heavily in an old lawn chair as he stares off into the middle distance over the backs of our heads. “All hail the king,” it declares, making the boxes and boxes of meth and cash behind him rather difficult to ignore. We break out the snacks and crack open some beers, chatting the whole time. Floyd hits play and we keep talking over the recap of previous episodes. Naturally, a band of fanboys as dedicated to the show as ours needs no reminders of what’s already past. Instead, visions of the show’s indeterminate end dominate our conversation. While we speculate, the big question continues to hang in the air: What will be the fate of Walter White?
Before going on any further, I must first make a confession. I’ve barely watched Breaking Bad. I only started a month ago and I have managed to see the first five episodes of season one and the second half of the currently airing fifth and final season.
In my defense, allow me to recount my recent acquaintance with Breaking Bad.
After two months of research and teaching high school students this summer, I went west in search of a break. I spent 18 August days in California, staying with various friends along the way. About halfway through my trip, I met up with Floyd, who was also on vacation, and our housemate Isaac, a native of Davis who had spent his summer back home. Over the course of the next week, I was struck by the amount of TV that Floyd watched on his computer. At any and all free moments during our stay at Isaac’s, Floyd’s Netflix was fired up and ready to go. He was clearly putting in work on something that mattered to him.
It didn’t take long for me to gather that Floyd had been bitten by the Breaking Bad bug. Thanks to my News Feed on Facebook and some loose snippets of the show that I had caught on-air back in season three, I already knew that the show was good enough to be mentioned in the same breath as The Sopranos and The Wire. Only by watching someone else watch the show did I realize just how good—or, to be more precise, how captivating—it really is.
Breaking Bad is a terribly engrossing show, the kind that demands verbal responses from its audience. No wonder Floyd was hooked. In an effort to catch up, he had spent the month prior to California marathoning the previous four seasons at a breakneck pace. As I still held vague notions of doing the same, I tried to ignore Floyd’s screen. But that proved impossible even when he plugged in headphones; more than once he could not resist the temptation to slap me on the shoulder and launch into a whirling explanation of the very scenes I was trying not to look at.
At this critical juncture, I had three options: 1) Leave the room; 2) Tell Floyd to shut up, probably more than once; 3) Give in and just start watching in medias res. You can guess which one I went with in order to maintain a healthy relationship with my dramatically addicted friend.
As summer drew to a close, I thought I’d try my hand at the now venerated Breaking Bad marathon. For a number of reasons, I didn’t get far. When I arrived back at Columbia a month ago, Floyd was all caught up, as was Isaac, who lives just down the hall from us. Add to that the fact that our third roommate Aaron has been watching Breaking Bad since it debuted in 2008, and pretty soon I was caught in the same bind as I had been in California. For the past three weeks, I have lived among those who have witnessed Walter White’s tragic transformation in its entirety. And I have done so with pleasure, savoring each tension-filled shot for all it’s worth to me.
Human beings have always counted on stories, both real and fictional, to bring them together. At this very moment, Breaking Bad is reaching its peak of cultural pervasiveness. As I mentioned before, it’s a show that makes its viewers talk. That’s why I decided to plunge into the series—there was too much talk to keep avoiding it, because avoiding the show meant avoiding my friends who watch it. We live in an era of unprecedented access to an unimaginably vast array of stories recorded in diverse media. As individuals, we don’t just decide which stories are worth our engagement. Each of us controls how that engagement occurs. As revolting as this may sound to purists, I do not regret the path that my Breaking Bad-dom has taken. There will be plenty of time to catch up after next Sunday.