Like the X-Files or Buffy before it, Breaking Bad has always been a series that traffics in two types of episodes: those that advance over-arching, season-spanning story lines and those of the "villain of the week" variety that focus on a problem that's easily solved between credit sequences.
The latter type usually find Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul) backed into some unlikely corner and conclude with the duo using even unlikelier methods (often involving chemistry) to cheat death and live to cook another day. Entertaining as they often are, these McGyver meets Marie Curie installments usually lack the emotional depth and character development that have elevated Breaking Bad above the typical crime saga fare usually found on basic cable. They're crucial, however, as they keep the audience rooting for a man who is now, inarguably, the most villainous protagonist ever found on a mainstream American television series. Or at least they did…
Much in the same way that Don Draper's advertising genius once kept us in the flawed ad man's corner, Walter White's ability to save the day with nothing but some household cleaners and his knowledge of the periodic table led the audience to rout for him, despite his frequently malicious intent. Perhaps that's why we've seen so little of Walt's improvised heroics thus far in season five: the writers of Breaking Bad have decided to go all the way off the beaten path and allow their underdog hero to become the most egregious sort of bad guy.
Yes, we've seen comparable shifts in character dynamic before, but never has the moral center of a show shifted so dramatically as it has here. Unlike Mad Men or The Sopranos, Breaking Bad is a series that began with a clear, capital H Hero. Walter White was an everyman faced with horrific but all too imaginable circumstances: a terminal prognosis and an already dire financial situation.
The first seasons of the show focused on a man at the end of his rope willing to do whatever it takes to provide for his family. But four and a half seasons later (or one year in the unlikely timeline of the series), he's a different animal entirely. Now the Walter White we were introduced to is as unrecognizable from the one we met in the tour-de-force first season as he is to his own family. Showrunner Vince Gilligan and company have had the good sense to capitalize on this fact rather than attempting to restore a more crowd-pleasing universe.
Take, for example episode 4 of this season, in which Walt's wife attempts to free herself from the role of his indentured accomplice through blackmail. The former sad sack high school chemistry teacher doesn't attempt to talk her down from her position, but instead informs her that if she even attempts what she's suggested he'll destroy her in ways that only an experienced crimelord can. Now think back to the way this season opened:
Walt and Jesse need to retrieve a laptop containing some damaging information from a police evidence locker. Walt's knowledge of the laws of physics allows for a last-act "Hurrah!" moment in which a giant magnet is used to erase the laptop's hard drive. Reverse the order of those two episodes and it becomes difficult to believe that viewers would hope for the success of the unlikely scheme masterminded by the man who just bullied the mother of his children into tearful submission.
And therein lies the genius of Breaking Bad. Never before have we seen such a dramatic change in the nuts and bolts of what makes a long-running series tick. Walt and Jesse, once a modern-day Butch and Sundance, have evolved into a Hegelian study in opposites. Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston deserve equal credit to the show's writers for executing convincing portrayals of characters who have completely switched places in terms of their moral codes.
At one time they were both bad guys we routed for. Now the man who acted as an audience surrogate (Walt) has become the foil of a young man trying to make his fortune with a minimal amount of harm to bystanders. A subtle, but astounding example of this 180 degree change came when Walt gleefully played a role in Jesse's decision to cut loose the recovering addict single mom with whom he'd become close. Walt, of course, had his reasons for this bit of counsel having previously poisoned the child of Jesse's girlfriend.
Perhaps more than any other, that was the point in the series at which "Mr. White," decided to abuse his position as Jesse's mentor and confidante to advance his own, sinister agenda. For the discerning viewer, it raised disturbing questions about the future of Walt's children, as well as hopeful thoughts about the end of the traditional hero-arc in mainstream television series. Yes, we've seen characters go from good to bad before, but never has an entire series focused on one man's fall from grace in such compelling fashion as Breaking Bad.