“Breaking Bad” as superhero narrative

I confess, right off the bat, that I’m only in the middle of the first season, so there may be fundamental elements I’m missing. But even from what I’ve seen so far, “Breaking Bad” is incredibly exciting from a formal perspective. It has many of the elements of a superhero narrative, but from there everything is twisted just about as far as it possible can be.

The main character is unquestionably an individual with superpowers. Specifically, he has an astonishing mind, capable of seeing patterns in the world around him and instantly creating new inventions in response. And he doesn’t do this the way MacGyver would, by making a fetish of an ability to improvise around household items. No, his innovations are instantaneous, innate, done with no more effort than it would take to punch in a phone number. He hardly seems to notice them. We’re talking serious superpower here.

And yet our hero is as dysfunctional as it is possible to be. His life is careening off-course, and he is in deep psychological denial about everything, even about being in deep psychological denial.

Best of all, the emotional scale is operatic, immense. The emotional range we experience through the eyes of this man is insane, grandiose, wildly overwrought, tripping in a single beat from elation to the knife edge of despair. We’re not talking Columbo or House or Monk, reliably working out the crime or disease of the week. We’re talking Puccini and Wagner, Macbeth and Othello, only somehow magically transposed to the suburbs of middle American.

Make no mistake, this is a superhero narrative par excellence (albeit a new kind of superhero narrative). A protagonist with godlike supernatural powers in a struggle for Truth, desperately trying to hold onto his moral compass in the face of overwhelming odds. We don’t know how it will turn out, for him or for his world. So we tune in — breathless, appalled, delighted, and utterly transfixed.

3 thoughts on ““Breaking Bad” as superhero narrative”

  1. Just watched the first episode (yay Netflix instant). Wow! Definitely going to watch more. The opening theme reminded me a little of Firefly. Come to think of it, so does the main character in a way (the good guy doing illegal things in order to survive). I’m very interested to see how this plays out.

  2. When I first read this post I thought you were exaggerating, at least a little. Having watched 5 episodes now, I see that you weren’t. Still wow! (I almost gave up after one of the more gruesome earlier episodes, but I’m glad I didn’t.)

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