One of the things that kept me motivated and focused through "Hell Week" last week was the return of Breaking Bad. I came in late to the saga of Walter White of Albuquerque, New Mexico, the man who started with a simple idea: To leave a nest egg behind to finance his family after his near-certain death from lung cancer. I watched all four seasons in a breathless haze, each episode in a row on DVD and iTunes, and was able to watch Walt's descent into evil in a much quicker time-frame than watching a season at a time on cable TV.
Walt's cancer went into remission, but his plan didn't. This morning, while puttering around the house, it occurred to me how much Breaking Bad reminds me of The Godfather. And then I picked up the current issue of Entertainment Weekly (the one with Batman and Mitt Romney--sorry, Republicans and sycophantic followers of Rush Limbaugh--Bane on the cover), and in reading the article on the season 5 return of BB, I see that creator/producer Vince Gilligan is a huge fan of The Godfather.
And I'm not surprised. BB is every inch influenced by that seminal movie (movies, really; and I mean only the first two parts). Both are the stories of good-hearted men trying desperately to avoid succumbing to evil. In Michael Corleone's part, he's trying his best to stay out of the family business. In Walter White's part, he's trying his best to leave something behind, using his genius and intellect to build a better mouse trap (i.e., pure crystal meth) that will earn him a quick and easy giant paycheck to provide for his family. Family is of the utmost importance to most men, and both stories are family sagas.
But both get seduced by the dark side. Michael is drawn in by vengeance and the desire to help his father. Walter is drawn in by power and the desire to help his family. In the end, both alienate their wives and in turn (I'm guessing with BB), their children. The fear in Skyler White's eyes in the 5th season opener of BB mirrors the fear of Kay Corelone as both women see the monsters their husbands are becoming. That chilling scene where Walt hugs Skyler and tells her "I forgive you" is straight out of The Godfather, reminiscent to me of the end of the first movie, when the door slowly closes on Kay as Michael's minions pledge their alliegance, while she stares wide-eyed at what he's become.
Both stories are about how power seduces and corrupts absolutely. Both stories are about "be careful what you wish for," as both men experience total control over their "kingdoms," but a loss of the things that matter the most to them. And I feel ultimately that both men will end up as Michael Corleone ends up at the end of The Godfather II: Sitting alone at the top of the heap, wondering at the price that got them there.
Beyond the similarities of story, Breaking Bad and The Godfather share a visual sense and a sense for the defined moment. Walter White kills two of his enemies at the end of season 4 with the stroke of a bell. Michael Corleone uses the occasion of the christening of his godchild to take out all of his enemies in one felt swoop. Both the TV show and the films are breathtakingly shot. The Godfather films evoke a New York that no longer exists (and was much easier to film in the early 1970s than would be today), and Breaking Bad showing a just-as-scary foreign landscape in New Mexico. The individual scenes and framing are breath-taking in both.
Breaking Bad has a distinct advantage over The Godfather, though. With 61 episodes by the time it's done next year, BB has much more real estate in which to tell its engrossing story. And for a tale about the rise and fall of a family partiarch who rules over a deadly empire, the more we get to see, the better it is. In the case of Breaking Bad, it just gets better and better with each episode.