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SaraKay Smullens Headshot

Why Did Breaking Bad Enthrall? Do Not Overlook Its Fierce Healthcare Hook!

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There is a fierce healthcare wake-up call in "Breaking Bad."

But first, a confession and some background explanation: My husband and I were latecomers to "Breaking Bad." We did not begin our experience in true theatre until a month before its final show. I have read no reviews, first not being interested, and then fearing inevitable spoilers.

But yes, we quickly became "One More Time, Sweetheart?" addicts. Usually two a night, sometimes three -- trying not to become noticeably bleary-eyed for work the next day. The Sunday of the last show was our true Addiction Day. In a Couch Potato-chip and deli marathon, we remained captivated by gifts of writing and acting, completing all we had missed 40 minutes before the last show began.....

I became intrigued by "Breaking Bad" because of raves from friends and clients. But there was more. Therapists are detectives. We want to understand the "whys" of how things evolve: Specifically, in this case, why did "Breaking Bad" enthrall the way it did? What were the hooks of this show? What nerves were touched?

The first hook, of course, was a superbly written script, and truly gifted ensemble actors. Yet, this can also be the case for shows that do not catch on. So what was different here?

Of course, there were the hooks of family love, devotion, grit, and how, with no one wanting it or expecting it to happen, individuals, relationships, and life itself can spiral down, way down.

"Breaking Bad," showed this price of lies and deceit, and how people can and do, in the words of drug lord Gus Fring, "hide in plain sight." When Walt finally admitted to Skylar that he did his "work," not for the family, but because he was "good at it," and it made him feel "alive," we clearly understood the hell of all forced, in myriad ways, to leave work they love, as well as the frustration of those never given an opportunity to find this expression.

The final honesty of this communication, and Walt saying farewell to his daughter Holly, as his wife looked on remembering their long ago days of love and trust, hopes, dreams, youth....brought shivers and misty eyes as we watched, understanding truths echoed in our own lives.

The final episode, remaining true to authentic writing and ensemble excellence, continued not to let the viewer down. There was justice and hope amidst the suffering, as Walt, in control, died embraced by his third "child" -- his laboratory, created with his "foster son," Jesse -- now freed to speed toward an independent life and the "son" he loved. All endings are painful, and to label an ending as "good" or "happy" overlooks so much. But this one was fulfilling, and yes, haunting -- and did not leave one confused, bewildered, or disappointed as have so many loyally followed series. This gift to a loyal audience reminded me of the dignified and respectful resolve of "Six Feet Under," one I have watched again and again.

Still, regardless of how brilliant, captivating, and respectful to its audience, I do not see the above as the deepest hooks of this magnificent show.....

In this exceedingly angry, divisive, confusing and conflicted time in our country and our world, "Breaking Bad" offered opportunity for nail-biting escape, diversion, and fantasy. Yet, as it did so, it also touched our deepest fears of illness, danger, and loss with true-to-life, shivering authenticity; and showed the extent people will go to protect their loved ones as well as their own power. In doing so, it offered the fantasy of revenge toward those who may have brought grave and irreparable harm to the viewer.

But there is more: It insisted that we confront both the universal fear of death, and the reality that any of us can be tempted or even forced by circumstance to cross a line, and embark upon a slippery slope, from which there can be no return.

In "Breaking Bad," that slippery slope involved two grave medical crises that led first Walt and Skylar and then Hank and Marie over the edge toward Blood Money. But the initial pursuit of this money was for the purpose of time, and the hope and possibilities of recovery.

With the tincture of time, we realized that the 1997 kiss of Ellen DeGeneres on her sitcom became an indictment of prejudice: Ellen's kiss turned the tide of public opinion toward understanding that there are two kinds of normal, hopeful sensual love -- gay and straight.

In like measure, in this period of confusion and division over the direction of health care, "Breaking Bad" is an indictment of our present system. Its writers and actors brought to life the deep longing of those who suffer to have control over their therapy, and if they cannot recover, control over the way they can continue to live and then, the way they die. Writers and cast showed the helplessness of even those with decent jobs (Walt held two in order to made ends meet!), as they face a health care system designed to meet the needs of the wealthy, powerful, and privileged. I believe that the week by week witnessing of the cost of the horrific plight and the subsequent decisions and descent of a terrified family will be remembered as "Breaking Bad's" fiercest hook and largest contribution to us all.