Flash back to summer 2010 with Seth Meyers, now star of Late Night and host of this year’s 66th Primetime Emmy Awards.
Still busy as head writer of Saturday Night Live then, Meyers took time to write an editorial feature for Emmy magazine, just like any of our fine contributors.
His subject? A new-ish AMC drama series in its then-second season called Breaking Bad, revolving around high school chemistry teacher-turned-menacing meth man Walter White and created by X-Files writer-producer Vince Gilligan, which Meyers believed everyone ought to check out.
Good call, Seth.
So 4 years later now, we find Meyers on the sunshiney rooftop lounge of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where he is celebrating his own second-season pickup for his animated Hulu series, The Awesomes.
He beamed when asked about his stint writing for Emmy.
Meyers playfully wondered along with us, whether he really does possess some supernatural ability to foretell when a show will hit like Breaking Bad. (He "loved Fargo this year," but conceded that he is "too late to call" that one.)
And he smiled when we realized the series stars and creators happen to be enjoying a literal, final victory lap around the award show circuit in the same year that Meyers is hosting television’s biggest night for the first time, his first Primetime Emmy Awards on August 25.
"I don’t want to brag it up too much," Meyers shared, "but I did get a hand written note from Vince Gilligan. That’s one of my prized possessions."
Here’s why he couldn’t stop watching back then — and perhaps why several years later, millions of his fellow Breaking fans still can't either.
The Best Bad Man
By Seth Meyers
Story originally published in the June 2010 edition of Emmy magazine
Are you looking for a show where you root for the drug dealer?
Heck, not even a dealer, a manufacturer — a kingpin.
“Well,” you might say, “it would depend on what kind of drug we were talking about. Are we talking about weed?”
Maybe you could get behind a dealer who understands Grandma might need some marijuana for her glaucoma.
And maybe you’d even be cool if we were talking about someone dealing a little Ecstasy for the dance kids or some lovable old hippies cooking up acid in the bathtub.
Nope. We’re talking about crystal meth. A drug nobody just “does on the weekends.” Now, do you think you could root for that guy?
Well, I do. His name is Walter White, and the first time I laid eyes on him he was behind the wheel of an RV dressed in nothing but underpants and a gas mask, speeding down a deserted New Mexico landscape.
He lost control and crashed off the side of the road. He stumbled out of the vehicle, gasping from fumes, and fumbled with a video recorder to hastily tape an apology to his wife, son and unborn daughter. Then he tucked a gun into the back of his tighty-whities, walked up to the road and raised his gun barrel to the sound of approaching sirens.
That all happened before the opening credits. I wasn’t just on board. I was in love.
The amazing thing about Breaking Bad isn’t how fast it started, but rather how creator–executive producer Vince Gilligan has maintained the same breakneck pace for 3 seasons. Watching Walt (Bryan Cranston) in the pilot, I assumed I was meeting a man at his lowest point. It turns out that was about as good as it was ever going to get.
Of course, if you’re going to even consider being on Team Drug Dealer, he better have a good story. Walt’s is one for the books. A chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer, he’s so worried about how his family is going to survive without him that he teams up with an ex-student (not the valedictorian kind, the never-applied-himself kind) and uses his scientific expertise to cook the finest meth in the American Southwest.
At his purest, Walt is a good man. Beneath that he is a smart man. Yet here he is, making bad decision after bad decision. And here I am, going with him every step of the way: Yes, this can work. Yes, he can pull this off. No, this is not crazy.
But on Walt’s journey we learn that there are worse things than terminal cancer.
Things like the DEA (did I mention Walt’s brother-in-law is in the DEA? He is.)
And like Mexican drug cartels (headed by steel-toothed Tuco, a man you don’t want to end up stuck in the desert with).
And finally, the realization that if your wife finds out what you’ve done for the family, she won’t be your wife anymore (here, it’s the magnificent Anna Gunn who tries to get to the bottom of her husband’s strange behavior in one of the rare cases where an extra-marital affair would be a relief).
The longer Breaking Bad goes on, the longer you wish for the halcyon days when Walt’s biggest problem was chemotherapy.
That’s not to say there isn’t humor. Cranston’s Walt and Aaron Paul’s Jesse never lose the comic banter of frustrated teacher and exasperated student. Dean Norris, as the aforementioned DEA agent, seamlessly combines old-school cop bluster with a deep vulnerability. And Bob Odenkirk as the money-laundering Saul Goodman teaches us a valuable lesson: if your lawyer’s office has Constitution wallpaper, he’s probably not the best lawyer.
But for each moment of light, this is a show that keeps getting darker. In the season 3 premiere, Walt picks Jesse up at rehab and takes him home. Jesse explains to Walt that rehab has helped him understand who he is. When Walt presses, Jesse looks up with black eyes and says, “I’m the bad guy.”
No matter how noble your reasons, crimes have consequences. (In fact, the only thing that comes off worse than crime in Breaking Bad is crystal meth itself. I assure you, no one has watched this show and thought, “I have to start smoking more crystal.”)
Gilligan never stops showing you the wreckage of Walt and Jesse’s choices and the scope of the innocent lives they affect.
Yet somehow, despite all of the destruction, I breathe a sigh of relief each time they escape and think, “Damn, I really hope it works out for these two.”
I doubt it will. But I’ll be there until the end, rooting for Walt and Jesse against my better instincts.
Why? Maybe I’m a bad guy, too.
Story originally published in Emmy magazine issue no. 3-2010.
Seth Meyers photos courtesy of NBC. Breaking Bad photos courtesy of AMC.