Cinema and Media Studies Breaking Bad
David Pierson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0336


Breaking Bad is an American television crime dramatic series created and developed by Vince Gilligan. The series aired on AMC cable channel from 20 January 2008 to 29 September 2013 and reflected American middle-class anxieties during the period of the Great Recession (2007–2009). Many TV critics consider Breaking Bad to be one of the best television series of all time. Breaking Bad tells the story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a put-upon, underpaid high school chemistry teacher, who upon learning that he has stage 3 lung cancer decides to begin making and selling crystal methamphetamine with Jesse Pinkman, a former student, to secure his (White’s) family’s financial future. The series title is derived from a southern US colloquialism, “breaking bad,” which signifies a person who has decided to follow a life of crime or immorality. Gilligan has described White’s character transformation as being from the reserved schoolteacher Mr. Chips to the brutal drug lord Scarface. The series is set in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The program’s recurrent images of wide-open western vistas, deserts, and rugged outlaws have led some critics to label the series a modern neo-western. The show has fostered a strong audience following that has allowed Gilligan and AMC to produce the spin-off, prequel series Better Call Saul in 2015 and a sequel film, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, released on Netflix and select theaters in 2019. Sony Entertainment Television produced a Spanish-language version of the series, titled Metástasis, in 2014. Breaking Bad has served as fodder for important scholarship in media studies, cultural studies, and film and television studies. Scholars have focused their work on a range of topics, including Disability and Impairment; Economics and Social Class, Gender; Genre and Literature; Landscape, Place, and Space; Narrative; Pedagogy; Production Culture; Race and Ethnicity; and Science.

General Overviews

The general overviews of Breaking Bad can be divided into two categories: (1) television critic–authored guides designed to provide readers and the series’ fans with background information and accessible summaries of the series, its characters, and episodes, and (2) scholar-authored studies that feature critical interpretations of the series, its central characters, and narratives within the cultural, political, and social contexts of the show’s release. Thomson 2015 is an official guide to the series, edited by British film critic and historian David Thomson. The beautifully illustrated, fan-oriented guide is filled with interesting insights into the show’s iconography and style and includes an interview with show creator Vince Gilligan. TV critic Alan Sepinwall provides a critical analysis and summary of each episode in the series in Sepinwall 2018. Of the scholarly overviews of the series, Stache 2017 is the most comprehensive, providing excellent close readings of the series, its main characters, and recurring themes. Sharrett 2021 examines the innovativeness of the series and Walter White’s character through applying psychoanalysis, genre study, gender analysis, American studies, and the graphic arts. Checcaglini 2014 explores Breaking Bad as an exemplary TV serial providing a structured balance between the characteristics of high-quality television and the necessity for viewer involvement in the show’s fictional world. Logan 2016 features a complex, nuanced exploration of Breaking Bad’s main characters and the series as a whole, centered on a central set of uniting themes that cut across the show’s narratives. Time and its narrative and imagistic treatment in the series are the thematic hallmarks of Koch 2017, a short monograph. Restivo 2019 is dense in scholarly details about how the series pushes the expressive and narrative possibilities of early-21st-century dramatic serial television.

  • Checcaglini, Chiara. Breaking Bad: La chimica del male; Storia, temi, stile. Milan and Udine, Italy: Mimesis, 2014.

    This Italian-language scholarly work investigates Breaking Bad through textual analysis coupled with a sharp eye to the series’ influences and references to other works, as well as its production and seriality.

  • Koch, Gertrud. Breaking Bad, Breaking Out, Breaking Even. Zurich, Switzerland: Diaphanes, 2017.

    Analyzes the series through a number of perspectives, including its treatment of time and as a dark comedy.

  • Logan, Elliot. Breaking Bad and Dignity: Unity and Fragmentation in the Serial Television Drama. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781137513731

    This scholarly book focuses on the themes of dignity, unity, and fragmentation to explore the series’ main characters and the series as a whole.

  • Restivo, Angelo. Breaking Bad and Cinematic Television. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv121018c

    This well-written scholarly study asserts that the series employs many of the expressive devices normally found in cinema, and it is thereby an example of the rise of a new television aesthetic in post-network television.

  • Sepinwall, Alan. Breaking Bad 101: The Complete Critical Companion. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2018.

    This fan-oriented book provides an accessible episode guide to the series.

  • Sharrett, Christopher. Breaking Bad. TV Milestone Series. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2021.

    A scholarly, insightful analysis of the series highlighting the conflicted morality and toxic masculinity of Walter White’s character along with its unique blend of generic elements from the crime film, sitcom, the western, and family melodrama.

  • Stache, Lara C. Breaking Bad: A Cultural History. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

    A highly accessible book that provides a solid close reading of the series and its central themes, along with its marketing and fandom. It provides an excellent overview for undergraduate courses.

  • Thomson, David. Breaking Bad: The Official Book. New York: Sterling, 2015.

    An attractive, fan-oriented examination of the series and its artistry.

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