Breaking Bad Only Works Because Of When It Happened

By Robert Scucci | Published

Breaking Bad is one of the best dramas of its time, but it still has so much staying power for one specific reason. Taking place between 2008 and 2010, Breaking Bads storytelling falls into what I consider to be the “technological sweet spot” in media. It’s modern enough to capture the attention of a new audience watching the series for the first time today, but not so advanced or primitive that the storytelling suffers. 

Burner Phones

bryan cranston

If you’ve ever done the CSI or NCIS deep-dive, then you know all too well how the use of technology has a tendency to be an incredibly convenient plot device in the crime procedural genre. How many times have you seen a cell phone signal get triangulated by an investigator, which immediately leads to finding the whereabouts of whatever person of interest is hiding from the law? Breaking Bad on the other hand, takes the burner phone approach, which is just so satisfying to watch play out.

Such Satisfaction

As somebody who used a flip phone until 2019, I had my own Breaking Bad moment when I bought my first iPhone. I picked up my old Nokia, yelled “You have five minutes to drop the bag!” and broke it in half as if I were Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) barking orders at one of his lower-level distributors.

The use of cell phones in Breaking Bad allows everybody to communicate with each other in secret without incriminating themselves, and it’s something I can still see happening in real life in 2024 for the same reason. Speaking from personal experience, breaking a flip phone in half is also incredibly satisfying.

During The Internet Transition

Breaking Bad also takes place during a time when home internet use was ubiquitous but not used as heavily as it is used today. When Walt Junior (RJ Mitte) makes the fundraising page for Walter (Bryan Cranston), the webpage itself is primitive but convincing. It looks like something a teenager would make in his bedroom, and there are still webpages that look similar that are being created by teenagers in the present day. 

The same could be said about Jesse Pinkman’s (Aaron Paul) mySHOUT page, which is clearly a MySpace surrogate in the Breaking Bad universe. The site serves its purpose by letting Skyler White (Anna Gunn) know with whom her husband is spending time early in the show’s run, but doesn’t have to be revisited once this connection is established. In other words, everybody in Breaking Bad is well-connected through the use of modern technology, but not so connected that they can just look everything up whenever it’s convenient. 

Where Breaking Bad Wouldn’t Work Today

This stage of technology depicted in Breaking Bad allows for DEA agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), Walt’s brother-in-law, to do some pretty clever police work. Knowing that he’s hot on Jesse’s trail after following a couple of leads, Hank pulls footage from an ATM camera outside of a convenience store to confirm beyond a reasonable doubt that Jesse was present at that location not too long ago. If Breaking Bad took place today, there probably would have been a number of other cameras on the property, which would have been convenient, but wouldn’t help illustrate just how smart Hank is as an investigator. 

I also need to point out just how the use of payphones drives the storytelling in Breaking Bad. In “Ozymandias,” Walt makes a menacing call to Skyler from a payphone. While tracing the origin of a phone call is a common practice, it’s not really useful if the person making the call is about to run off. The use of a payphone in this context allows Walt to say what he needs to say while staying one step ahead. 

Breaking Bad Depends On This Precise Timeline

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If Breaking Bad was conceived at a later point, I have reason to believe that Vince Gilligan would have probably kept the series on a similar timeline. Breaking Bad, as we know and love it, works so well because it’s modern, but not too modern. The series may have a clearly defined timeline, but it’s still timeless in so many ways because technology is used sparingly and convincingly. There’s not a smartphone in sight; just a bunch of violent criminals and deplorable people living in the moment.