Breaking Bad fans, I get it. I started watching this series with trepidation, dreading the too-common spectacle of people making a hash of things. Certainly Breaking Bad is about that, but one thing that makes this show so interesting is that the protagonist is so bad at being bad.
Breaking Bad is a morality play, a buddy comedy, a tragedy. The tragedy is not limited to the central character; rather, we are all implicated in our capacity for corruption. The possibility (in the show’s pov, the probability) of making the wrong choice and the consequences that radiate from that decision are central concerns in Breaking Bad, but it’s not just Walter White (great name, evoking Thurber’s frustrated everyman) who chooses poorly; what is mostly overlooked about the series is how corrupt every last character is, within his or her own means to be so. The tension between real evil and socially acceptable evil is the real driver of this show’s dramatic arc.
And what an arc: shows like Mad Men have been called novelistic, because they present a fully imagined world in the service of an overall scheme. Breaking Bad takes that a step further in that every season is a single Act in the overarching narrative. That narrative has held its shape like no show I can remember – everything happens for a reason, and events in Season 1 (Book 1/Act I) resonate anew in later seasons. The confidence of the storytelling is breathtaking.
Season 1 (2008) was a limited run of 7 episodes. This was a pitch-perfect black comedy. The comedy was largely abandoned (though still found on occasion) midway through Season 2, which introduced the cosmic arc of cause-and-effect; where you come down on the season finale (episode 13, “ABQ”) is probably a good indicator of your take on the series as a whole. My initial reaction was, “Oh, come on…” until I thought back through everything up until that point and determined it was sheer, audacious brilliance. Season 3 (13 episodes) opened with its own version of the Riders of the Apocalypse, and the show’s scope widened accordingly: a strong candidate for Best TV Season Ever. Season 4 (13 episodes) is the penultimate season; according to the show-runners, Season 5 (16 episodes) will be the final act. (I am 9 episodes into Season 4, and I confess that despite some of the best individual scenes (Skyler’s dumb blonde act for the IRS deserves special mention), the overall tension has gone slack. But I may reconsider that opinion.)
Special mention must be given to the show’s cinematography. The camera shots and lighting (oh, the lighting!) are unique and top notch, particularly the crazy pov shots that place the audience in or alongside something that is being acted upon: a floor as a foot steps on it or blood drips down; dirt being shoveled; a vat that liquid is poured into; a fly as it caroms through the air. These spectacular shots matter because they reinforce the idea that everything is connected: actions have consequences. More often than not, the camera places us amidst the action: we are affected; we are implicated.
Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker has called this “a feel-good show about feeling really bad,” and that’s pretty straight. Unlike shows such as The Sopranos or movies like Goodfellas, Breaking Bad is a wind-up toy where every gear obviously connects to the one next to it; we delight in the storytelling contraption above all. With that said, the character work done by Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul is remarkable. These guys are Abbott and Costello if they decided to cook meth.
At 7.99 per month, this series completely justifies a year’s subscription to Netflix. (And if that doesn’t convince you, Netflix also has the complete run of Friday Night Lights.)
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For your consideration: Breaking Bad’s first season was a Coen Brothers comedy, its second was modified Spielberg (think Munich crossed with Minority Report, where yellow replaces blue), its third was Scorsese by way of David Simon, and its fourth was Paul Thomas Anderson with a dash of David Lynch. After watching episode 2 of season 5 (Madrigal), It’s looking like The Godfather all the way. I’ve read some criticism that the episode was slow, but I think this is what Coppola tried (and largely failed) to do with his third installment: widen the story globally while tightening the personal stakes for everyone. One of the best episodes yet in the series.
(July 23, 2012)
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Breaking Bad has ended. The dissections and second-guessing will continue for some time, but I’m satisfied. I’ve already read several comments along the lines of, “[This is what] should have happened.” Anybody writing that kind of thing hasn’t been paying attention to what Vince Gilligan and Co. have created. The wind-up toy paid off on its major arcs; I counted a single misstep in the finale, which can be excused as underlining a point one too many times, presumably for the benefit of those who weren’t paying attention.
I was mistaken about the scope of the finale season – last year I wrote that it seemed to be adopting a global scale. The neo Nazis ended up being a sidestep for the series – a villain not quite up to Gus Fring’s menace (and they were never equal to Walt’s genius, as Fring seemed to be.) I don’t know how that story would have finished, but I do know that I love what I’ve seen instead. Gilligan has said if you’re going to show a gun in Act I, it had better go off in Act 3. The guns went off. Well done.