As a fan of BREAKING BAD, I had for a long while figured I’d write some article once the show ended. Yet by this point, what is there to say? I’ve read so many articles and essays, analyzing the entire series, some on an episode-by-episode basis. It’s won an Emmy, tons of accolades, made Bryan Cranston an actor as esteemed as Pacino, and inspired fan art. It’s become my favorite series ever, just barely surpassing ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT. I’m proud of AMC, one of my favorite networks, and think they hold the key to future of television! And with the series finale having aired three nights ago, everyone seems to have already made up their mind on that.
But then I realized there was one minor thing I had to say. Something involving the last batch of episodes that I think played a key role in the disappointment some felt with the finale. And it can be summed up in a statement made by Indiana Jones:
Allow me to explain, and yes, it will be all spoilers from here on in. If you’re reading this far, I expect you are familiar with the show and will not require much summary.
A common device I’ve often noticed in storytelling is making the villain a racist. Often times it will be in a story that otherwise has nothing to do with race nor offers any deep insight on the sensitive subject, but simply exploits it to be dramatic. A perfect example is THE LONGEST YARD (2005, dir. Peter Segal), which in one scene has Stone Cold Steve Austin call Nelly the “N word” in an effort to provoke him in anger. The film is otherwise a juvenile slapstick comedy and this scene comes off like writers finding a lazy way to tell the audience: “Look how bad this character is! He just said the N word!”
Then we get to Nazi, skin-head, and white supremacist groups, which manage to do the same thing more efficiently. Unless it’s SCHINDLER’S LIST or AMERICAN HISTORY X, most movies don’t really give their Nazi characters any development. If they have a Swastika on their body in some way, it’s the same as telling the audience: “Just so you know, this is a bad guy!” The same is pretty much true with the Crucifix. Almost every time in a movie that a character wears a Crucifix, they turn out to be a hypocrite. CRUEL INTENTIONS probably uses this cliche in the most creative fashion.
So in the final season of BREAKING BAD, we are introduced to psychopath Todd and a gang of neo-Nazis, led by his Uncle Jack, played by Tarantino-veteran Michael Bowen. You might remember him as Buck in KILL BILL and…uh…what’s his name…the detective in JACKIE BROWN who wasn’t Michael Keaton.
So what’s my problem with these guys? For starters, there’s no real reason for them to be Nazis. These guys never say or do anything racist; they could honestly have easily been a generic motorcycle gang and the story would not have been affected. These guys were made Nazis because it was an easy way to establish them as villains without having to give them motivations or backstory and get a shock out of the audience when we see their Swastika tattoos. By the way, notice how I keep referring to them as “these guys?” That’s because there’s no character development here. They are stock villains, in particular Uncle Jack. This is not a reflection on Bowen, who is a good actor; he’s just given little to work with. And by the way, yes, I’m fully aware that white supremacist groups are an unfortunate reality in the world, as well as other cults and hate groups. If you know anything about the Westboro Baptist Church, you know what cults can do to people (I refuse to put a link to their website in this blog). But if you’re going to introduce a hate group in a story, you should make some effort to develop who they are. RED STATE, for all of its flaws, made more of an effort to accurately portray a hate group.
Season 5B of BREAKING BAD does a good job of pulling a lot of bait-and-switch on the audience, something the show has always been known for. We initially think that Walter White‘s downfall is going to come at the hands of Hank and Jesse Pinkman, and sure enough, the first few episodes go in that direction. Then comes a shocking twist and it’s the Nazis who become the final villains of the show. Uncle Jack’s murder of Hank is one of the most gut-wrenching moments of the show. But then the Nazis turn on Walt, stealing all his barrels of money except for one, and essentially become his mortal enemy from then on. Why do they do this? I guess the intended answer is: because they’re Nazis, and that just makes them evil. They don’t need any more motivation than that.
With each subsequent episode, I found it harder to engage with these Nazis as serious characters. Todd pulls a SILENCE OF THE LAMBS-number on Pinkman, keeping him prisoner in a meth lab. This raised way too many questions for me: there’s a white supremacist compound located in Albuquerque? Wouldn’t the cops be keeping an eye on such a place? I would think the tattoos these guys sport would be enough to make civilians take notice and protest outside the compound. Wouldn’t a place that could potentially attract so much attention be a horrible place to run a meth lab? We also never see the Nazis use the $60 million or so that they steal from Walt; wouldn’t they use it to get out of that compound, or to spread their racist message? But rather than show us what they use the money for, it would seem they just stole the money because the plot needed them to.
If you think of BREAKING BAD as one long novel, which I do, then there are three main villains on the show whom Walt squared off against: Tuco Salamanca in the early episodes, Gus Fring in the middle episodes, and finally these Nazis in the last batch. Most every fan I’ve talked to would agree that Uncle Jack and Co. are the weakest in that group because of how generic they are. Now Gus was a great villain, mostly because of how great his rivalry against Walt worked. Why did Vince Gilligan and his writers introduce these Nazis? My guess would be that, after Gus and the entire Mexican cartel, Walt had essentially reached the top of the empire and there was no adversary that could stand against him, unless it was a pure evil group of outsiders.
How could this have worked? To quote Lydia: “Todd. Use Todd.” Todd was a more interesting character than Uncle Jack, and perhaps had it been he that pulled the trigger on Hank, he that double-crossed Walt, and he that Walt has his final confrontation with, the series finale would have played more dramatically. Whereas Uncle Jack and his henchmen are all non-characters that the fans are referring to as “the Nazis” because there’s really nothing else to them, Todd actually made an impression with audiences beyond Nazism. When Uncle Jack kills Hank, it’s just a coldblooded murderer doing something he’s done before. Had it instead been Todd killing Hank, this dramatic moment would have come at the hands of someone who, though psychopathic, is also a young and stupid child, making the scene more tragic and Walt, a mentor to Todd, all the more guilt-ridden. As it stands, I can understand why a number of people have commented that the last fifteen minutes of the finale felt flat.
Aside from that, BREAKING BAD has a generally great finale. The characters of Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz are used effectively, everything Walt did is validated as he successfully leaves his money to his children, his farewell to Skyler is a nice scene, and he even gets a death that is somewhat heroic, as it allows him to escape from the cops and from cancer.
BREAKING BAD is still one of the greatest things ever put on television, and I don’t think my criticisms here detract from the overall experience. These points are simply a deconstruction of why some elements of the final episodes fell flat to me. Until the next great show comes along, sit back with Heisenberg and enjoy your Walt Whitman poems, bitch!