A Roadmap Through BREAKING BAD

breaking-bad-logoIt’s now been just over a month since BREAKING BAD aired its finale.  In my previous entry, I commented that I felt it would be redundant to write anything new about a show that had been already so analyzed and showered with accolades.  So I discussed my only real criticism of the entire series: the use of Nazi characters as generic villains in the final batch of episodes.  But now that some time has passed and the digestion has ended, I realized I did have to say something.  BREAKING BAD is my favorite television program of all time, just barely beating out ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT.  And you might notice those two shows have something in common: they both are in love with not just story but the act of storytelling itself.  These shows played with the medium in which they told their narrative.  My favorite film of all time, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, is another example of work that not only tells a great story but loves the act of storytelling.  Come to think of it, my favorite book, LES MISERABLES, may do that too, but that’s another blog entry.

So, I’m going to post for you a little roadmap of BREAKING BAD.  Just as Capt. Williard in APOCALYPSE NOW took a dark trip into the heart of darkness to find Walter Kurtz, I went on a similar journey to glimpse into the mind of Walter White.  “There is no way to tell his story without telling my own. And if his story really is a confession, then so is mine.”

My journey began in an interesting way.  I don’t watch many shows and so many are always getting recommended to me.  Telling me “OMG, you HAVE to watch this show” is a surefire way to make me not watch it out of spite.  What got me into BREAKING BAD was when it was recommended by someone who said he considered Walter White to be the greatest television character of all time.  What struck me was that this was coming from someone who watched a lot of TV and was not prone to making analytical or insightful comments.  And so I began:

(Warning: Here Be Spoilers!)

Walter WhiteSEASON 1

Season 1 aired during the writer’s strike and thus is only seven episodes long.  This did compromise things a little bit.  Seeing it for the first time, I was intrigued enough to keep watching, but I wasn’t blown away just yet.  We are introduced to Walter White and we see from the start that he is not an easy character to pigeonhole.  He shows erratic behavior, and his ailment goes beyond the famous cancer he gets diagnosed with in the Pilot.  I also got the impression he had a personality disorder, possibly social anxiety.  When Bryan Cranston won the first of several Emmys he would win for this role, he referred to Walt as “a good man who makes bad choices” but if you’ll notice, he changed his tune shortly thereafter.  Walt would not stay a good man for long.

I also noticed that the serialized nature of the show meant every single action had a consequence.  Walt’s behavior begins to develop a pattern that many socially awkward people have: his bad planning and clumsiness causes many mishaps, only to then strike big when he really puts his mind to work.  His assistant Jesse Pinkman was also introduced, and I’ve heard every single opinion on this character, from people who love him to those who despise him.  His character’s nature, progressively revealed to be tragic, becomes such a key part of the saga.

By the end of Season 1, I wasn’t quite sold yet.  My opinion was that Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul were both great, but every other character struck me as generic.  Skyler was a stock sitcom wife, Hank was a cliched cop figure and amalgamation of every Bruce Willis character ever played, and Marie and Walter Jr both left little-to-no impression on me.  The whole story felt very small-scale and limited to just houses and an RV.  The feeling of scope was not yet in place.

HALLMARKS: One of the great hallmarks of this series is the creative use of teasers or Cold Openings in each episode, often showing us scenes en medias rais, or calling back to a previous episode, or showing us a visual scene with virtually no dialog, or just plain showing us something strange out of the blue.  This device was already in play in  the Pilot episode.  It was clear Vince Gilligan liked to play with nonlinear storytelling.

Jesse PinkmanSEASON 2

The second episode of Season 2 is called “Grilled” and it is a landmark episode for me.  It was this episode, specifically during the tense and well-directed scenes with Tuco and Hector Salamanca, that BREAKING BAD officially graduated to a Great Series in my mind.  As Season 2 continued, we saw a maturation of each character and plotlines seemed to reach conclusions.  The introduction and eventual fate of Jane became the backbone of the season.  Characters such as Saul Goodman, Gus Fring, and Mike Ehrmantraut began to round out the cast.  The narrative was no longer about this one teacher but about an entire criminal underworld.  Walt no longer was a middle-aged man with a poorly-thought-out dream of being a criminal, but a successful criminal.  His profits grow from several thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands to just over a million by the end of the season.  Holly is finally born during his absence.  And finally, the finale hits us with a major revelation.

I should also mention that Season 2 features “4 Days Out,” the closest thing to a standalone episode the show had ever had to that point.  It’s an attempt at a bottle episode, consisting mostly of just Walt and Pinkman stranded in the desert with their RV.  However, budget overruns caused it to be more expensive than planned, and so a future bottle episode would be planned the following season, which I’ll get to later.

I think of Season 1 and 2 as one long season.  Put together, they are twenty episodes of buildup to a shocking and tragic conclusion.  Had the show ended after Season 2, I would have been satisfied.  These two seasons together feel like THE GODFATHER: a story of one man losing his soul and his family.

HALLMARKS: The creative use of Cold Openings continued, most famously in the form of a bizarre music video at the start of “Negro y Azul.”  Another hallmark of the show began this season: the creative use of episode titles.  I had no idea why the episodes had such strange titles as “Seven Thirty-Seven” and “ABQ.”  Eventually I read how there were deeper meanings here.  The phrase “Seven Thirty-Seven Down Over ABQ” foreshadows the plane crash that will happen in the season’s climax.  When the Cold Openings of those four episodes are viewed in order, it depicts a black and white short film called 737 Down Over ABQ that acts as a flash forward to events taking place immediately following the season finale.

Jane

Jane may well have been my favorite character in the entire series.

SEASON 3

Season 3 is criticized for being a little slow and I understand why.  After Season 2 ended perfectly, it was difficult to get back into this damaged world and give Walt a new reason to continue his meth operation, and to get Pinkman out of the Hell he had entered.  This is also the season where Skyler began to shine as a character, taking a turn I would never have guessed from my Season 1 dismissal of her.  It was also here that the show began to grow into something larger than life.  The characters of the Cousins, two mostly-silent assassins from the Mexican cartel, felt straight out of a comic book.  Indeed, all of BREAKING BAD began to have a certain comic book appeal.

I was pretty addicted by this point, and then came another landmark episode for me: “One Minute.”  Prior to this, I had already acknowledged this as a Great Show, but the climatic showdown between Hank and the Cousins was the moment I said “This has now surpassed ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT and become my favorite series of all time.”  I was seeing something of exceptional quality that you’d normally never see on television.

Unfortunately, only a few episodes later came the WORST episode of the entire series; indeed, the only episode of the series that I consider to be truly bad.  You’ve probably already guessed it: “Fly.”  Whereas “Four Days Out” had been intended as a bottle episode that had gotten out of control, but was still enjoyable to watch, “Fly” played it far too safe.  The entire episode is Walt and Pinkman trying to kill a fly while talking and talking.  There is some suspense when they begin discussing Jane, but it goes nowhere.  “Fly” is a rare failure for the show as it’s one occasion where it decided to tell rather than show.  Perhaps the idea worked better on paper, but not in execution.  It’s interesting to look back on it now as an interlude in the middle of the entire series (it’s Episode 30 out of 62 total), but fortunately, there would never be a standalone episode again in this saga.

HALLMARKS: The use of creative Cold Openings and titles continues.  The Cold Opening of “Mas” is a flashback revealing events that happened all the way back to the Pilot episode, and tie into an ironic twist for this episode’s climax.  The cryptic episode titles also continued, with one being titled “I.F.T.”  For the longest time I couldn’t figure this one out, until someone pointed out to me that the episode ended with Skyler saying “I fucked Ted.”

SEASON 4

This may very well have been the peak year of the series.  By now the show had really come into its own, and both Gus Fring and Mike Ehrmantraut became key characters.  Gus became a mirror image to Walt, one with his own dark past, that Walt eventually uses to his advantage.  I also began to appreciate Walter Jr a little more: I realized the fact he was so innocent and oblivious to what was going on was in fact a major part of his character, and as the audience, we wanted to protect him as well.  Walt obviously cares about his son, but also feels a disconnect with him due to his condition.  So naturally he comes to think of Pinkman as his surrogate son, who in turn seems to identify Ehrmantraut as a preferred father figure.  It was also great to see Cuban-born Steven Bauer on the show, as well as extended scenes in Spanish.  It showed confidence in the audience that the show was willing to rely so heavily on subtitles.

The character of Gus really does receive an incredible sendoff.  So much so that it’s impossible to look back on the show and not realize what a contribution this character made.  In a sense, it doesn’t feel like Giancarlo Esposito left the show; it feels like he created a legacy that continued to the very end.  And it goes back to what I said about Walt earlier.  His character is very flawed and clumsy, and will fail and fail throughout the series, but when something major comes, that’s when he manages to surprise us all, and his plan in “Face Off” is ingenious and ties the whole season together.  “Face Off,” is cited by many as having one of their favorite endings to an episode, but I have to say the ending of “Crawl Space” is also pretty fantastic.

HALLMARKS: “Box Cutter” definitely wins as far as best episode title and Cold Opening of the season.  Oh, and of course, this season also contains the infamous “I am the danger” scene.

ToddSEASON 5A

Remember how I said that Seasons 1 and 2 felt like a whole?  Seasons 3, 4, and 5A do the same, making those seasons THE GODFATHER PART II of this saga.  Whereas those first two seasons showed us Walt’s first taste into a darker world, these three seasons took him to the brink of immorality, as deep as he could go.  By the time we reach Season 5A, the White family is truly is disrepair, Skyler is in depression, and the few remaining hurdles Walt faces after Gus become almost too easy for him.  Ehrmantraut is killed off in a way that is intentionally pointless and anticlimatic.  The “Heisenberg business” goes international.  Todd is introduced to the show as a doppleganger to Pinkman, and by the time Walt begins using Uncle Jack, who is a walking-Swastika more than a character, to do his dirty-work, we see Walt has reached his darkest depth.

Much like “ABQ” (the finale of Season 2) felt like the ending of a long movie, so does this finale: “Gliding Over All.”  Everything seems to reach a culmination by this point: Walt no longer has any adversaries, he is more successful than he ever was as a teacher, his tumultuous relationship with Pinkman seems to be at peace for the moment, and we have a scene where Skyler finally shows him his wealth.  Season 2 progressively built up Walt’s wealth from several thousands until just over a million.  Season 5A simply shows us a pile of money that can never be spent in ten liftetimes.  This amount is later revealed to be about $80 million, but this doesn’t matter.  Simply seeing this enormous pile feels like the culmination of every episode of the show.  And then we arrive at the final cliffhanger.

Throughout the entire series, Walt’s biggest challenge has been hiding his actions from Hank.  Right from the very Pilot, the fact that Walt’s brother-in-law was a DEA agent was established as a source of conflict.  And yet for all the adversaries Walt faced, he always had managed to keep Hank in the dark.  How perfect that Season 5A should end with the final great cliffhanger of the series, one that calls back to the very central premise of that Pilot.  For Hank to finally learn the truth at the very end seemed perfect.  Once again, had the entire series just ended after “Gliding Over All,” I’d have been fine with that.  It felt like a perfect ending.

HALLMARKS: Three of the greatest Cold Openings of the entire series happen in this short batch of episodes: “Live Free or Die” has a cryptic flashforward that left audiences talking for the next year.  “Madrigal” again goes in a direction that shows faith in the audience not getting bored, and “Say My Name” has one of the most iconic moments of the entire series.  “Dead Freight” is an episode with incredible directing, and a Cold Opening that seems unrelated until the very end.

Uncle JackSEASON 5B

Well, you’ve probably guessed what I’m going to say here: these final eight episodes make up THE GODFATHER PART III of the franchise.  The final eight episodes served as one long miniseries, bringing the narrative to a conclusion that, despite Walt’s attempts, will inevitably be tragic.  This show was never really about a man with cancer; it was about a man making dark choices that, for better or worse, swept him up with their consequences.  Throughout this final batch, we know that Walt’s downfall is coming, and it is initially implied to come from the hands of either Hank or Pinkman or both working together.  The final twist: the true adversaries end up being the Nazis, which, may have been a narrative misstep.

The best episode of this final section is generally regarded to be “Ozymandias,” a gripping hour of tension, during which I could barely digest my dinner while watching.  Hank is killed, Walt loses his family for good, and in perhaps the biggest blow of all, Walter Jr finally learns the truth.  As it has been said several times by now, this was the true climax of the series, with the final two episodes being an epilogue.  And yet, “Ozymandias” sadly is the episode that contains this major misstep, by having Uncle Jack pull the trigger on Hank.  I still feel this would have been played better had the trigger been pulled by Todd.

In “Felina,” Walt manages to  finally succeed in leaving a legacy for his children, ironically by using Elliot and Gretchen, the first two people to ever wrong him.  He says goodbye to Skyler, and his tumultuous relationship with Pinkman comes to a head when he takes a bullet to save his life.  Pinkman leaves the Nazi compound in agony, forever destined to suffer.  And Walt gets a somewhat heroic death.

HALLMARKS: It’s a testament to how great the flashforwards at the beginning of “Live Free Or Die” and “Blood Money” worked that they are more satisfying when seen that way then when we finally see them in their proper context.  “Ozymandias” also has a great Cold Opening that ties into that episode’s climax.  Finally, as far as episode titles go, “Felina” is pretty brilliant; both an anagram of Finale, and a reference to Fe Li Na: iron, lithium, and sodium: blood, meth, and tears.  Now that is some very layered coding.

CONCLUSION

So why did the world eat up BREAKING BAD so much?  I think the show was just a testament to good storytelling; a tale that drew one in very slowly before broadening its scope.  In an odd way, Walter White is a more interesting character than Michael Corleone.  Michael was born into a family that sealed his fate and so, despite his desire to distance himself from his family and be the good son, his turn to evil was always inevitable.  Walt, on the other hand, has no connection nor knowledge of criminal activities.  His desire to break bad builds slowly through his own determinism, in spite of all the obstacles he faces.  BREAKING BAD took its time and slowly constructed a masterpiece.  Of its 62 episodes, 61 are damn good and only one was an appalling failure.  So until the next great show comes along, take a walk outside, go to a store, and just look at how much the show contributed to our pop culture.

Oh, and speaking of LES MISERABLES, I should do an article on that soon

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