Breaking points

First of all, let me be absolutely clear: I like Breaking Bad a lot. I consider it one of the best TV series of the millennium to date. It’s ambitious, smart, exceedingly well acted (with some exceptions in the minor parts), and it has a grasp of complex characterisation like few other series.

I also think that in some ways Breaking Bad is overrated. It’s not quite the perfect series it’s sometimes made out to be, and while it exceeds in many respects, there is room for improvement in others. Granted, I may be talking out of turn, as I haven’t yet finished the series; we’re five episodes away from seeing the last of Mr. White. However, as I’m currently rewatching the first four seasons in parallel to finishing season 5, I think I can safely address what I consider the series’ main flaw.

More than many of my favourite series, from The Sopranos via Six Feet Under to Deadwood, Breaking Bad is heavy on plot. It uses plot to talk about its characters, but it still puts a considerable focus on What Happens Next. This in itself isn’t a flaw; what is, in my opinion, is that while the characters develop in an interesting five-season arc, the season-to-season plotting undermines these arcs to some extent.

Men at work

To a large extent, Breaking Bad is about Walter White oscillating between pathetic, disempowered male, anti-hero and outright villain, and the discrepancy between how he sees and presents himself and how the audience sees him. The tension between these different positions is always interesting, but the series spends a lot of its dramatic ammunition too early, moving Walt into villainous territory only to retcon him – or, more accurately, our view of him – in the following season to some extent (Warning: the following will spoil events up to and including season 5.)

One of Walter’s main crimes in the final season is the way he glibly accepts the murder of an innocent child as something that couldn’t be avoided and that, he thinks, wasn’t really his fault. We watch the scene and its aftermath and we see him as the monster he has become. However, is this act more monstrous than his watching as Jesse’s girlfriend Jane suffocates on her own vomit while she’s in a drug-induced stupor? Especially if we consider what Jane’s death leads to, namely an air crash that kills hundreds. No, Walt doesn’t pull any triggers – but then he rarely does when he’s at his worst, does he? – but his actions lead to those deaths, both the more abstract hundreds of victims of the crash and the more immediate death of Jane. As in season 5, his reaction is to rationalise his actions and his involvement, coming to the conclusion that he is not to blame. Is this more villainous in season 5 because we see the victim, a young boy on his BMX bike? Or is the series suggesting that people may not remember season 2 and the beginning of season 3 (if indeed they were watching Breaking Bad at the time) and the point needed to be reinforced?

There are other points in the overall narrative that hit similar points – Walt getting Jesse to kill Gale, a defenseless and relatively innocent man, for instance – that in the context of their seasons and the surrounding episodes make perfect sense, but when you look at the overall narrative beats they feel like we’re revisiting ground that has previously been covered. It makes some sense if you consider that audiences watching the series on TV would have several month-long breaks between seasons, so there’s a purpose to treading old ground – but in hindsight several mini-arcs feel redundant in terms of how they develop the characters. They feel like the makers of Breaking Bad either didn’t know where they were taking the series, or they didn’t know how many seasons they had left to tell their story. Especially Walter White’s overall arc almost depends on the viewers forgetting or ignoring where the series had previously taken its characters and how far they’d progressed into full-on villain country.

The Meth Throne

The fact that Breaking Bad still works eminently well is largely due to its stars; even when revisiting old ground, Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul’s performances feel fresh and immediate. The same is true for Anna Gunn’s Skylar, although arguably the series and its writing have been less generous to her at times; rewatching the previous seasons, I was struck by how similar her arc in the first half of season 5 is to how she developed in season 3, yet Gunn delivers a great performance. Nonetheless, if it were possible to go back and redo Breaking Bad, it’s the overall plotting that would require attention. If my suspicion is correct and vince Gilligan didn’t always know from one season to the next if the series would be renewed plotting accordingly, it’s understandable that he would have aimed for arcs that hit certain character beats, not knowing whether he’d get another chance later to do so – but it did leave him with characters whose overall arcs have built-in redundancies. While this makes for clever design, it makes for slightly frustrating storytelling. More so because there are so many things Breaking Bad does not just well but better than almost any other TV series.

And that’s before we even mention The Awkward Case Of The Ricin Cigarette – so let’s leave it at that.

The Telltale Ricin

P.S.: Another thing that I’ve realised while rewatching especially season 1: Marie Schrader may just be the character that benefitted most from the series’ evolution over the course of its five seasons. In season 1, she is a two-dimensional character at best, slipping at times into flat caricature; by the final season, she is as rounded, complex and capable of tragedy as any of the main characters. While I may see this as something of a flaw of early Breaking Bad, in this case I prefer to look at it the other way around: the series definitely got better over time. This is also clearly seen in its villains: there’s no comparison between psychotic Tuco “Loony Tunes” Salamanca and the much more nuanced Gustavo Fring.

We’re all going crazy, buck-jumping and Breaking Bad!

Wow. Just wow. Breaking Bad season 4 (yes, as always we’re a year or so behind the US) has done the series proud. Is it better than the previous seasons? I admit, there were moments when I felt the plot was spinning its wheels somewhat – we had scenes that were variations on earlier scenes without adding anything new, usually telling us something about Walter White’s personality that we already knew – and the season didn’t always maintain its well honed balance of plot, theme and characterisation, but when it worked (and it often did), boy, did it work… and off the top of my head, and before my first coffee of the day, I could mention scenes and whole episodes that were stronger than anything that had gone before.

He won.

And “Face Off”, the final episode of the season? I would put it up there with the most tension-building denouements I’ve seen or read in any medium. The way Vince Gilligan and his team have put together the individual building blocks to arrive at this ending for one of their most memorable characters, and the way it all comes together in Tio Salamanca’s muffled bell-ringing. As I’ve said: wow.

At the same time, Walter White – who I once thought to be a man trying to do as best he could in an impossible situation – has become one of the greatest villains in any visual medium. It’s difficult to read his tone of voice when he says “I won” at the end of the episode (it’s been described as smug and triumphant, but to me Walt’s shaking voice sounded not a little scared by what he’d become), but Bryan Cranston is pretty much perfect in his depiction of the character. Almost every episode of this season could serve as a master-class for budding actors, and a depressing one too – very few people will reaching the dizzying heights of Cranston’s performance and the character he has brought to life.

Just coming off the high of Breaking Bad‘s penultimate season, it’s difficult to segue neatly into the other season we’ve just finished watching, namely season 1 of Treme. I started watching David Simon’s latest with unrealistic, unfair expectations: The Wire is still the best thing I’ve seen on TV in many ways, and since Treme shares some of the earlier series’ main actors (Wendell “Bunk” Pierce, Clarke “Cool Lester Smooth” Peters) it’s even more difficult to shake these expectations. During Treme‘s first 4-5 episodes I kept repeating the mantra, “It’s not The Wire, it’s not The Wire“, which is true but not entirely fair: some of the themes are the same, but Simon and his cast and crew go for a different feel here. The series is much more meandering; it has a few plots threaded throughout the series, but character always comes before plot in this series.

I can’t pinpoint the moment when it all clicked – there were probably different moments for different characters – but by the end of the season, as the last episode of S1 transitioned into the flashback of all the characters preparing for Katrina, it definitely had. The writers and actors of Treme are impressively astute at balancing the depressing realities of post-Katrina New Orleans, at least for these particular characters, and the flashes of hope and humanity. I’ve never understood the people accusing Simon of cynicism (being a pessimist doesn’t make you a cynic!), and his deep sense of empathy has never been stronger than in Treme.

Except perhaps with Sonny, the Dutch louse – but given time even he could turn out to be human. Simon has a history of doing that… and I’ll gladly give him time to do so.

The Good Man of Albuquerque

It took me a while to warm to Breaking Bad – and the main reason for this is that it took me more than a season to understand what the series is doing. I’m fairly late to the game, only just having started watching season 3, and one of the main reasons for this is that I’d heard so much hyperbolic praise for the series: “Best thing currently on TV!” I’d heard that sort of thing before – but it rarely held up in any way. Seriously, Dexter? Heroes? Entertaining TV, perhaps, at least initially, but neither of those series was anywhere close to the Pantheon of The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire and their HBO brethren.

So anyway, Breaking Bad. The premise intrigued me – it’s one of those stories that appeals to my pinko liberal, borderline socialist self: only in America…! Healthcare, shmealthcare, right? If the healthcare system barely deserves that name, cooking meth is a perfectly sane alternative, isn’t it? To my mind, Walter White was a fundamentally decent human being driven to doing something downright insane because of The System, Man, and everything followed from that. Crime, murder, secrets and lies, matrimonial crisis.

Thing is: Walter White is not a fundamentally decent human being. Yes, life has screwed him over – lung cancer when he doesn’t even smoke? – and he doesn’t deserve the hand he’s been dealt. Yes, for much of the first season he doesn’t have time to stop and think about what he’s doing; he’s reacting to the fallout of his first, fateful decision. But once we see Walter make decisions that don’t happen under intense pressure, and we realise: it isn’t cruel fate that makes him do what he does. It’s his own self-pity, self-centredness, and his downright monstrous sense of pride. In fact, in the way he rationalises his increasingly dubious actions, he is a brother in spirit to that greatest of all TV villains believing themselves to be anti-heroes: Tony Soprano.

Note: If you haven’t seen the series at least to the end of the second season, this video won’t make much sense to you – but it will spoil a fairly big plot point. In other words, do not watch unless you know what I’m talking about!

Having said all this, the series does take roughly an entire season to become great. Much of the first season doesn’t exactly know what it wants to be: comedy, drama, bit of both? Are the characters realistic, caricatures or something else altogether? I’m also somewhat doubtful whether the series creators were right to have Walt commit a major crime (no, I’m not talking about some piddly meth cooking) within a couple of episodes of its beginning. Season 1 was entertaining and showed more promise already than, say, the Dexters and Heroes of TV Land, but it’s only in the series’ sophomore season that Breaking Bad fully comes into its own. And now I’m hooked, more so than on any current-gen HBO series – the series is my blue meth.

And as far as poor, decent, selfish, evil, monstrous Walter White is concerned, I’m sorry, Walt, you can’t blame the US healthcare system at this point. I believe Novalis said it best: Character is fate.