Archive for 11 January 2014

Thoughts on Breaking Bad

One of the advantages of having consumed Breaking Bad entirely via Netflix (with the exception of the final eight episodes, which AMC aired as part of a marathon on 12/30 and 12/31) is that I missed out entirely on all of the reviews and the commentary that must have happened immediately following (and during) each episode as it aired originally. This means that, as far as I know, all of the rambling, unrelated thoughts that follow in this post are original and have never been published by anyone else.

(Of course I know that any such pretense is delusional; nothing you will read here is unique, or even terribly thought-provoking. But, after that finale—which I watched, alone, last night at around 1:30 AM—and that series, like many of you, I need to say something, even just for my own edification.)

So, here I present my assorted thoughts and reactions and would love to engage in some “therapy” via comments if you agree/disagree, or just want someone to hold you digitally after seeing what went down in Albuquerque.

* * *

My text, as it were, is Alan Sepinwall’s entertaining (if not exactly life-changing) The Revolution Was Televised, which chronicles the rise of television as the preferred medium for crafting and consuming drama over (primarily) the past 15 years. Of the 10 shows Sepinwall discusses, I have heavily invested in only three: Friday Night Lights, LOST, and now Breaking Bad. Those other two shows serve, for me, as points of comparison in judging Breaking Bad. I am going to add a fourth point of comparison, which Sepinwall mentions as having been so close to making his list, but ultimately left on the cutting-room floor: The West Wing. These four shows represent my four favorite TV dramas of all-time, by far.

I won’t bore you with an exhaustive tale-of-the-tape, but in my mind I have to refer in particular to LOST and West Wing when I try to put Walter White into some context.

* * *

Perhaps the most striking thing about Breaking Bad to me was its complete and utter lack of preachiness. It had no objective—no real lesson to teach us. And why should it? Once you decide that your show is going to lay wisdom on the audience, aren’t you sort of boxed in? Plot has to develop in a certain way; characters do and say things according to a code that you have established.

Breaking Bad was total anarchy. Was there ever a point at which you were sure of how the plot was going to break? Or how a character was going to react to a stimulus? Well, okay, maybe when you still believed Walt that he was doing everything for his family. But even that turned out to be a falsehood.

Contrast this with, say, LOST. It was far from preachy, but it was far more heavy-handed in the way that it warned about the consequences of actions, usually via flashbacks. With the benefit of hindsight, we could easily see how characters’ poor choices had made them unhappy. In Breaking Bad, even though we see Walt’s steady transformation, we are never given a clear window for reflection.

The West Wing, far more than either of the other two shows just mentioned, had not just a political agenda but also a moral agenda. It did not just want you to believe in a platform, it wanted you to be honest and make good choices and be patient and weigh both sides of issues. It wanted to teach you how to live. Personally, I found its approach not to be holier-than-thou, and so it didn’t bother me that President Bartlet, and really Matt Santos after him, seemed to be a little too perfect. Even LOST, though, could not help philosophizing on its way out the door, with Christian Shephard explaining how people need each other.

It’s not just that Walt was incapable of reflection by the end of the series—I’m sure the writers could have come up with an elegant way for him to say something about his purpose that would have made us all stop and say, “Ah, wisdom!”—it is that they had the wherewithal not to take the bait.

And that is both refreshing and disorienting. We are used to TV shows (again, even the good ones) trying to bestow wisdom. Instead, Breaking Bad said, “Here is some stuff that happened. Any lessons that you want to draw, you can draw, but you do so only from the events you observed, and not because we were trying to convey something.” And we loved it.

* * *

There is this rumor, now apparently confirmed, that Sir Anthony Hopkins wrote a letter to Bryan Cranston in which Hopkins said, “Your performance as Walter White was the best acting I have seen—ever.” And later: “If you ever get a chance to – would you pass on my admiration to everyone—Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Aaron Paul, Betsy Brandt, R.J. Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Steven Michael Quezada—everyone—everyone gave master classes of performance . . . The list is endless.”

At first, I was skeptical of the authenticity of the letter—the tone seemed a little too ebullient and complimentary—but I also couldn’t argue. TV is so good at plucking little-known actors seemingly out of thin air and turning them into Emmy winners. With the exception of Cranston and Odenkirk (well, and the episode of Parks & Recreation where Jonathan Banks plays Ben Wyatt’s dad), I had never seen any of these actors or actresses before. But Hopkins is right; from episode one it was a set of performances unlike anything I have seen before.

But there is one casting choice that stands out—at least to me personally—as particularly dissonant, and I hope it was intended that way: Jesse Plemons as Todd, the nephew of the neo-Nazi crew that Walt begins hiring to do his dirty work in Season Five. Why dissonant? Because Plemons is best known as the nerdy, kind Landry Clarke from Friday Night Lights. Unlike with the dad from Malcolm in the Middle, we don’t see a lengthy transition in Todd. It is true that we do not know the depths of his depravity from the start, but we only know him for 13 episodes. And, by the end, it is clear that he is a different sort of psychopath than Walt: incapable of empathy, happy to kill innocent people, and lusting for misery (typified by the way he gives ice cream to the captive Jesse and then cheerfully executes Andrea seemingly within a matter of minutes). Even though he has the same manner of speech, he is the polar opposite of Landry Clarke. There are two kinds of “bad guys,” and Breaking Bad used both kinds perfectly: those who look the part, and those who look anything but. Turning Landry into Todd was almost better than the slow revelation of Gus’ depravity, or Walt’s. It was a fascinating, almost manipulative contrast from the very first frame, and the sort of thing that Breaking Bad was all about.

* * *

As I sat alone last night watching the last six episodes, I came to the point where Walt leaves the house with Holly, while Skyler falls her to knees in the street. As a father of three young kids, this was the most panic-inducing scene of television I have ever watched. I almost had to turn it off but I knew that I would not be able to settle down if I did so.

I’m rarely “affected” by media. I can point to a handful of scenes across a number of shows and films that drew a real emotional reaction from me, but never anything quite like Holly’s kidnapping. I am told that this was generally regarded as the best episode of the series, and on the basis of IMDb ratings it might be the best episode of television ever; unless I am reading this wrong, it scored a perfect 10/10 based on almost 44,000 ratings.

There is no way I can argue with that score. It was a 10.

* * *

So, where does it rank on my list? I have been struggling with this question since last night. I have decided that I can’t rank Walter White and Jesse Pinkman against Josh Lyman and Leo McGarry, or against Jack Shephard and Kate Austen, or against Eric Taylor and Matt Seracen. Breaking Bad is too different. Perhaps all four of these shows are too different to be ranked against one another.

Come to think of it, I am not sure why we are so obsessed with ranking things. Does the fact that Breaking Bad is so tremendous somehow disparage Friday Night Lights?

Of course there is the “if you were stuck on a desert island, which would you take?” test, and (amusingly, given the premise of that scenario) I would have to take LOST, because it spurs the imagination in a way that the other three shows don’t.

Fortunately, I am not stuck on a desert island, and the ability of Breaking Bad to suck you in to this world of relative morals and the perfect anti-hero puts it right up there. I’m going with a three-way tie. A Mexican standoff, if you will—a place where Walter Hartwell White would have been very much at home.