July 17th, 2011
It has been over thirteen months since Breaking Bad finished its third season, which isn’t something that happens all that often. Of course, AMC will be dealing with this issue twice in one year when Mad Men returns early next year, but that show didn’t leave on an arresting cliffhanger. “Full Measure” was a thrilling hour of television, creating suspense through uncertainty as opposed to mystery. We know what happened, and the sequence of events that allowed it to happen were delineated without any sudden twists or turns, but the finale left us with a sense of disbelief: we were haunted by that final image more than we were shocked by it, and we desired its conclusion less to have something resolved and more to see something begin.
“Box Cutter” picks up where “Full Measure” left off, although not immediately. The episode is very interested in the dramatic power of delay, lingering in those moments of waiting for the other shoe to fall. It doesn’t seek to surprise us so much as it seeks to make us reconsider: it knows we spent a year thinking about the various possibilities, so it lays out a likely scenario and then basically sits back and lets our own anxiety drive this story forward. The result is bracing in its minimalism if a wee bit writerly, further cementing Breaking Bad’s reputation as one of the most distinctive dramas on television.
And, yes, one of its finest as well.
June 13th, 2010
“We had a good run…but it’s over.”
When I sat down at about 3:00 am last night to watch the Breaking Bad finale after arriving home from my trip to Madison, I discovered that AMC was showing “Shut the Door. Have a Seat,” Mad Men’s third season finale. It took me a good ten minutes before I managed to turn on my recording of “Full Measure.” There is something exhilarating about that finale, something immensely pleasurable as lingering storylines that were sort of floating their way through the season (Lane’s dissatisfaction, Joan’s marginalization, etc.) become wrapped up in an unforgettable heist narrative which launches the show in a fascinating new direction.
And as I sit down the next day to consider “Full Measure,” I can’t help but make some comparisons, although less in terms of quality (both are great, we don’t need to qualify which is “better”) and more in terms of structure. “Full Measure” is similar to “Shut the Door…” in that it shows our protagonists struggling to respond to a new set of circumstances which threaten them in some capacity, but the world of Mad Men values creativity first and foremost, something which Breaking Bad tends to oppress (as we see with Jesse as the paralyzed artist figure, his youthful drawings or woodcraft projects signs of wasted potential). So while Don and Co. got out of their situation with some creative thinking, and the series found its finale in contrasting the creation of a new direction while simultaneously dissolving another, Walt and Jesse solve their circumstances with a cold dose of reality, and the series finds its finale in doing as it has always done: following through on the social, psychological, and monumental consequences of going down this dangerous path.
The result is a fairly simple tragedy with less than simple ramifications, as “Full Measure” uses the show’s trademark tension to cap off a stunning season of television which went on a run that is most certainly not over as the series heads towards its fourth season with an obnoxious amount of momentum.
June 6th, 2010
“You are not a murderer – you’re not, and I’m not. It’s as simple as that.”
If I had been drinking something when Walt said the above line, I’m pretty sure I would have done a spit take.
This reaction comes for two different reasons. The first is the idea that Walt is not a murderer, which seems patently false when you consider the numerous people he’s killed (whether it’s not saving Jane or the two men who he killed as a result of the meth lab explosion in the pilot). However, that’s part of Walt’s character, his ability to convince himself that it doesn’t make you a murderer if you kill them for the right reasons, just as it doesn’t make you a criminal if you’re doing it for your family. And so I can understand that this is part of Walt’s self-delusion, and so my spit take is perhaps unwarranted.
However, even if we accept that Walt believes that his past actions do not define him as a murderer, his argument that it is “as simple as that” is laughable to the point of a solid guffaw. Breaking Bad is many things, but simple is not one of them, and while Walt has his delusions he should know by now that things are never quite that simple. It’s one thing to try to justify your behaviour through rationalization, and it is quite another to try to convince yourself that your world of meth cooking, money laundering, revenge seeking and turf wars is in any way simple, or that anyone is capable of maintaining a simple life when you’re caught up in that world.
And yet, in some ways I think “Half Measures” proved my guffaws to be misguided: while Walt’s first claim may remain laughable, his latter claim may not be so farfetched, his desire for simplicity ultimately futile and yet the only way he can think to respond to the complexity of his current situation. The result is a blunt, even simple, action with enormously complex consequences for Walt, Jesse, and the series’ narrative, the exact kind of bold move which has elevated the show to the upper echelon of television drama.
May 30th, 2010
“She saw something new every time she painted it.”
It’s been three weeks since I last checked in with Breaking Bad, which is unfortunate but not that surprising: I was busy graduating two Sundays ago, and then last week anyone without screeners was out of luck if they were simultaneously a fan of both Breaking Bad and Lost. It’s particularly unfortunate since both “Kafkasque” and “Fly” were pretty fantastic. To briefly offer my perspective on each, I loved the parallel between Jesse and Walt each watching their confidantes spinning a web of lies in “Kafkaesque,” in particular Walt’s reaction to Skyler’s ability to pull off the gambling alibi with such precision. And as for “Fly,” I thought Rian Johnson did a fantastic job of taking a purposefully contained – for budgetary reasons – episode and and allow it to be defined by its sense of atmosphere. The show tiptoed dangerously close to Walt revealing the truth about Jane’s death, and by embracing that tension without exaggerating it the series created an episode which remained definitely “Breaking Bad” without the shoot-outs and chaos the show has used so effectively this season.
“Abiquiu” remains a fairly low-key affair, as characters plot out their next moves more than necessarily finding themselves in the middle of a firefight, but I say this in the best possible way. While the thrills of “One Minute” are part of the series’ identity, it is often better in those quiet moments where character are forced to live with their actions or where taking the next step means crossing a threshold they might not be able to cross. In many ways, we’ve seen these characters at this point before, but each time Breaking Bad brings us to a crossroads we see something new in these characters, whether it be confirmation of what we’ve always believed or a new facet of their personality emerging – and frankly, at this point, the show can paint that door as many times as it wants as far as I’m concerned.
“I See You”
May 9th, 2010
I don’t have much to say about plot development in “I See You” because there largely isn’t any: after the shootout at the end of last week’s episode, we spend the hour sitting in a waiting room as Marie and her family struggle with the uncertainty of not knowing whether Hank would make it out alive. There are no crazy twists or action sequences, replaced by people waiting to find out the fate of their husband/brother-in-law/uncle/partner/colleague/etc.
However, the hour raises an important point: from the beginning of this season, we have been made aware of things which Walter has, to this point, been ignorant to. While Walter’s life is dominated by uncertainty and paranoia, we have a lot of the answers that he’s looking for, and our knowledge is making Walt’s struggle particularly interesting but also, if we’re being honest, somewhat unsuspenseful. Last week’s episode lulled us into a false sense of security before unleashing the Cousins on Hank, but this week’s episode has Walt panicking over something that we watch being taken care of, an odd juxtaposition which makes an interesting thematic point regarding the season but which lacks some of its impact now that the worlds collided last week.
I don’t entirely mean this as a slight on what is a fine episode of the show, but it feels a tiny bit indulgent in ways that I want to try to get a grasp on.
May 2nd, 2010
On AMC Canada, Breaking Bad tends to run about thirty seconds long, and due to some scheduling conflicts I have to record the encore rather than the original airing – as a result (yes, there’s a reason I’m explaining this), my recording always begins with the last thirty seconds of the episode I’m about to watch. Usually I’m pretty quick at catching this particular problem, but other times I’m not so lucky; sometimes I get quick glances of what’s to come, which are often pretty innocuous and easily forgotten or ignored as the episode begins.
At this point in the review, anyone who has seen “One Minute” is hoping that this was one of those times where that didn’t happen, where I was intelligent enough to remember the potential spoilers and immediately close my eyes and fast-forward until it was safe to open them again. Unfortunately, I did see a brief moment from the stunning final sequence of this week’s episode, but in a testament to the ludicrous quality of this hour of television I didn’t even remember it by the time we came to the scene in question. “One Minute” has no complicated narrative nor does it rely exclusively on the sort of jaw-dropping scenes with which it concludes: rather, it tells the story of two men who face important decisions, in the process delivering the greatest Emmy duel since Michael Emerson and Terry O’Quinn.
April 25th, 2010
Sunset is one of the most beautiful times of any day, but it is also its end: while it may be magical, and it may capture the beauty of the natural world, it is also the beginning of the night.
Walter White is in the process of rediscovering the magic of chemistry, cooking meth in an environment where it feels like every bit the accomplishment of science that he has always believed it is. However, at the same time, his day may be coming to an end: just as he has finally found an environment where his rationalizations surrounding his involvement in the drug trade are being supported at every turn, his brother-in-law is getting closer than ever to discovering the perversity of his notion of “child support.” And just as said brother-in-law, Hank, is getting closer than ever to solving the case which has given him the run-around for months, he quickly becomes collateral damage in Walt’s own sunset of sorts.
Unquestionably the season’s best episode so far, “Sunset” mines both tension and introspection from the magic, and terror, which comes with the end of each day, drawing the battle lines for what is going to be an intense conflict in the episodes ahead.
April 18th, 2010
You may have noticed this, but Breaking Bad’s third season is effectively a long string of meetings.
This isn’t entirely new for the series, but there isn’t the same level of action and reaction that the show is used to: while previous seasons seemed to build in altercations, or create circumstances where Walt and Jesse need to clean up a mess or solve a particular problem, this season is focused almost solely on characters having isolated and personal moments of reflections which come into play when they meet with another character on the show. These aren’t all formal meetings, but whether it’s Skyler and Ted meeting up in the bathroom post-coitus, the White family meeting for dinner, or Gus and Walter sitting down to discuss their future together, there is this sense that things are playing out in slow-motion. While the first season was about how quickly things can escalate, and the second season demonstrated the challenges which faced any sort of expansion, the third season is about choices, and so escalation is replaced by contemplation.
“Mas,” like “Green Light” last week, demonstrates how challenging it can be to make difficult choices, and how particular choices will create consequences that you may not be able to understand. Watching these characters come to grips with where they’ve come to, some more slowly than others, is proving just as compelling as anything else the series has done, languishing just long enough within each character’s struggle in order to give us a sense of what perspective they bring to the next meeting.
Which, considering the trajectory of these characters, may not be a pleasant one.
April 4th, 2010
Breaking Bad is a show more or less governed by self-destructive behaviour. We’ve been watching Walter White fall further and further into choices that threaten to destroy his family for over two seasons, and more importantly we’ve been watching everyone around him fall into similar patterns. If we really break it down, Walter’s self-destructive path has led directly to the struggles facing Skyler, Jesse, and Hank, and so “I.F.T.” becomes a sort of test of how Walt, and those he put on a similar path through his actions, are dealing with their self-destructive tendencies.
The result is one character who refuses to accept the consequences of his actions, and three characters who embrace self-destruction in an attempt to take control of their fate, although some more reluctantly than others.
“Caballo Sin Nombre”
March 28th, 2010
“It’s not about taking sides.”
When parents separate, the divisions which emerge are complicated and often resistant to black and white definitions. While one partner may believe that the separation is in fact definitive, the other likely believes it is temporary or just a bump in the road. Children may want to take sides in order to try to bring the conflict to a close, but then they are told that it isn’t about taking sides but rather about being supportive and basically riding it out.
But in the world of Breaking Bad, it’s all about taking sides: the people who succeed in this world, the people who are holding the keys to their future, are those who accept that things can be black and white, and that they are the ones who choose one side or the other. It is those who attempt to sit in between, to act one way but try to live as if they are the other, who end up choking to death, or end up so throwing a pizza onto a roof. By trying to keep one foot in each world, by trying to prove that grey areas are the way to go, these people only hurt the people they love while failing to impress the people that could kill them.
“Caballo Sin Nombre” is a mediation of sorts on this idea, and it continues to establish that the certainty of human agency is integral to the future of Walter White and his black or white life.