Agency begets Tragedy: Ruminations on Catching Up with AMC’s Breaking Bad

Agency begets Tragedy: AMC’s Breaking Bad

March 18th, 2010

Last night, as Todd VanderWerff and I talked about this year’s Emmy awards on Twitter, he remarked that Breaking Bad will always be held back at the Emmys thanks to its Albuquerque setting – by filming outside of Los Angeles, and outside of more acceptable industry alternatives like Vancouver or New York, the show is alienated with primarily L.A.-based voters. My response to this was to make what, on the surface, seems like a really complimentary comparison: Breaking Bad, in other words, is the new The Wire, another show that by shooting in an off-market city (Baltimore, in the case of The Wire) was never able to get as much respect as it perhaps deserved.

Now that I’ve finished the second season of AMC’s second original series, this comparison is infinitely more interesting than I had imagined it last evening. While I love The Wire, and fell in love (in an entirely non-romantic way, considering the darkness of the show) with Breaking Bad over the past few weeks, the two shows couldn’t be more different in terms of how they represent agency. While The Wire tends to argue that the organizations which govern both sides of the law are inevitably corrupt and fraught with challenges that prevent all but a lucky few from rising above it, Breaking Bad offers Walter White countless opportunities to escape the life he has chosen to live, and at every turn he makes personal decisions that send him further down his dark path.

If I tried to talk about everything I had to say about the first two seasons of the show, I would be writing for days, so instead I’m going to focus on a few elements of the series (many relating to questions of agency) that I thought were particularly effective. If you have yet to watch the series, I can’t recommend it enough if you’re not afraid to watch something that’s morally compromising and unafraid to go to some very dark places – this isn’t a show for everyone, but it’s fantastically well-made, and you can all look forward to reviews of the show’s third season starting on Sunday.

There is not a lack of morally compromised protagonists struggling to justify dangerous and reckless decisions through good intentions in television: Nancy Botwin started dealing marijuana to support her family on Weeds, Jimmy McNulty started *Redacted* in order to support more important cases in The Wire’s fifth season, and Jackie started having an affair so that she could continue feeding her narcotics addiction on Nurse Jackie (writing it out, that last one is really not even close to justifiable, so no wonder that show bugs me so much at times). However, I don’t think that any of them compare to where Breaking Bad has been willing to take Walter White. This is not a show that engages with broad comedy, nor is this a show where the compromises are about shades of grey. Instead, this is a show about black and white, about murder and death and a rolling ball of destruction that Walter refuses to stop despite being given numerous chances.

Breaking Bad is unique in that we’ve seen every level of this process: we saw Walt’s life get torn apart by his cancer diagnosis, and we saw Walt hatch a desperate scheme to try to provide for his family, and then we saw him struggle to survive and live within a drug culture that he did not understand. A show like Weeds skipped over all of that, jumping straight to when Nancy Botwin was comfortably dealing drugs, but Breaking Bad spent its entire miniseries-like first season dealing with the ramifications of that initial decision. The pacing of those episodes was truly remarkable, with almost no time passing between episodes and almost no time passing in the season as a whole. It was a series of events that kept falling through the ceiling like a corpse in a bathtub, with everything going back to that initial decision that we were able to see. It was integral that we saw what drove Walt to make the decision he did, because that germ of an idea of cooking meth in order to support his family has led to more chaos and carnage than one could have imagined.

What I find so intriguing about the show’s sense of agency is that they draw careful attention to the choices that people make within the chaos. This not only goes for Walt, who at various points in the second season chose to push things further out of either greed or pride, but also for the people who are forced to make difficult decisions based on his actions. While some consequences of Walt’s actions (like, for example, the trauma Hank goes through as a result of being dragged into the mess with Tuco) are unintended, and other consequences are the direct result of his decisions (like the harrowing sequence where he allows Jane to suffocate in order to keep her quiet), there are other consequences that are just scenarios where characters make bad choices. While The Wire was driven by people trying to make good decisions but failing due to the bureaucracy of the world around them, Breaking Bad is a show where people make bad decisions due to the chaos that Walt, at least implicitly, helps create. The other characters on this show are not simply pawns that get murdered or arrested as a result of Walt’s decisions, but rather agents who chose to become a part of this process, or choose to react to things in a certain way. We could technically argue that the plane crash that ends the second season is Walt’s fault, in that he created the situation where Jane turned to drugs and then allowed her to die, but her father’s grief (and the eventual crash) were the rest of a decade of suffering and personal pain that Walt had nothing to do with. It was about a series of decisions, a collection of choices that end up creating not one tragedy but rather many tragedies.

Part of what holds back a show like Weeds is that it really only had one agent in the early going: Nancy Botwin was surrounded by kids and imbeciles, for the most part, and the tone of the show kept things fairly light and breezy. As a result, it seemed like Nancy was just digging herself a hole, which made it seem somewhat preposterous when things kept escalating. By comparison, Walter White is not the only man with a shovel on Breaking Bad, and the result is that his tragedy becomes everyone else’ tragedy, and their tragedies are all distinct and individual. Episodes like “Peek-a-Boo,” where Jesse went after the Meth addicts who ripped off Skinny Pete, revealed a den of iniquity where bad decisions had been made for years, and where a small child was left to live in his own filth and nearly starve. This is a world filled with people who have their own sense of agency, who make decisions that either accept or contradict the chaos around them: when Tuco’s uncle refuses to snitch on Jesse, it’s not that he has been bribed or that he is afraid for his own life. Instead, he is an original gangster, and makes a decision to remain silent that fits with his years of experience on this world.

Sometimes, on a show like this, agency can seem contrived, as characters do certain things because it’s convenient or because the story demands them to. Part of what makes Breaking Bad work is that this is rarely the case, at least outside of Anna Gunn’s Skyler. She is the one character who seems like she doesn’t make her own choices, that everything she does is scripted in response to Walt’s struggles or in order to create some other sort of dramatic situation. I don’t think it’s Gunn’s fault, per se, but I do think that there is something about the character that never came together until the final scenes of the season, as Skyler informs Walt that she has unraveled the mystery, and she knows that he has been dishonest, and she is afraid to know the truth after all this time denying it. It was the first time the character sounded honest and realistic, the first time that it didn’t feel like she was making a mountain out of a molehill or ignoring something big in favour of something petty. The character finally feels like she’s coming into her own, and I’m hopeful that the show continues in that direction in the year ahead.

The show does, at times, feel like a television show: its stunning visual aesthetic is perfect for the show but draws attention to the way in which the show is crafted, and there are times when the events that unfold (like the plane crash, for example) seem like a series of coincidences rather than a series of consequences. However, what works so well is how much mileage the show gets out of such simple storytelling. The website that Walt Jr. set up in order to help his father is so darn perfect that you can’t help but realize it’s something that Vince Gilligan and the writers cooked up, but it’s executed so well. The annoying sound effect is just the right way to get under Walt’s skin, and it helps reinforce how painful this is to Walt: on the one hand, he knows that all of that money is his own money being funneled through proxies as organized by his lawyer, but on the other hand he also sees how the site is actually working in terms of bringing attention to his cause. While the money is technically proof that Walt’s recklessness was worth it in terms of supporting his family, at least in his eyes, the site is actually proving that Walt probably could have raised the money for his surgery without people dying and without people’s lives falling apart. If his pride hadn’t stood in the way, and if he had simply accepted Gretchen’s offer to pay for his treatment, all of this could have been avoided.

I think enough has probably been written about Bryan Cranston that I don’t need to go into it: Walter White is a complete mess of a man who willingly endangers his family for the thrill of being a drug dealer, who believes himself to be careful and calculated even while he nearly falls apart, and Cranston manages to make me care about him more than I should. However, for me, the show lives or dies on Jesse Pinkman, a character with every future that Walt believed he didn’t have as a result of his cancer. By the end of the second season, Walt has gained hope while Jesse has lost it, and the same sorts of actions and reactions that have strengthened Walt’s resolve have sent Jesse into a pit of despair. While Walt has a rationalization for the blood on his hands, supporting a family that he loves that he won’t be able to support forever, Jesse has no such rationalization: when one of his lieutenants is shot dead, he isn’t thinking about it as a cost of doing business, and when Jane dies in his bed it is not something he can claim was done for any particular reason. He falls into absolute disrepair after Jane’s death because he believes in his own agency, believes that he could have done something to stop Walt’s plan for expansion, or stop Jane’s decision to fall back into drugs, or something to keep things from, well, breaking bad. Aaron Paul was absolutely fantastic in the show’s second season, and I’m hopeful he’ll get another crack at the Emmy in August.

One of the things I love about the show is that while the scale of the show’s premise has increased drastically, the show itself hasn’t changed that much. While things have come a long way since the days of Crazy 8, it doesn’t seem like the show’s philosophy has changed in the process. As things expand, the same detail-oriented lens is put onto new characters and new stories, and the show has a very clear sense of what it wants to accomplish at every turn. While I think shows like The Wire and Mad Men which speak to something larger, whether it be through social or historical commentary, may always feel a little bit more grand, but the claustrophobic and isolating qualities that make Breaking Bad a tough sell also make it enormously compelling. While it was traumatizing to watch it in such a short period of time, it was also perfect for highlighting the ways in which we’re brought into these scenarios, riding along on the emotional rollercoaster along with the rest of the characters.

This was longer than I had intended, so I’ll leave it at this: it’s a show with an intriguing premise, fantastic production values, complex characters, captivating performances, and a commitment to dark and morally complicated consequences which make it different from any other show on television. I’m sure I’ll have more to say on Sunday, when the show starts its third season on AMC.

Cultural Observations

  • I was happy to see that the two spoilers I discovered before finishing the show didn’t ruin things: I found out about Walter allowing Jane to suffocate ahead of time but the moment was powerful enough to make the inevitability irrelevant, and setting the DVR to record the Season 3 premiere inadvertently led to forewarning of the resolution to the plane crash story. Thankfully, the finale ruined that surprise during the opening, and it seems that the whole story won’t be known until Sunday anyways.
  • I haven’t had time to dig into the special features, but the video quality on the Season 2 Blu-Ray release was really exceptional – I watched the first season on run-of-the-mill DVD, and the difference was noticeable and, during great sequences like the cook scenes in “Four Days Out,” really appreciated.
  • In terms of pre-Season Three reading, I’d suggest Alan Sepinwall’s post-mortem on Season Two with creator Vince Gilligan.
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2 Comments

Filed under Breaking Bad

2 responses to “Agency begets Tragedy: Ruminations on Catching Up with AMC’s Breaking Bad

  1. lylebot

    Very nice analysis. The distinction between Breaking Bad and The Wire in terms of the agency of their characters is quite interesting. In The Wire, nobody really has a choice or free will; everyone’s actions are dictated by the institutions. Only a few select characters can break free, but it takes a lot of work and anyone who tries usually fails. In Breaking Bad, everything that happens can be traced back to specific decisions by the characters, but we see in great detail all the ramifications of those decisions.

    They almost represent two extremes of a scale. Other shows seem to slot in at various points in between: BSG started out a little more towards The Wire’s end (with characters’ actions dictated by circumstance) and gradually moved towards Breaking Bad’s (as every hope they had fell away); The Shield is closer to Breaking Bad’s end, as almost everything that plays out is a result of a few big decisions by Vic; Deadwood I think is closer to The Wire’s, but with a strong agency component. Neither end is better, of course; they’re just two different ways to tell a story.

    Those are my (kind of half-assed) thoughts anyway.

  2. Pingback: Season Premiere: Breaking Bad – “No Mas” « Cultural Learnings

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