September 29th, 2013
A series finale is different from any other episode of a television show; the biggest test for a series finale is whether or not it feels different from any other episode of that television show.
Breaking Bad has been an often messy show, driven by complex moral agency and characters who seem simultaneously the architect and the victim of chaos. It was a series that continued to grow in scale but largely followed the same principles of tight characterization and almost claustrophobic connections with those characters. In the show’s third season, it delineated between “half measures” and “full measures,” and the series was ultimately a narrative driven by the former: while some were explosive and others were tragic, there was never a moment when one could say that Breaking Bad had solved or even dramatically mitigated its central conflict.
It was this quality that gave the series its momentum, and enabled it to grow an audience of devotees from a series that many people—myself included—had not given much of a chance in its early seasons. It was also this quality that by the very nature of a series finale was forced to change in “Felina,” a clean end to a messy show that very purposefully limits its capacity to embody the series it brings to a conclusion.
July 24th, 2011
“It’s like nothing but good days ahead.”
Walt remarks near the end of “Thirty-Eight Snub” that it’s been a hell of a last couple of weeks, which is certainly true: in fact, the sheer dramatic weight of the entire third season hangs in the air throughout this episode, the first one where the show feels stops to take a breath.
That breath doesn’t contain a great deal of surprise, much as last week’s resolution to the season three cliffhanger went about as one might expect. Based on what we saw at the end of last week’s episode, Jesse and Walt respond about as one would expect to their attempts at returning to something of a normal life, but just like last week’s episode the predictable remains compelling. There is so much baggage within these characters and within this show as a whole that the pathos is enough to carry even storylines that call attention to their true purpose. That line above is way too on-the-nose in laying out the theme of Jesse’s portion of the episode, for example, but it only serves to reinforce instead of undoing the work that was done.
Free from the “suspense” of last week’s outing, “Thirty-Eight Snub” instead just throws the show’s fantastic actors into tense situations and asks them to play out life as they would know it. It’s striking, it’s evocative, and it’s a whole lot of momentum for an episode that actively evades any major showdowns.
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.
“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 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.
“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.
March 21st, 2010
“That’s what human beings do – we survive.”
I wrote a fair deal about my reaction to the first two seasons of Breaking Bad on Thursday, about questions of agency and questions of tragedy amidst the show’s complex and fascinating character study. But I knew going into my catchup period with the show that I was, in some ways, watching it “wrong”: this is a highly contemplative show, so I knew I was missing part of the true experience by rushing through Season Two in a four-day period. While the mystery of the pink teddy bear was a long and drawn-out process for some, it was a four day journey for me, and while the show purposefully tries to play with the pressures of time and the challenges that one faces when his or her worst fears are compounded by the temporality of it all I nonetheless felt like I was cheating in some ways.
“No Mas” picks up where “ABQ” left off in terms of displaying the passage of time through the struggle and torment that it creates for these characters. It turns out that the questions that viewers have been mulling since May (or, in my case, since Thursday) were weighing on Walt, Jesse, Skylar and “Flynn” as well, questions that after only a week have started to eat through their attempts to survive this trauma. However, while Walt makes the argument that what human beings do is survive, Walter White’s struggle is that he wants to do more than survive. He wants to live, and he wants to have everything he believed he was fighting for when he cooked his first batch of meth in that RV, and he is forced to decide what he needs to do in order to be able to live with the man he is, even when he seems unsure of just what kind of man he believes himself to be.
In short, Breaking Bad remains an enormously compelling character study, a stunning visual spectacle, and the kind of show that anyone with a love of dramatic television should be watching.
At length, meanwhile, check out some more detailed thoughts after the jump…
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.