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.
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.