a Breaking Bad review
The other day, scrolling through my Facebook feed, I came across a 9gag post which shows the classic Breaking Bad poster with the phrase “Canadian Breaking Bad: 1 – Health insurance pays for the treatment / 2 – The End”. While I laughed a lot, I also realized this joke was basically missing the point of what Breaking Bad was, as a journey.
Yes, a journey. Anyone who has seen enough episodes of this series eventually realizes that this is a story of change, and that it follows a most simple structure: innocence – crime – punishment. Of course, the series dwells on “crime” for most of its duration, but even this stage represents a perpetual change (plot points will be discussed from now on so, if you have not seen the entire series, thread carefully). Walt starts his meth cooking career small enough: cooking in an RV, with his low-life partner Jesse. Then, when the small scale distribution is not providing “enough” (for Walter’s ever growing greed) money, they struck a deal with drug dealer Tuco, ramping up production thanks to a stolen barrel of methylamine. When Tuco dies, they go small again for a time to regroup, and then go one step further up the ladder: they enter the drug empire of Gustavo Fringe, who runs his business as a, you know, business, giving Walter a superlab to cook in and using his fast food distribution chain to get Baby Blue to as many junkies out there as possible. But again, even though he makes millions a year, Walter needs more. Not being able to cope with Gustavo’s power over him, he kills him, and then does what all of us career-junkies dream of: he becomes the owner of his own business. He uses some of Gustavo’s former contacts and sets up a pretty slick operation, declaring: “I’m in the empire building business”.
“I’m in the empire building business”
Yet just at the same rate he succeeds in business, he tanks his personal life. Yet when asked why he does what he does, in several occasions, he readily answers the same thing over and over: “for my family”. The reasoning is seemingly simple: he will die without leaving any sort of inheritance for his children and (house)wife, only the enormous debt of his cancer treatment. Therefore, he needs to rack up money fast to ensure they will continue on living comfortably and the kids can be put through college (at one point, Walt mentions he needs 737 thousand dollars for this to happen – yet this seems to me more of a plot device for the episode to be called 737, the beginning of a string of episodes that, when put together, would spell “737 down over ABQ”, the plane that fell on Walt’s backyard). This argument, though, doesn’t add up: if his only concern was money for his treatment and inheritance, why not accept the help that was offered to him by his friends Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz? While others, such as his brother in law Hank, do offer help, it is Elliot and Gretchen that seem to offer a true solution: they are, after all, very rich, and taking care of Walter’s bills wouldn’t be a problem. Yet Walter refuses, for what I believe to be two main reasons: a) he secretly hates them and resents them for being rich on the expense of a company he was a co-founder of and b) he needs to provide for his family for himself. These two things are related: Walter feels it isn’t really him who has been living his life so far – rather, he left all the important choices up to others. He clearly states this early on when his wife Skylar stages an “intervention” to convince him to get treatment for his cancer. His first real choice would be to not get treatment and live the rest of his days enjoying the time he has left with his family (he eventually backs out and gets the treatment). His first actual real choice is, then, to become a meth cook. And it’s not for his family.
Since the first episode we are left clues that something else is going on in Walt’s mind besides providing for his family (the following passages discuss sex so please excuse me for the crude language). In the night of his birthday, after a series of celebrations that Walt does not seem to enjoy but is pressured to put up with, he lays in bed with his wife, who attempts to masturbate him at the same time she participates in an online auction. After having trouble getting an erection, he eventually begins to enjoy it, and seems to be on the verge of climax when Skylar shouts out because she won the auction, which of course puts Walt out. It’s a great scene that crudely portrays Walt’s life: an underachiever father of two who teaches high school chemistry and works at the registry of a car wash (and is constantly asked to clean the cars as well), his wife wears the pants at home and she can’t even dispense him the attention for a proper night of sex. In all aspects of his life, even sex, it is others who call the shots.
Yet only a few days later, Walt, after going to a drug bust with Hank, discovering his ex-student Jesse Pinkman is a drug dealer, tacking him down, offering a parternership, cooking the “purest” meth ever and killing a rival drug dealer, comes back home and f*cks his wife, who, shocked, can only ask “Walt, is that you?” (a scene that is perfectly mirrored a few seasons later when Skylar has already learned what Walter does and is scared sh*tless of him, and all she can do is feel his touch with a terrified expression). Eversince the pilot, Walt’s motivatin is clear: he wants to be a man, and being meth cook/dealer/emperor is what makes him one. It takes him five seasons to admit him but the eventually does: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was, really … I was alive.”
“I did it for me”
So, innocence-crime-punishment (or maybe employed-entrepreneur-millionaire, or even pussy-man-true man), Breaking Bad is all about change, evolution, fixing though it wasn’t broken then fixing it again. Perhaps the reason we all liked Breaking Bad so much is because it successfully pulled of the hardest of the two kind of TV series there is: the journey. Yes, TV series can either be about routine or journey. “Whaaat?”, you say? Let me explain.
The main difference between TV series and movies is the former have to be able to tell a story that stretches over time, ideally having no end (so as to eternally make money for the TV channel that runs it). “Routine” TV series are those that focus on a subject which involves heavy repetition, a routine of sorts. That’s why TV is filled with series about lawyers, cops, doctors, or even ad men: they go to work everyday, and the series tells us what they do at work (and outside it, though that usually refers back to work as well – dating co-workers, having inspirations, etc). They are, in a way, closer to our day to day lives, which is a series of repetitions as well – it doesn’t mean we don’t grow from it and that we cannot change, but this change happens at a slow pace and doesn’t have a clear objective or ending (see: Mad Men). “Journey” series are the opposite: we start with character(s) in a point A, usually a routine (in BB, for example, we have a family man who teaches chemistry and is, in gross terms, completely whipped) and we have to get them to point B, usually by upsetting the status quo (in BB, this is Walter getting cancer). You could argue this could have become a routine series of Walter cooking meth, but no, it couldn’t have. You see, routine series start with characters already doing what they do, and even though we may have flashbacks to their motivations, they are not as important as the fact that they are, right now, doctors or lawyers or housewives. Walter didn’t start out as a meth cook (in fact he started as anything but) and in becoming one, he climbed a step in the ladder of change that demands continuous climbing to sustain a plot. If this was a routine series, we would start with a Walt that already is a ruthless meth lord and then get insights in to his past (see: every mob series in television).
What makes Journey series more difficult to pull off than Routine series? The fact that routine is perfectly fit for television, which is, after all, based on repetition, while journeys are more fit for movies or books – taking characters from point A to B has to take an exact amount of time so as to not a) bore the viewer or b) lose credibility. Journey series have to have a pretty good reason for being TV series and not movies – because they face the duality of taking characters from A to B while also lasting forever. Let me point out two such series that don’t quite succeed precisely because of their premise: Homeland and Revenge.
Homeland (which is, by the way, a series I really like) has, in my opinion, already failed as a TV series, because its premise is too short sighted: an American prisoner of war may have been turned into a terrorist and a CIA agent suspects him. Point A is he returns to the US. Point B is logically that he’s unmasked, arrested and probably killed. What justifies seasons and more seasons of this? If the agent takes to long, she’s incompetent and we sense the bullshit – but if she doesn’t, she quickly fulfills the series premise and bam, game over, which is exactly what happens in Homeland (though not the way I described it) – we get a series that continues running past it’s expiration point. David Milch, creator of Deadwood and NYPD Blue, said it best: “There are some series that end halfway through and just don’t know it”.
Then there is the opposite example, Revenge, that also has a shot-sighted premise (a girl wants to get revenge on the family that ruined her father’s life) but takes too long to fulfill it. What happened to me after a season and a half is I started wandering what she was waiting for: she had enough evidence, she had the connections, the power, the insight – what was stopping Emily/Amanda from taking down the Graysons once and for all? Nothing – except a regular series can’t last two seasons. And so, I lost all confidence in the character and her resolve, and left the series all together.
Breaking Bad succeeds in having a premise that’s sufficiently vague regarding timelines (after all, a high school chemistry teacher can’t realistically become a kingpin overnight, nor can a pussy put the pants back on that fast – American Beauty to the contrary) while at the same time making you feel that, eventually, justice must be served, and it’s only a matter of when. You know there is a point B (and BB reinforces this by making Walt an unlikable main character, which also means you want there to be a point B), you just don’t know how deep Walt must sink before he reaches it. As it turns out, pretty deep. Five seasons, child-poisoning deep. Walt’s journey happened both slow and fast enough to make his change seem credible.
“Never give up control”
Not only that, it is also a work of art. The attention to color, setting, dialogue, visual rhymes, and the masterful use of Chekhov’s gun (which has been one of the series’ most discussed features – the exposition of an object that will have future significance) make this a wonderfully entertaining class on how to craft a TV series. All of those involved should feel incredibly proud, if only for the fact that, five seasons later, they managed to deliver a finale that, for once, no one will be able to call “controversial”. It has been a wonderful ride and I’m sad to say goodbye, but I’m not longing for new episodes like others do. This series ended both when it had to and when it wanted to. As Walter himself put it: “Never give up control”.