Monday, September 30, 2013

Breaking Bad: My Thoughts

Every newspaper in the country is writing a reflective piece on Breaking Bad today. As this show emotionally drained me for several years, I had to write my thoughts down to be done with it. The best review of Breaking Bad I've read so far is the one (Emily Wilson posted) from Grantland:

Anyway, I have to write this, or I'll go fucking crazy.

Breaking Bad will go down as one of the absolute greatest television shows of all-time, and it will forever be considered one of the best examples of storytelling, character development, and pacing.

And it dawn well should.

The show had integrity beyond what was necessary, and it captivated the country in a really strange way. It had cliffhangers but not really. It had twists but not really. It functioned independently of stereotypes and character arcs we've seen before, while, at the same time, making it obvious that it had learned where other shows went wrong and where they went right.

What impressed me about The Wire (which I predictably consider the most impressive TV show ever) was how big it always felt. It encompassed an entire city from every angle, and it told a grandiose story with stunning patience, meticulous care, and it rarely relied on suspense tactics. It was the cultivated reality that got to you.

On the other end of the scale has been Breaking Bad, as what has impressed me, from start to finish, was how small it felt. It was exceedingly personal and domestic. It was secretive, with low voices and intense two/three-person conversations. Some of the most tense dialogue toward the end happened in a garage and a Mexican restaurant. The show thrived off anxiety, and it accomplished its end-goal with a serene understanding of the audience the entire time. It knew what it was giving, it knew what it was taking, and the precision of it all, and how it parallels that of Walter White's words, but not necessarily his actions, might be what has blown me away most.

The show killed its darlings, and it did with drama and suspense (like there was always a frantic violin tremolo, in the background), but it didn't relish in it or overdo it. The wonderful trait of Breaking Bad was that your concern as a viewer was never exploited, even when it felt like it your heartstrings were on a rampage pluck. There was nothing cheap or arrogant about the show. It was confident, surely, but it was that confidence that made it appear flawless, because you knew you were being taken care of. You were entering a confident story told by confident writers, and you were confident that the story would tie up everything it had set loose. You, as a collective viewing audience, were in it together.

Why You Root For Walter White
There is inherent and immediate trouble to writing a main character that exceeds the others. With a main character so far along in a "cool" narrative, that is sincerely idolized to some extent by viewers, the writers have to avoid living vicariously through the lead at nearly every turn.

It's what ruined Californication, it's what threatens Mad Men almost by default, and it's what, to me, made Entourage unwatchable from the get-go.

That's what fan fiction is for, and it shouldn't ever feel like primetime is catering to men and women who are reaching through their characters' hands to accomplish what they cannot in real life. However, at the same time, it's so tempting, since the very creation of the character comes from them, either in the weird depths of their soul or the conversational portion of their mind, and, in the end, the writer can play god with it all if they so choose and are allowed to make that decision.

But, instead, the writers of Breaking Bad rightfully used ego to drive and destroy Walter White, just as I see the writers of Mad Men correctly using ego to make Don Draper unchangeable, which is resulting in his inability to adapt, ultimately leading him to realize that he is not the driving spirit he always considered himself to be. However, as I referenced above, it was the ego of the writers, not the characters, that made Hank Moody and Vincent Chase unbearable creatures of habit and bullshit.

There is a difference, and it is a big one.

The reason viewers can root for a character that has been responsible for so much bad in the world of Breaking Bad is a matter of respect, not envy. You have to respect a character who is that cunning (Hannibal Lecter, Ben Linus, etc). That's what has always made the craftiest antagonists so thoroughly engaging. You can argue anti-hero versus antagonist with this show, but I'm going with the latter, because the most fulfilling episodes for we were the first few of Season Five, Part II, when I felt like Walt might actually get a pretty serious comeuppance. When he had to pay money to have Ed stick around for a card game, I thought, "FUCKING GOOD. YOU DESERVE THAT."

But I was still rooting for him to kill every neo-Nazi in Albuquerque.

And maybe that's the best sign of a well-written character of duality, that you want everything good and bad to happen to him all at once, debating hate and love within yourself as a participant. I suppose, ideally, I wanted to see Walter White get the complete shit kicked out of him and then find out how he saw that it could be used to his advantage.

I know that Vince Gilligan said the story was "Mr. Chips becoming Scarface," but I'm also reminded by screenwriter Mike White's criticism of Judd Apatow later movies, when he pointed out that Apatow had gone from rooting for the bullied to cheering for the bullies. In Breaking Bad, we watched a bullied man become the bully, and it was justified, until he became a worse bully than all of them. It's the hero-becoming-the-villain angle, but this all came from a man who was mistreated by his boss and laughed at by his students. There was such a well of sympathy from the beginning, that by the time Walter White had moved into truly villainous territory, we were already invested in him as an anti-hero. But we weren't cheering for the bully to conquer the bullied. By then, he had already clearly stepped into the role of the calculated antagonist, and we had to find out what he did next.

The Problem With Skyler
For years, there's been talk of the audience's strange fascination with disliking Skyler. I can't speak for everyone, but my problem with Skyler was that she was inconsistent. Beautifully and exceptionally played by Anna Gunn, my issue was that, at times, she could sometimes be one of the strongest character on the show, but then wouldn't stay close to that level. That, of course, is the character they made, and it was crafted so well that I felt like I had encountered her type before, and these were old feelings stirring up the frustration.

Consider when she saw through Walt's bullshit and calmly and, with maximum force and minimal indulgence, said, "I fucked Ted." Consider when she had Kuby pose as a government inspector concerned about the car wash's supposedly environmentally damaging run-off, so she could get a sweeter deal and screw over that mouthy bitch who ran it. Consider every time she said, "No" in a way that made her one-word reply looked like slow motion with the impact of a door closing.

But then she would earnestly play the victim, as opposed to Walt who played the victim either purposefully or with delusion, and it bothered the shit out of me. I didn't think it was out of character. It was a character that seemed too scared to fully embrace something. When she learned that it was more than meth, that Walt was also involved in murders, she had every right to be scared. That changed the game, for sure. But, before that, she seemed stunningly powerful and divinely fierce one moment, and then the next moment she would be weak. Any person who can go that far, but only in bursts, not plans, starts to irk me. And she would use the meth money to get what she wanted and then talk to Walt like he was a monster (again, before the revelations of killing). The character of Walt at least struck a working balance of victor and victim, as he ventured between the most ruthless character and the most hopeless. I didn't like that Skyler would be verbose, poised, and fascinatingly in control and then suddenly be wet-eyed and mumbling. NO. Skyler was dope, and the problem was that she would falter in the least favorable way.

Random Thoughts:
  • The transformation of Jesse Pinkman wasn't as dramatic or epic as Walter White's, but that dude went from jokey idiot apathetic semi-tough guy to seemingly being capable of absorbing the guilt of every other character and demonstrating a profound, almost disturbing, amount of empathy. By the end, he was my favorite character. He did bad, but he felt it. He felt every ounce of remorse, terror, and tragedy.
  • Motherfuckin' Hank was my favorite character until he was injured and starting collecting geodes like a weirdo doofus. He was lost, and that was his balance. Either he was more than determined than anyone, or he was more aimless than anyone. So, to see him come back full force at Walt after all the pieces fell together in his mind was like pornography for my heart. I could've watched an entire season of Hank speaking shakily, as fury and concern burned through him.
  • I like the idea of the kids representing the remaining good in Walter White, as he's still a dorky dad with cancer to his son, even when he's contemplating Jesse's demise. Once Walter Jr. found out, that's when it all totally absolutely nationally goes haywire. Holly is all that's left. Holly is that little bit of him left that resembles good.
  • The usage of music and lyrics in the show was perfect. Every song was immaculately chosen and placed accordingly, truly. 
  • Every casting selection was flawless, and the acting was top-notch the entire way.
  • Honestly, you just have to admire a show that has the dad from Malcolm In The Middle, one of the creators of Mr. Show, and a stand-up comedian having one of the heaviest conversations about murdering a friend.
  • Saddest scenes to me (in order):
    • Jesse killing Gail (a crying guy shooting a nice guy)
    • Todd killing Andrea (an emotionless killing of an endearing innocent to prove a point)
    • Jack killing Hank (weirdo tough guy killing beloved tough guy)*
      • *I think this one was third because I always assumed Hank would be killed, so when it came, it was sort of like a relief for my nerves.
  • Best line: "I liked it."
    • Seriously, nothing made me happier as a viewer than Walt, in the finale, just admitting he liked the power, he liked the threat, he liked the skill, and that he was pretty much serving himself. It always drove me crazy that he promised everyone it was for his family and he couldn't believe nobody supported him. Ugh. Redemption points for self-discovery, man. 
You were so, so, so good, Breaking Bad. You were an unreal moment in the history of storytelling, and I thank you for the emotional abuse. Everything seems brighter now.

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