Sunday, September 22, 2013

How Breaking Bad redeemed its worst mistakes

Posted By on Sun, Sep 22, 2013 at 12:37 PM

Great art is never about perfection.

Most great television series, then, have long stretches — even entire years — of imperfection. The Wire was mired by a bum couple of plotlines, The Shield, by wheel-spinning in the middle, Mad Men, by too many dream sequences and strange character choices. And Lost? Well, Lost had a little thing called “the Final Season of Lost.”

Breaking Bad is the best TV show I’ve ever seen. Yet that greatness didn’t come from the absence of mistakes. Far from it. Breaking Bad had plenty of problems. The secret was: It fixed them.

Showrunner Vince Gilligan and his writers have this incredible, alchemical talent to take their mistakes, their errors and the show’s weakest points and spin them into gold.

With the last two episodes of Breaking Bad ready to blow minds and break hearts, join me in examining the the show’s biggest missteps, and how the writers, in their mysterious ways, worked them all out for good.

Spoilers (such as Spoiler: You Really Should Be Watching This Show) follow.

1) Marie’s Adventures in Shoplifting

Bike lock strangling aside, the first season of Breaking Bad felt like an entirely different show. It was more satirical, more about middle-age suburban angst than the death of a soul. Before veering toward the moral darkness of The Sopranos and The Shield, Breaking Bad smelled more like Weeds.

That first season’s worst moment was a go-nowhere story where Skyler, the wife of meth-cooking science teacher Walter White, confronts her sister Marie over a shoplifted tiara Marie had given for Holly’s baby shower and Marie denies everything. Both women got ugly characterization. Skyler was shrill, nagging, shrewish. Marie’s characterization was mainly, well, purple: ditzy, naïve, oblivious, stubborn.

The point of it all seemed to be to communicate the dull message that “Everyone Breaks a Little Bad, Sometimes.” It fell into a trap so many other shows have, feeling the need to dole out miniature side-stories to each of the cast members.

But in doing so it produced a dull story that made two of the show’s two main female characters look like an idiot and a wet-blanket. Those characterizations would continue to drive the interpretations of some of the show’s less sophisticated fans for years.

How Breaking Bad Redeemed It

It could have been easy for Breaking Bad to pull a “Friday Night Lights Season 2” and just forget the embarrassing shoplifting plotline ever happened. Instead, it brought it back in Season 4, where her theft problem resurfaced in a more sophisticated version. This time she was not acting out of suburban malaise, but of a struggle for caring for her angry bed-bound husband. It was about wishing she was in a grander life, where she wasn't tied down to a husband constantly needling her over the difference between rocks and minerals.

For Marie’s character, the turning point came inside an elevator during Season 3, where her hyper-macho DEA Agent husband Hank wept into her shoulder. Their marriage, as tumultuous as it can be, becomes one of the driving factors of the show, a counterpoint to the toxic mess that becomes Walt and Skyler.

This final season, shockingly, is practically the Season of Marie. She’s had some of the most standout moments: slapping Skyler, trying to steal baby Holly, telling Walt to kill himself, and fantasizing about about deadly poisons.

It’s one of the things so many shows about Dark Men with Terrible Secrets don’t understand. Letting more characters in on the secret doesn’t destroy the show. It invigorates them. It gives characters like Skyler and Marie agency. This season, in fact, the shoplifting confrontation has been reversed: Marie lectures Skyler about morality, and Skyler stubbornly refuses to face facts.

Little remarked upon is how Marie has played one of the most pivotal roles in Walt’s downfall. It was Hank and Walt’s former protégé Jesse who separated Walt from his money, but it was Marie that separated him from the rest of his family, who finally gave a lie to his supposed motivation. In a conversation with her sister, Marie convinces Walt’s wife to turn against her husband and tell her son what happened.

And my guess? She deals the final blow, poisoning Walt with a vial of ricin she managed to lift from him with her sticky fingers.

2) Seven Thirty-Seven Down Over ABQ

There are two big problems with the midair plane crash that brings Season 2 of Breaking Bad to an explosive conclusion. The first is structural. Several episodes in the season had begun with vague, portentous flashforwards. The eye of a scorched teddy bear. A man in a hazmat suit. Two body bags. Flash-forwards create audience expectations. They encourage speculation. They create a promise, a sort of hype that few TV shows have managed to meet.

Did a meth lab explode in meth king’s Walter White’s residence? Were they attacked by the cartel? Did any major characters die? What hath Walt wrought? In fact, it had nothing to do with meth. It barely had to do with White’s actions.

The primary cause for the plane crash, granted, was one of the show’s most pivotal moments: Walt stares at a sleeping girl, Jesse’s girlfriend Jane, as she chokes to death on her own drug-induced vomit. He moves to help her and — then stops. He lets her choke, then die. It’s a turning point in Breaking Bad’s coming-of-monster story.

But getting from there to “mid-air plane crash” requires a Rube Goldbergian series of cause-and-effects. Jane’s dad, an air traffic controller is depressed over his daughter’s death and spaces out at the controls, allowing a commercial airliner to collide with a charter plane, killing 167 people.

You can nearly hear the writers straining to fill in the blanks to make action A lead to effect Z. The results are what Breaking Bad hardly ever is: Mechanical, linear, and artificial. This is a show about consequences — but generally roughly predictable consequences. This is not a show about wild coincidences, not a show about the butterfly effect, not a show about how we’re all connected, man, and not a show about how airplane parts falling from the sky are a tool of destiny. (That’s Lost or Donnie Darko, take your pick.)

If the intent was to make Walt directly responsible for those deaths, it did a poor job. If Walt had been married to Jane’s dad, and left because he wasn’t feeling emotionally fulfilled in the relationship, couldn’t that have also sent Jane’s dad into depressed spiral that left him inattentive at the control booth? Would Walt have been morally culpable for that too? Or is Jane’s dad morally culpable for the deaths by not realizing that he’s unfit to work at his job? Or are the pilots morally culpable for managing to crash together in mid-air because they followed misleading air traffic control directions?

Mid-air plane crashes are extremely rare. Consider how many terrible, tired, lazy, drunk, depressed, or attention-deficit air-traffic controllers there are in the world at any given time. Consider how many there are just in Russia. And none of them, in all likelihood, are in that dangerous state because a meth-making science teacher allowed the girlfriend of his partner to overdose.

How Breaking Bad Redeemed It

The crash gave rise to the beautiful scene, where Walt, in a gymnasium full of grieving high school students, explains that, statistically, the crash really wasn’t that bad if you looked at in context. Heck, it could have been much worse! The horrified student body looks on, seeing firsthand how Walt lies to himself, twisting reality, stretching words just to keep up his self-deception that he isn’t the villain.

Ultimately, it’s not important that we think Walt is morally culpable for the plane crash. It’s important that he does, at a subconscious level. We see him rapidly scrambling to justify his actions and downplay the impact. He’s immunizing his soul against guilt — a crucial step for the evil he commits in later seasons.

“We will move on, and we will get past this,” Walt tells the fully loaded gymnasium. “Because that is what human beings do. They survive.” And Walt does move on, and he does survive. For a time.

3) The Trouble With Cousins

Breaking Bad has cooked up some of television’s most memorable villains. They had vivid personality. Compare the pure uncut chaos of Tuco’s gleeful insanity with Gus’s stoic precision. Even Uncle Tio, barely able to move, had character, in his slobbering, seething way.

Ultimately, of course, all had to contend with Walt, the final villain, and his need to control and be recognized.

The Cousins, introduced crawling through the desert toward the Mexican diety of death in the first episode of Season 3, were the kin of Tuco and Tio. But the Cousins didn’t feel like characters so much as a natural disaster, moving inexorably forward, claiming lives because the cartel/plot told them to. They were silent, but where Tio communicated worlds of bitterness and spite entirely through sneering and spittle, the Cousins barely communicated anything beyond broad axe strokes. They were Michael Myers, if Halloween had been directed by the Coen Brothers. But where that sort of villain works brilliantly in a 90-minute movie, it doesn’t when stretched out over an entire TV season.

At their worst, they felt like video game bosses, right down to their generic title. (“Hank” VERSUS! “The Cousins” Double the Trouble, Double the Pain!)

How Breaking Bad redeemed it

Indeed, like a video game, there’s some indication the Breaking Bad writers had originally planned to make the Cousins an endgame boss to cap out the season. But here’s what sets apart Breaking Bad from other shows: It knows when something isn’t working.

Great TV writing is somewhat about planning. But more than that, it’s about improvisation, knowing when something’s working and something’s not, knowing when a character deserves more time or deserves less.

So in Episode 7 of Season 3 smashed that plotline in half with an SUV, ending it with an exploding bullet through its head. It allowed Gus, the series’ best antagonist, to gain prominence. It happened with the most suspenseful leadup to one of the greatest action sequences to be aired on TV. The cousins played the role of twin Angels of Death — but Hank had been divinely protected through sacrifice. He chose to do the right thing, give up his job for beating up an unarmed suspect. And for that, he was spared.

There are still few other characters I’m not quite satisfied with — Lydia and Todd’s quirky villainy feel like a better fit with Prison Break than Breaking Bad. But along with the cousins, they’ve played a crucial thematic role. As Breaking Bad as progressed, these weird evil characters have risen and multiplied around Walt, a vivid contrast to the innocent suburbia that defined his first 50 years.

Walt attracts supervillains like flies to manure, the show explains to us. He even creates them.

It’s very possible that without Walt’s tutelage, the sociopath Todd would have remained an exterminator instead of a terminator, that without Walt’s $69 million in startup seed money, the Nazis would have remained low-level white power criminal idiots, and without Walt’s product Lydia would have remained a megacorporation middle manager moonlighting in meth distribution. Even if Walt is killed in these last two episodes, he leaves the world in the  darker and more twisted place.

4) Walt’s Emmy-Worthy Ricin Performance

I may be the only one in the world with this particular problem with Breaking Bad. After all, the last few episodes of Season 4 are among the most compelling in the run.

The third-to-last episode ends with a chilling image. Walt knows he’s crossed a final line with Gus, the meth kingpin who employed him. As he searches his crawlspace to find the money to disappear him and his family to safety, he lets out a primal scream of anguish.

He laughs this long, unhinged laugh, like a hyena playing the Joker. And then he gets to planning. The plan, to get his partner Jesse back on his side to take down Gus, is complicated: it involves hiring a goon to pickpocket the vial of ricin Jesse carries in his pocket, infecting the son of Jesse’s girlfriend with a different poison, and then tricking Jesse into believe Gus was behind the poisoning. It works.

I was able to get over most of the objections. The plan is too elaborate and dependent on chance? Well, Walt’s desperate, tossing everything into a last-ditch gambit with nothing left to lose. It would have been tough to poison the kid? Well, Walt’s a teacher, shouldn’t be hard for him to sneak into a school and mess with the kid’s sack lunch. Gus shouldn’t have been able to stand up and straightening his tie after Walt’s bomb blew half his body off? Well, the man has a commitment to sartorial perfection and fine grooming.

Instead, my beef is with Walt’s performance, where he convinces Jesse that Gus was too blame.

It was too good.

Bryan Cranston is an amazing actor — a much better actor than Walt. He’s such an amazing actor that he can show Walt lying convincingly, while simultaneously hinting to observant audience members that he’s lying. He has a tell, this sickening self-righteous faux-outrage you can hear in the timbre of his voice. And in his eyes you can see the gears and cogs whirring, churning out new lies, devising new angles.

But there was none of that in Walt’s confrontation with Jesse. It’s all desperation and pleading. He’s begging for his life. This time, he truly does need Jesse to believe him.

“I did not do this,” Walt screams. He grabs Jesse’s hand, pulls the gun up against his forehead, “If you think I am capable of this then go ahead and put a bullet in my head and kill me right now.”

“I’ll do it,” Jesse seethes through gritted his teeth.

“Do it!” Walt yells.

There’s no deception in Cranston’s performance for a very good reason. Cranston wasn’t told about it. He hadn’t read the next script. The actor didn’t know he was lying. This may seem a comparatively minor nitpick, but the show is very much about the relationships between Walt and Jesse, and Walt and the truth. It was a cheat to the audience, furiously trying to guess if Walt was the culprit at home. And it was a cheat to Cranston, who was handicapped in his portrayal of the character’s mental state.

How Breaking Bad redeemed it

Breaking Bad’s central character arc is about the growth of a liar, about man becoming better at deceiving his adversaries, his allies, even himself. Walt’s spent so much time leveling up his bluff skill he’s become a grandmaster of deception. The meth chef has gradually learned to cook up a batch of pure uncut bullshit so deceptively it can pass for caviar.

The writers of Breaking Bad made Walt’s speech to Jesse integral to that transformation. When Walt records a fake confession, implicating Hank as the mastermind behind the criminal enterprise, he digs deep into that same skillset in his speech to Jesse. He cries big ol’ actor tears as Hank and Marie watch in horror. They know he’s good enough to be believed.

Yet others have been leveling up too. Jesse, Skyler, Hank, Marie, even his son Walt Jr., learn when he’s lying. Despite his skill, he’s lost the ability to talk himself out of anything.

Last week’s episode made the journey obvious, flashing back to his RV-and-mustache days to show Walt clumsily lying to his wife. The episode ended with Skyler surrounded by police, listening to Walt expertly deliver a cruel monologue over the phone either intended to protect his wife or damn her. Or both.

The truths and lies that make up Mr. White have become so tangled up together, so twisted and burnt and distorted, that it’s nearly impossible to sort out Walt’s words and intentions. Critics, fans, and commenters — even the episode’s writer — all had elaborate, sometimes contradictory interpretations as to what his monologue meant. Walt’s a little like Jeff Goldblum in David Cronenberg’s The Fly, a brilliant scientist who, through unchecked hubris, became a painful hybrid of man and monster, White and Heisenberg, lie and truth, all inseparable.

5) Gliding Over All These Crucial Character Arcs

Breaking Bad took nearly five seasons for Walter White to make the hideous transformation from “Mr. Chips to Scarface.” It only took a half an episode for Walter White to, outwardly at least, make the opposite journey.

There’s a brutal montage of prison stabbings — arguably the worst thing Walt’s ever orchestrated — there’s a swanky montage of cooking meth and raking in cash, there’s a scene where Walt sees all the wealth literally piled up, and then Walt suddenly announces he’s out. 

And just like that, he announces he’s done. The kingpin is apparently just fine with trading his black hat for a beige sweater.

How did we go from a  man clearly addicted to power more than money, who the previous episode lobbed cruel, desperate insults at his partner for leaving the meth business early, who proclaimed he was in the “empire business,” who recklessly pushed the cops back on his trail because he couldn’t stand to see another cook get the credit, to a man just willing to happily walk away from everything he built, to a guy fine with tossing his keys and his legacy over to a couple o’ two-bit amateurs?

That ain’t the Walter White we knew.

How did we go from a battered woman so terrified of her husband that she’s willing to walk fully clothed into the family pool, drowning herself with calculated catatonia, just to get her kids away from her monster of a husband, to a woman making cheery dinnertime conversation with her monstrous husband and her DEA brother-in-law?

That ain’t the Skyler White we knew.

The Breaking Bad team surely had the talent to show how Walt came to the decision to retire and to show how Skyler came to truly accept Walt back into their home. But whether because of AMC’s short season order or artistic decisions, we never see it. By far, it’s the biggest hole in Breaking Bad’s story.  

How Breaking Bad Redeemed It

It allowed Breaking Bad to begin its ending in a much more interesting place. It’s one thing to see the forces of good, or the forces of karma, to topple an evil man in control of a sinister empire. A hundred TV shows, a thousand movies, and a million stories have done that. It’s another thing entirely to see him walk away from it all, and still pay the price.

But now, the series carries the subtext of Walt silently screaming to the universe, “I’m retired! I gave it up! That’s in the past! It’s not fair!”

Breaking Bad’s lesson isn’t just about evil. It’s about the inertia of evil. Walt’s meth operation, this “empire business,” is this fearsome locomotive he sneers that he built, he constructed the engine, he cooked the 99-percent-pure fuel, he greased the wheels, and he set it speeding to his destination. And then he had the naiveté to think he could just jump out of the conductor’s car at full speed, tumble to a stop, brush his hands, and be morally clear.

So that brings us to the brilliant tragedy at the series end, where Walt is parked on the tracks, screaming, furiously waving his arms at the approaching train to stop. But it won’t stop. The fuel is too pure, the speed is too great. And he isn’t driving any more. That’s Walt’s ultimate hubris. That’s what the smartest guy Hank ever met is too stupid to see: You can’t stop a million tons of steel and meth and money and blood and greed and petty middle-aged masculine pride simply by drawing a line in the sand.

I built you, Walt is yelling. I created you, Dr. Frankenstein insists at his creation as it tears him apart. The mighty Walter White looks upon his works, and despairs.

And then, despite all his promises that he’s retired and that he’s the danger and he’s the one that knocks and that he did this all for his family, it runs him over and crushes him and everything he’s ever loved.

Now that’s tragedy. Now that’s Breaking Bad.

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Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters was a staff reporter for the Inlander from 2009 to 2023. He reported on a wide swath of topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.His work investigated deep flaws in the Washington...