Probably useless reading this if you are not familiar with the show.
So, I decided I wanted to chronicle the reasons Breaking Bad went from one of my favourite TV shows to something I consider well-made crap, partly because it’s a case study in how you lose momentum and partly because I don’t think I’ve ever written a proper rant (dismissive pieces about Christopher Nolan’s movies – which I’ve posted both here and on PFC – don’t count, since I find the hullaballoo surrounding his movies funny more than anything else).
So, when I first started watching the series I thought it was pretty good but not too good. But this changed in the third episode when Walt has to kill Krazzy-8, the whole decision running with the unearthing of Walt’s sociopathic tendencies*. But, the moment he had done it, something was over; the muck out in the open, and anything that followed would be but a logical progression. The show itself understood this, and shifted half the focus on Jesse, who’s streetwise but really in over his head with Walt. Similarly, it was wise to include and develop a whole host of supporting characters and their transformations.
Now, I was pretty excited about the show till the end of the third season, but the fourth season is so utterly terrible it’s a wonder I got through it (I’m yet to watch the fifth). To tell you why, let me run character by character.
As I said, he killed Krazzy-8, and then his arc inevitably kept on losing steam. But, it managed to not completely lose it for three whole seasons. Part of the reason for this is Bryan Cranston’s marvellous performance in which he very effectively juxtaposes the original meek-mannered, house-trained schoolteacher and the sociopath for whom the previous description is a mask. There is much pleasure in watching the one in action under the other.
As many greater minds have noted, Walt’s transformation had much to do with traditional ideas of manliness and the associated misogyny; the belief that a man must provide for his family, must be in control, be always strong, must inflict unwanted sex on his wife, etc. For the first three seasons these tendencies are very much there, and teased out and questioned by the show (but, let’s be honest, not adequately; V Gilligan and co know there is something messed up here but really are not too properly aware of it, and honestly the show could do much better here, but this sort of thing is a flaw I’m usually willing to tolerate to quite an extent – I love Kill Bill, for example, and there’s this to be said about Breaking Bad itself**), but also there’s always the sense of a complex matrix of motives inside Walt. One of the best things this did was tease out the relation between the ‘coldly logical’ and the culture from which such a mindset grows. (Inserting accusing stare towards The Big Bang Theory.)
Then there was the end of the third season, where when Walt tells Mike about his successful ploy for staying alive, he’s completely the badass he always wanted to be. So completely, in fact, that for the whole of the fourth season he’s basically an annoyingly hotheaded and stupider version of Gustavo Fring. But the fact that Cranston’s a pain to watch is logical; I can live with it while being annoyed that there’s no pleasure in watching the protagonist any more.
The real problem here is that it stops being a logical progression for the character (have I stressed enough how important the idea of logical progression and its logistics are to this show?). It’s as if the makers read all the feminist critiques and decided to incorporate it into their show more fully but they don’t have a real understanding of it. Earlier, the tensions were strained out through his son and Hank and the parallels between Hank’s and Walt’s stories. Now, they go at it head-on: give Skyler a more active role (more on that later) and by having Walt retcon.
There are at least two speeches in the whole season (for a show of thirteen episodes a season that relies so heavily on silences, that’s a lot) in which Walt explicitly states his belief in the aforementioned ‘male’ ideals, which completely flattens out all the nuance and desperation of his decisions. Yes, it makes sense that Walt would build such a mythology about himself, but there is a general feeling that this is now the accepted version of Walt (for example, Jesse pretty much says that he was always badass).
To be clear, I’m not furious about it for social justice reasons (I’m too immune to that), but because it completely destroys a great character. As for the other characters, while they are not so utterly destroyed, they are kept in monotonous arcs that don’t tell us anything new about them.
As I said, the show drew much of its steam from Jesse’s dislocation. But then, when he kills Gale at the end of the third season, the writers have effectively written themselves into a narrative dead-end. All that can happen is his slow disintegration (very well-observed and something which made me bear annoying Mr White for three whole episodes without complaining) till something pulls him out, or alternatively till he hits rock-bottom.
But instead of something interesting doing this job, pulling him out becomes part of Gus’s ploy to get rid of Walt. Overall, a good ploy, but a story that works exclusively on the level of events (I can’t count how many well-made movies and well-written books I have abandoned because of this particular malaise): Jesse’s disintegration isn’t righted or taken to its logical end but simply postponed.
He learns to be hopeful despite his newfound impotence (he can’t walk for a while). Absolutely nothing we didn’t see or infer from his previous crisis about the shooting and the bombing. Things happen, and we tread over trod ground.
Three scenes of her stealing something because of the stress she gets from Hank. “See, we didn’t forget her – we are perfectly capable of giving a shit about our female characters too.” Obviously, every woman is defined solely by her kleptomania.
The only vaguely sympathetic character in the show, and – because of being a potential foil to Hank’s and Walt’s idea of manliness – also the most criminally underused (“hey, we put him in so we had the thought and that’s what counts right?”).
This could have been an amazing arc, her coming into her own as a woman and a partner and foil to Walt. Except, you know, the show crams the transformation into a few episodes in a previous season (so sudden that I thought that Anna Gunn had changed physically – lost or put on weight or something – till I realised that was just how hardened Skyler looked), and just had her perform some events. No acclimatisation to new evilness or anything. This is especially sad since she was one of the most well-crafted characters on the show in the early seasons.
Watching Giancarlo Esposito play ruthless and logical mafia boss was never anything short of a pleasure, and honestly I was rooting for him to get rid of Walt (have I said that Walt is now just annoying stupid*** Gus?) so that we could watch a show about the machinations of this man’s brain. But no; black man can’t but be an enemy, and can’t but be eventually vanquished.
The only saving grace here was the development of his hate for Tio (the deepest – and only halfway fascinating – exhibition of the season-long theme that you can be possessed in body but not in spirit is Tio’s refusal to look at Gus) and the fact that that last vestige of sentimentality was how Walt got to him.
Anyone remember the pleasure of watching wheels roll in close-up, first because it’s a wonderfully refreshing shot and second since it’s a reflection of the fact of process? Those shots have now been plagiarised into dumb crap like hitching a camera onto a spade that Jesse is walking around with. You know, because Breaking Bad is still weird at its core, not the residue from the vapourisation of a perfectly good show (chemistry analogy! Already one step above the title card (which I always found exceedingly dumb)).
*I use the word consideredly, in its meaning of a person whose attitude towards normal codes of conduct is logical followal at best and scornful disregard at worst.
**Because I know I won’t be alone in thinking this, I’ll state that I briefly toyed after reading that article – middle of the second season – that it was an allegory for racism, but… just no.
***But Walt can’t be stupider, because he got to Gus! Well, this was only made possible by the two asymmetries that Walt had to his advantage: that between offense and defense, and that between creator and manager. Inverted, Gus would have got that guy in no time. But, even I’ll admit that his final manipulation of Jesse was worthy of Gus.