By R. david
There have been enough farewell pieces written on “Breaking Bad” over the last few weeks to fill an encyclopedic volume. Vince Gilligan’s chemistry-teacher-with-cancer-turned-meth-dealer-and-drug-kingpin drama ends its six-year run tonight as such a beloved pop culture phenomenon that there is little I can say about the series that hasn’t been said a thousand times. I could tell you how much I love the series, speculate on how the journey of Walter White will end, or sing the praises of the show’s extremely talented ensemble cast and brilliant team of writers and directors. Indeed, even if you ignore all the breathlessly gripping drama the show has provided throughout its stellar run, looked at simply on a technical level, “Breaking Bad” has been a Master class in how to conceive a series. Every plot point and every scene feels meticulously planned-out; every shot fussed over for maximum impact. So, with nothing left to say that hasn’t already been said and that you don’t already know, I will simply write – share my (disorganized) thoughts on the show and bid it farewell – and see where I end up.
First and foremost I want to say that I have been watching “Breaking Bad” each week since its very first episode. I’m the kind of TV viewer who reads a bunch of reviews of a new show and typically sets my DVR based on which ones sound the most interesting and are getting the most critical kudos. Watching a show from the very beginning is an important distinction for several reasons. First, the wait between episodes – and between seasons – not only gives a viewer time to digest each plot development and the ramifications of the characters’ actions, but it also forces you to wait for closure from episode to episode and season to season, allowing suspense and excitement to build.
The anticipation of a favorite show’s season premiere is one of the best feelings in the world as far, as I’m concerned.
In this day and age of social media and binge-viewing though, audiences are increasingly coming into TV series several seasons into their runs, and mainly because enough of their friends have Tweeted about them or mentioned them in a Facebook status. Then they gorge on the show, burning through every season in a matter of weeks, intent to catch up so they too can be part of the discussion.
I’m not saying anyone who didn’t watch “Breaking Bad” (or any other series) live and from the get-go isn’t entitled to watch simply because they don’t pay attention to all the new shows coming down the pike each season, or that they can’t develop a sincere love and appreciation for a series simply because they discovered it late into its run. But I believe it is impossible to fully grasp all the heavy themes and strategic nuances of a show like “Breaking Bad” when simply bouncing from one episode to the next.
Similarly it seems there is a large portion of this show’s fan base that is solely in it for the shocking surprises. There are a lot of series out there that are hits and people confuse with quality drama simply because they have the ability to shock their audience. But these shows – and their viewers – typically confuse melodrama and emotionally manipulative and exploitive theatrics with actual drama. They lack any sort of subtlety or profundity. These shows may feel profound because they are beating you over the head with their themes and manage to push your buttons on a visceral level – thus forcing you to take notice – but there is nothing beneath the surface of their shock tactics (“Sons of Anarchy”, I’m looking at you).
The beauty of a show like “Breaking Bad”, one which understands the true dynamics of drama and has the courage and determination to dole out its surprises sparingly so they are that much more impactful, is that it balances methodical character studies with shocking resolutions that often exceed the audiences expectations or suspected outcomes. If you are simply staying tuned to the show for the next mind-blowing sight gag (like when half of Gus Fring’s face gets blown off), the next big shoot-out, daring escape, double cross, or waiting to see which major character will die next; you’re largely missing the point and robbing yourself of all the amazing narrative intricacies “Breaking Bad” has to offer.
On “Breaking Bad” the “big” moments are generally secondary to how the show and its characters arrived at them and the burning question of what will happen next. Gilligan and has writers have been masters of confounding and exceeding expectations throughout the show’s run. And not simply with gimmicky last-minute twists. Full episodes and entire seasons have played out differently than anyone would have predicted based on where the previous episode left off. The series has always been a game of chess writ large; and like chess, each episode has been composed of intricate moves and veiled motivations.
To put it more succinctly, you simply can not grasp the full, labyrinthine structure and symbolism of “Breaking Bad” if you’re blazing through the show one episode after another, or are only appreciating it as a surface-level, face-value drama. That you certainly could still find plenty of entertainment value in the series on that basic, tenuous level is a testament to Gilligan’s genius; but (at the risk of sounding like some sort of hipster, elitist snob) you’d be missing – depriving yourself of – the big picture.
I say all this to make the point that there are certain shows that deserve to be viewed – enjoyed – as the medium of television intended; with space between each episode to let the themes and ideas breath and resonate. The true beauty of this series has been in the suspense generated by every decision its protagonists have made. “Breaking Bad” recognizes there is a cause and effect for everything – every decision, every action. The show isn’t afraid to take the time to explore this, never glossing over the ramifications of a character’s choices simply to get to the next big dramatic moment for impatient eyeballs.
The exploration of these characters’ decisions and the morality of those choices are what creates the drama, unlike many shows which create drama to give its characters motivation.
That may seem like a slight distinction, but it is what sets truly great drama – great character studies – apart from the pack. Sure there are plenty of terrific and entertaining dramas that provide a lot of excitement and enjoyment without offering intricate or ambitious narrative structures; and they don’t have the lofty ambition to tell a contained, streamlined tale for exactly the number of episodes required to do and then ride off into the sunset victoriously. For most series the goal is to run as long as possible and each season to find new and interesting ways to keep its characters coming back for more. You can do that with a show like “24”, for instance. Each season can convincingly and entertainingly offer a new threat for Jack Bauer – and for audiences, as long as their hero returns and continues to satisfyingly dole out justice and the terrorist plots continues to surprise and keep viewers on the edge of their seats, they will be happy. The same can be said for procedurals like “Law & Order”. They are not automatically devoid of great drama simply because they move from case to case, week to week, season to season. But even though a show like “Law & Order” is capable of stirring emotions from time to time or creating suspense, these procedurals are by necessity less about their characters than they are about the story of the week. You could go five seasons without a major change in the characters lives, save for the writers changing who a character is dating or giving one of them a cancer subplot or something (one of the things that made “NYPD Blue” so spectacular was that while it followed the procedural format to a degree, it was first and foremost about its characters – how their jobs effected their lives and how the choices they made in their lives effected their attitudes and decisions on the job).
But Gilligan’s goal was never to keep “Breaking Bad” on the air as long as possible, despite the fact that it became a huge success and no doubt a cash cow for all involved. By focusing specifically on one chapter of these characters’ lives, Gilligan has been able to tell a contained tale which allows him to fully explore each character, their every motivation, their every decision and every consequence that results. He does not have to keep a handful of them around in his back pocket in case the series runs for 10 or 15 years. He does not have to render Walter White untouchable simply because he is the series’ star, or keep coming up with contrived ways to bring him and Jesse Pinkman back together because he knows their dynamic is a real crowd-pleaser. By plotting out a clear and concise end game and setting a specific end date, Gilligan has afforded himself the opportunity to see his vision through the way he sees fit, developing all the angles Walter White’s choices have wrought, not skimping on symbolism or poetic parallels (see this seasons episode entitled “Ozymandias”) or even the occasional self-contained episode that serves as an window into a character’s true motivations or unraveling psyche (see “Fly”). A more traditionally mounted or less assured drama would never make the time for these episodic journeys and details.
All journeys must come to an end though. But fans can go into “Breaking Bad’s” finale confident that – however it ends – it will not only be on Gilligan’s terms, but will be satisfying in a way that no show with the goal of staying on the air as long as possible could ever hope to be. “Breaking Bad” has not had to survive cast departures or changes in writers and creative team, thus forcing the show in different directions or away from its original vision. Any changes or additions to this series have been purely by design. So the show exists with its initial vision intact.
Whatever fans’ opinions of tonight’s finale, they will be getting the ending the show has been steadily building to for five seasons, unmolested. And on TV, that is a very rare and very exciting thing.
(Images courtesy of AMC)
– Since it is customary, I suppose, to take a crack at how a series will end in a farewell piece, I’ll offer my (rather vague) theory on how “Breaking Bad” will rap up – but let me say I don’t have many specific thoughts on the matter, for one thing because I generally don’t like to think too much about such things and just let the episode(s) unfold; but in this case, Gilligan and his writers have constantly surprised me by going against conventions and expectations that it’s really anyone’s guess at this point how things will rap up for Walter White. Most of the theories/questions seem to center around whether or not Walt get his revenge against the latest cartel that has him under their thumb and/or his former business partners at Grey Matter, if he will get all that money to his family somehow, will he die, and if so, how? If I had to guess, I’d say Walt (and we, the audience who has a routing interest in some sort of redemption or happy ending for him, despite knowing he deserves his comeuppance) will score a minor victory – or at least achieve some satisfaction – by taking revenge on either the cartel or his former partners or both. But this will ultimately change nothing. I think he will remain alienated from his family and be unable to get them the money he so desperately wanted for them – that he sold his soul for – in the beginning. He will succumb to his cancer and die alone (or be seen limping off into exile) with tons of money but no way to spend it or to get it to his family. Or maybe he’ll go out in a blaze of glory, or maybe Jesse will put him down. Either way, Walter White will be dead and everyone caught up in his web will be worse off than they began when Walt received his cancer diagnosis, the complete opposite of his intentions going into all this. And that’s the lesson. I’m not even going to speculate on the fate of the other characters because I’m sure Gilligan will deal us a heavy blow where at least a few of them are concerned.
– Though its been said, I also just want to point out how terrific this series has been in terms of character development – overall (hell, look at Jesse Pinkman – somewhere in here is an uplifting drama about a screw-up becoming a better person and realizing his full potential; but that would be a much more traditional, predictable show) – but certainly in exploring the evolution of Walter White. From where we first met him in season one, to his introduction to the drug trade, to his transformation into Heisenberg, to his attempts to go back to the man he was before all this, and somehow balance both sides of his personality and both his desire to hold his family together as well as succeed as a ruthless drug kingpin, Gilligan has done a miraculous job conceiving and developing this character, and of course Bryan Cranston has proven to be a revelation of dramatic intensity and fluidity in bringing the character to life.
– I will never not find it fascinating that FX passed on “Breaking Bad” because the network felt they “already had too many anti-heroes” with their series like “The Shield”, “Rescue Me”, and “Nip/Tuck”. True enough, but they certainly had niche at the time, and what’s one more? “The Shield” and “Rescue Me” are two of the best dramas of the last decade – perhaps of all time – “Breaking Bad would have fit snuggly in with them.
– There has been a lot of talk about whether or not “Breaking Bad” is the greatest show of all time. This is a loaded and impossible question because not only does the answer come down to a matter of individual opinion, but there are simply too many great shows and too many variables to consider to determine such a thing. For my money, “Breaking Bad” is certainly in the Top 10, but I don’t think it is the greatest show of all time. Off the top of my head, “NYPD Blue”, “The Shield”, “Rescue Me”, “24” and “The Wire” give “Bad” a run for its money – all for different personal reasons. I won’t get into them all here, because I’d be here forever, but f you’d like to hear or challenge them, take it up with me on Twitter @TheWireWriters.