With Breaking Bad heading into its final season, recapper Matt Roden takes a look at where the show has landed itself – out of a premise, and into the wilderness – and how that makes it more interesting than it has been in recent times. Spoilers ahead!
While businesses and charities may make their mission statements known to all, artistic endeavours rarely do, and for seemingly good reason. “High concept” films, with their bored Hollywood exec-friendly pitches (think Snakes On A Plane or Cowboys Vs. Aliens), seem to exist only because no one had to think beyond that one line of intention — meaning they probably got the afternoon off. Audiences often tire of the idea before it reaches the cinema – which is maybe why recent flicks like the Transformers-meets-Godzilla-styled Pacific Rim and the “Die Hard with a President”-marketed White House Down did less business in their initial release than the studios had hoped for.
Quality television is the same: if your show can be summed up in one line, can it contain the depth, the nuance, and the multitudes that equal high art? One can imagine show runners like The Sopranos’ David Chase and Mad Men’s Matt Weiner gritting their teeth at the thought of condensing their multi-season narratives into a single tagline. And yet Breaking Bad, always included within this era’s echelon of well-respected dramas, has been labelled from the get-go by its creator Vince Gilligan with just such a shorthand: “From Mr. Chips to Scarface”.
Has knowing that end point from the start of the show damaged our chances of being surprised?
Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect Supporting Characters.
Even if you haven’t seen the films that Gilligan’s referring to, or Breaking Bad itself, the suggestion is clear. From mild-mannered to outlandish, from well-behaved to villainous, the catchphrase wraps up the show’s intentions and outcomes all at once. “We will start here and end there” it announces, affording you the seemingly prescient luxury of knowing where you’re headed before you even embark. Compared to The Sopranos’ ambiguous end shot and Mad Men’s constant vault of secrets, Breaking Bad is like the over-accommodating dinner host, letting you know every flavour you’ll be encountering before they even set the table.
This has lent the show a different, pulpier vibe: we know the what, we’re tuning in for the how. And the hows have been awesome. The minutiae of drug-making and distribution is absorbing, the show’s acting is enthralling, its cinematography captivating. The moral decline of a sympathetic man was riveting.
And then, like the action films it has increasingly mirrored in its ever-expanding (and exploding) set pieces, Breaking Bad has become less and less surprising. Just as we know Tom Cruise is going to get out okay, we know each week that Bryan Cranston’s Walter White is going to grow worse. And, for me at least, that’s gotten a little tedious.
Unlike the other prestige dramas with which it shares critical respect and awards, Breaking Bad has never been a soulful meander through life’s odd (if illegal) instances; instead, it presents a clear-cut race from A to B. Yes, in its quieter moments, the show has pondered paths untaken and familial pressures. But especially in its later seasons, Bad has often seemed like a sprinter on an obstacle course, running at the finish line but ignoring the hurdles and hindrances that make the race interesting. Supporting characters are tools of the plot (who knows what lawyer Saul gets up to after each meeting?), and even ‘main’ characters remain unexplored. We know wife Skylar once wrote stories, and sister-in-law Marie works as a nurse, but we’ve never heard a peep as to where these mismatched sisters met their polar opposite partners.
As the show has barrelled towards its pre-prepared point of completion — as Walter White has become the bad-ass drug boss that we were promised from day one — it has drifted from a humanistic exploration about a man scared of a fatal disease and the idea of not being able to provide for his family, to a show about a pride-filled murderer who’s a terror to those around him. With that change has come a shift in its moral compass. Articles (like these already linked to, in the Huffington Post and the Atlantic) point to Breaking Bad’s moral clarity, to the fact that we can see through White’s justifications to his true motives.
But while Walt’s initial dalliances on the dark side played with our ethical allegiances, does anyone really have sympathy for the devil?
The show remains tightly scripted, brilliantly acted, and beautifully shot, but the last half-season — full of high octane stand-offs and mass killings — has had little human content. Did we somehow sign up for an A-Grade snuff film?
Dealing Drugs Is Bad, Mmm-kay?
If you judged Walter White’s deeds only by the online recaps, you’d think that unchecked pride was the worst sin a person could commit. (I don’t have the stats, but I guarantee a huge uptick in the usage of “hubris” on pop culture sites since the show’s first screening.) Breaking Bad has lingered long on Cranston’s cragginess, as we gasped at the malevolent act of poisoning a child, and we watched Jesse fall into a rave-cave of despair after murdering the naïve Gail.
Despite these evil-doings, it’s White’s chutzpah that we’re primed to see dismantled, not his legally defined criminality. The show has always framed Walter and Jesse’s drug dealing in the same context as much of the other crime on the show – everyone “breaks bad”, from hapless Ted’s tax evasion to Marie’s petty theft. Recent episodes have elevated meth lab montages and inmate killings to music video glamour. But these crimes are not cool. Walt is bad-ass because he rigs a bomb to a wheelchair and choreographs a train heist. He’s straight-up bad because he pumps a community full of a mentally and physically disfiguring, highly addictive, very real substance.
Every television portrayal of narcotics need not replicate the social exploration of The Wire (which managed to both humanise dealers and users and show the systemic rot that drug culture imbues), but Breaking Bad sometimes seems as blind as its protagonist to the problems its ‘product’ can cause. Without the brief, infrequent sequences in Breaking Bad that have shown off strung-out hookers and junkie parents, the reality of the drug would barely register. Fans have fetishised the mythical ‘Blue Meth’ into harmless oblivion, its real world implications forgotten, now to be synthesised in your kitchen and used for decorating cupcakes.
Have we swung so far into the realm of super-villainy — of mega-magnets and exotic toxins — that our initial glimpses of Walt’s bad side, and the scenes of a struggling conscience that made the show so compelling in the first place, have been eclipsed?
Let’s Give Thanks For Hank
The shining light tempering my recent disappointment in the show is Hank Schrader. Once portrayed as a knuckle-headed bruiser, he has steadily matured and deepened as a character, just as Walter has stagnated into the villainous Heisenberg. Hank’s slow determination stands in contrast to Walter’s eureka-like flashes of brilliance. His moral code does too. Hank’s job in the DEA puts him not only at odds with Walter, but also with any whiff of cool that Breaking Bad may have lent to the idea of “cooking up” for cash. With Breaking Bad’s mission statement met, and its Scarface identified by Hank, it’ll be both thrilling and gratifying to watch a criminal come to justice in the show’s unheralded last chapter.
Here’s hoping the tables turn on Heisenberg completely, and that his scrabble to stay out of jail brings back the buzz and humanity to Breaking Bad. With our journey from A to B complete, let’s see Gilligan and his team swerve any which way but obviously in these final episodes, and this pulpy, tragic morality play come to a legitimately shocking and satisfying conclusion.
Breaking Bad returns on Monday August 12, screening at 6.30pm on Showcase — fast-tracked from the USA.
Matt Roden helps kids tell stories by day at the Sydney Story Factory, and by night helps adults admit to stupidity by co-running Confession Booth and TOD Talks. He is 2SER’s resident TV critic — each Tuesday morning at 8.20am — and his illustration and design work can be seen here. You can read his Mad Men recaps here.