Breaking Down “Breaking Bad”

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One of the biggest TV surprises this summer was the big turnout for “Breaking Bad.”  The “overnight” ratings for the August 11 premiere (i.e.., people watching it that Sunday night) doubled over last year, to more than 5.9 million viewers. This is a remarkable feat because it’s virtually unprecedented for a mature TV show to suddenly double its audience size — sort of like Barry Bonds going from hitting 35 home runs a year to 70).

True, there‘s something inherently bogus about looking at the overnight ratings for high-end series like “Breaking Bad.”  Shows with intensely loyal fan bases are frequently recorded (or “taped” as we older-timers sometimes say) and played back well after the overnights have come out.  I’m guessing that a large percentage of the August 11 audience were regular DVR viewers who decided to watch the long-awaited premiere episode live and were captured by those overnight ratings.  This theory is supported by the ratings for the second episode, which dropped by 1.2 million viewers.  I don’t think those viewers gave up on the show – I think they probably just decided to return to their old patterns of DVR viewing.  In any event, we won’t know any of this for sure until DVR ratings come out several weeks from now.

There is, however, no question that a lot of new viewers did come to the show for the first time this season.  The media gave a lot of the credit to Netflix, because binge-watching has allowed many new viewers to catch up since the end of the last season (btw nitpickers, I know that the eight episodes beginning on August 11 technically constitute the second half of Season Five, but for the sake of this piece, I’m going to refer to them as separate seasons given how much time has elapsed since the last episodes were on.)

I wonder, though, if there weren’t also a lot of people like me, who decided to jump in late, catch these final eight episodes and see what all the fuss is about.   Because of all the violence, I just couldn’t watch the whole series, but I knew from the chatter of my friends that most of the major plot twists of the previous seasons had been wrapped up.  I also knew that Walt’s brother-in-law had discovered he was the drug lord he’d been searching for.  My son didn’t seem to think I’d earned the right to watch the final episodes of “Breaking Bad” if I hadn’t watched and endured the previous seasons, but somehow eight episodes seemed bite-sized enough for a beginner.  And if the endgame was just Hank chasing down Walt, I could handle that.

And so far so good.  We are already a quarter of the way into the new season and I understand 90 percent of what I’m seeing.  Obviously I’m missing a lot of nuance, but on the whole I’m happy I took the leap.

There are those who argue that “Breaking Bad” is the best show in the history of television.  I haven’t seen two of the other contenders, “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” (again, too much violence) but I am, of course, a close watcher of “Mad Men.”   “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” are very different shows on the surface.  Set in the past, “Mad Men” is a densely designed and densely plotted show. It sometimes feels claustrophobic because all the action is filmed on a set.  By contrast, with its numerous exterior shots of New Mexico and its less complicated storyline, “Breaking Bad” feels more oxygenated and alive.

But with their tales of morally compromised anti-heroes, the two shows are quite similar in the way they lay out the complexities of human emotions.  This was especially true in last Sunday’s show, “Buried,” which is as good as anything on “Mad Men.”  The scenes where Hank and Marie separately confront Skyler are classic examples of multi-layered character motivation.  At Skyler’s meeting with Hank at the diner, you just know her mind is racing as fast as ours: what should she do?  Is she motivated by love for her husband, a desire to protect her kids, fear that she’ll go to jail herself, or the calculation that she and Walt might get away with it and keep all that cash?  When I watched the episode a second time, it was clear that Hank made two huge mistakes: first in putting the tape recorder on the table, which probably scared her, and then in saying “This is what’s going to happen,” which probably got her back up.  If he’d handled this more deftly, I think he could have flipped her.

As in real life, where we are all driven by multiple motivations, Skyler is a complex creature who probably doesn’t even know her own mind.  The scene when Marie comes by the house to try to convince her to confess to the DEA is unbearably intense, especially when Marie slaps Skyler and tries to grab the screaming baby.  How many times in our own lives have we seen two sisters who ostensibly love each other be driven apart by jealousy, fear, loyalty, a determination to do what is right, a desire to do what is in their own selfish interests, and ultimately a decision to stand with their husbands?

Like “Mad Men,” the production design and direction on “Breaking Bad” are remarkable.  The scene where Hank and Walt face off like two aging gunslingers, culminating with Hank deploying the garage door closer is fantastic, as is the picture of Jesse slowly revolving on the playground roundabout.

And of course, both “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” inject black humor in the tensest situations.  The scenes between Walt and the sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman had an undercurrent of very dark comedy, especially Saul’s suggestion that Walt send Hank on a “trip to Belize.”

In have to say this for “Breaking Bad,” though.  It’s much more moralistic than “Mad Men,” where the difference between right and wrong is frequently ambiguous.  From what I’ve gleaned from critical commentary over the years, “Breaking Bad” explicitly demonstrates that bad actions have consequences.  Once you start compromising your values, there’s no stopping. One compromise leads to another and soon you’re killing ten-year-old kids.

In the overall arc of the series, Walt has justified his murderous rampage by claiming he wants to provide for his family.  It’s not clear whether he realizes he has essentially destroyed his family, though.  Assuming she doesn’t go on her own trip to Belize, Skyler will almost certainly end up in jail and she is, in any event, permanently estranged from Marie and Hank, the only “family” she has left.

I can see why people love this show but I have two reservations.  First is the level of violence.  I find it disturbing that the three major contenders for “best show ever” (“The Sopranos,” “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad”) are series about psychopaths that are drenched in blood.  Is that really the best way to tell the story about the human condition?  Most of us (we hope) are never going to be in the situations that the characters of those shows are in.  And as the most recent episode of “Breaking Bad” showed, you don’t even need to blow someone’s brains out to create tension and emotion.  The two best scenes in “Buried” were people talking directly to each other, and nothing could be more emotionally unsettling than Marie trying to take that wailing baby.  Similarly on “Mad Men,” the most shocking thing of the last season was when Sally Draper walked in on her father having sex with the neighbor.  No blood there.

My other concern with “Breaking Bad” is that it causes us to root for the bad guy.  Maybe long-time viewers aren’t sympathetic to Walt, but as a new viewer, I do find myself – way against my better judgment – secretly hoping that Walt gets away with it.  I know he’s a monster, but it’s almost inevitable that any work of art providing the evil-doer with even a shred of humanity is going to complicate the reaction of the viewer.  That’s why people object to movies about Hitler. You could play scene in which the Fuhrer cold-bloodily orders the extermination of six million Jews but if you then see him patting a kitten on the head, most viewers would think, well, maybe he’s not so bad after all.

Vince Gilligan, the “Breaking Bad” creator, has said he wanted to avoid the fate of “The Sopranos,” where the fans sympathized with Tony Soprano no matter how bad he got.  Maybe he will succeed in draining all sympathy from Walt by having him kill someone we care about, but he’s not there yet.

I doubt I will ever go back and catch up on previous seasons of “Breaking Bad,” unless I develop a much thicker skin.  I do think I will be able to see these final episodes through to the end.  At the very least I’m looking forward to Walt’s interrogation of Jesse.  In fact, this is one series I wish I could binge watch right now.

Some other thoughts:

The Western imagery was particularly vivid in this episode, starting with the face-off between Walt and Hank.  I am betting that the money Walt buried never sees daylight again. This all reminds me of that Humphrey Bogart movie “The Treasure of Sierra Madre,” a Western about prospectors in Mexico struck it rich and then lose all their gold through greed and suspicion.

For all the talk about Walt dying of cancer in six months, he’s in pretty good shape if he could bury all that cash in the heat of the desert sun.  What we know from the first scene of the season is that Walt survives for a least nine more months – long enough to grow his hair back and demonstrate the wherewithal to break back into his house and retrieve that ricin. Maybe he’s not as sick as he thinks he is.

Love the sequence of Lydia hiding out in the subterranean bus-cum-meth lab while her goons wipe out her erstwhile suppliers (and, to cite another movie, doesn’t their hang-out look like something from “Mad Max”?)   She’s so sensitive that she needs to block her ears against the noise of the gunshots and then cover her eyes so she doesn’t see the dead bodies. Humans are so complex!!

And why didn’t anyone tell me that the kid who played Landry on “Friday Night Lights” has a major part as Todd on “Breaking Bad?”  I hope coach Eric Taylor doesn’t show up in the final episode and put him straight.

I’m glad to see that Bryan Cranston is still wearing the same style of underwear he was sporting all the way back in “Malcolm in the Middle.”  Somehow the tightie-whities make him a less threatening drug kingpin.

Laughed out loud at the reference to Scrooge McDuck.  Had to explain it to my son.

“This is a safe room.” 

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3 comments
  1. Balvah said:

    I have been hooked to this show since the debut. . I feel the violence is necessary to reflect the seriousness of the effect meth amphetamine has on our culture. This is a great post, I’m glad I found your blog.

    • Thanks. I understand why the vilence is necessary, but when I started to watch season one, the tension and violence was almost killing me. I guess I’m too sensitive.

      • Balvah said:

        I knew it would be great when I saw the credits as periodic table elements.

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