Binge Watch Period: August 27–28, 2014
Episodes Watched: Season 3, Episodes 1–5 (“No Más,” “Cabello sin Nombre,” “I.F.T.” “Green Light,” and “Más” )
Overall Binge-Watch Mood: Kind of grumpy. Is this a low patch? It feels like a low patch.
Binge-watching is a curious thing: it magnifies some of a show’s sins, and minimizes others.
For example, watching Breaking Bad in large doses, close together, reveals certain repeating patterns that might not be quite so obvious if my viewing was spread out over months and years. Any TV show has an ebb-and-flow, a waxing and waning of tension that is necessary for dramatic structure. Story arcs—by definition—have low points and high points.
But Breaking Bad‘s structure—so far, at least—seems to be two steps forward, one step back, in a way that is already starting to get old. In story terms, it works like this: Walter White is domestic, then he turns criminal, then something horrible happens, then he goes back to being domestic. It happened in the middle of Season One, after “And the Bag’s in the River,” when having to murder Crazy-8 sent Walt scurrying back to normalcy. It happened again early in Season Two, after the shootout with Tuco, when Walt tried to channel his restlessness into buying hot water heaters and making his family “obvious, desperate breakfasts.” And now Season Three opens with Walt once again resolved to reform, and put his family back together, after last season’s climax found him responsible for the deaths of 167 airline passengers and the woman Jesse loved. Walt’s progression from mild-mannered chemistry teacher to master criminal is not a straight line, or even an arc: it’s more like a sine wave, a repeating trip from valley to peak and back to valley, ad infinitum.
(The entire trend is up, of course: the peaks—Walt’s criminality—are a little higher and more intense each time, and the valleys—Walt’s domesticity—are not as low, and not as convincing. But there is definitely a pattern of advance and retreat, advance and retreat.)
As I said, this is common for any serialized drama. But the problem Breaking Bad has as a show is the same problem Walt has as a person: the valleys are just not that interesting.
This is a serious problem for the show, both dramatically and thematically. Dramatically, it’s a test on the audience’s patience. These five episodes—the titles of which range aptly from “No Más” to “Más”—are all about getting Walt back to his true (dramatic) purpose: being bad. Really, very little happens in this run: there’s some domestic drama (with separations, divorce proceedings, and infidelity), and there’s some (slight) character development, but the overall “plot” is only creeping forward, and mostly around the edges. (With Walt on good behavior—and Jesse largely inactive—it falls on two fearsome hitmen [Luis and Daniel Moncada] from Tuco’s cartel-connected family to provide all the tension, violence, and pyrotechnics in these five episodes. Walt is not even aware of their existence, and so it sort of feels like he’s hiding out from the story of his own show.)
This is where the advantages of the binge-watch come into play. If I were watching this show the way it originally aired, I suspect I would have grown frustrated with this first segment of the season. I don’t think I would have given up on it, but my investment would have lessened a little. Season Two was great, but this season is dragging a bit, I might have said. Fortunately, I don’t have to spend a month and a half waiting for Walter White to slouch his way back towards the premise of his own show: I can blast through this valley in about 3.5 hours. It’s not that big of a deal.
The larger problem is a thematic one, however, and it’s intrinsic to Breaking Bad: the show itself is at odds with its own message. By the end of last season, it had become absolutely clear that Walter White is not intended to be a hero, or a role-model, or an example of self-actualization. He’s amoral, he’s utterly selfish, and he seems to corrupt everything he touches and leave nothing but destruction in his wake. This is not a good guy. This is not a nice guy. This is not someone whose choices we are supposed to approve of.
But the thing is, as viewers, we want Walt to be bad. We need him to be bad. We don’t want to watch a show about Walter White, Family Man any more than he himself can be satisfied being Walter White, Family Man. All through these periods where he’s convincing himself he can be good, we know he’s going to go back to being bad, and we know that’s going to be fun and exciting and horrifying, and we just want him to fucking get on with it already. We crave the thrill of being bad every bit as much as he does.
So we are made complicit in Walt’s crimes. We relate to his boredom, we feel the same itch he feels to walk on the wild side. That’s intentional, and fairly cleverly constructed. There are reasons that even the most law-abiding and craven of us fantasize about “breaking bad,” and enjoy living vicariously through fictional avatars of amorality. Everyone strains against the constrictions of civilization once in a while, and there’s no denying crime and violence are exciting, and empowering, and seductive. (There’s no more point in pretending a lawless lifestyle wouldn’t be fun than there is in pretending that drugs aren’t fun. If they weren’t so much fun, people probably wouldn’t go to such lengths and expense to do them.) This, I think, is Vince Gilligan’s intention: to acknowledge that the urge to “break bad” is in all of us, and then show tell us the cost of yielding to that universal instinct. He wants to make us complicit in Walt’s crimes, and then take us on a tour of the hellish consequences of his choices. You want the excitement, and the money, and the sense of power? Well, look at what you have to give up, and look at the damage that you cause to those around you.
But my problem with Breaking Bad so far—and I suspect this may ultimately be what keeps me from ranking it quite as highly in the television pantheon as others do—is that the show doesn’t make it a fair choice. The deck is unfairly stacked. By which I mean, it’s not just Walt who finds his criminal life way more interesting than his domestic life: so do we, and so does the show itself.
Throughout this binge-watch I’ve been circling around the character of Skyler without every really discussing her, and without feeling like I ever had a handle on her. What I realized in this latest session, however, is that I don’t think this is entirely my fault: she’s just not a fully-realized character, at least so far. This is no reflection on Anna Gunn’s performance, necessarily, but a result of how Breaking Bad treats her.
I’m vaguely aware that Skyler is a very polarizing character in Breaking Bad fandom, but I’ve stayed out of those articles and comment threads to avoid spoilers: all I really know is that there’s a faction that hates her, and a faction that loves her. What I’m finding is that I just can’t locate her one way or another, because the show doesn’t give me enough to work with. Breaking Bad is—as far as I can tell so far—an examination of the male psyche, primarily; certainly, its point of view is very male. And that just leaves Skyler out: she’s a foil, a blocking figure, a thing to be desired or fought over or worked around, but she’s not, quite, a person.
These episodes give her the most to work with that she’s had so far, but even then she’s entirely defined and motivated by the men in her life. She’s angry at Walt, and justifiably so: he’s lied to her, he’s deceived her, and now he basically extorts her by moving back into the house and refusing to leave. (What’s worse, he’s playing sweet and innocent and making her looking like the bad guy.) But Skyler can’t—or won’t—turn him in, because she doesn’t want to disillusion Walt Jr. What she can do is sleep with Ted. “My entire family sees me as some sort of bitch,” she tells her attorney/reluctant therapist Pamela (Julie Dretzin). Of sleeping with Ted, she says, “It’s the only thing in my day where I don’t feel like I’m drowning.”
None of it feels quite real to me, though Gunn does with it what she can. The problem for me is, what do we really know about Skyler? She should be, at the least, the third lead in the series, but we have almost no information about who she is outside of being Walt’s wife, and Junior’s mother, and Ted’s accountant/lover. It feels like Vince Gilligan didn’t give Skyler any thought: she’s just the stock character of “the wife,” seen through the eyes of men.
And even Skyler’s relationships with these men are only established, not explored. Her affair with Ted is clearly about revenge and escape more than passion or romance, and we see little of it. But have we ever even seen a scene where we thought Walt and Skyler looked happy together? Have we seen a genuine exchange between them that made us feel like these two people are—or were once—in love? They are oddly formal, strangely distant, like the married couple in a coffee commercial: there’s no real relationship there for us to care about one way or the other. Do we know what she and Walt like about each other? Have we seen much about what kind of mother she is? (Her interactions with Walt Jr. are perfunctory, and the baby barely exists except as something for Walt and Skyler to use as a bargaining chip.) And does Skyler have friends? Does she have a life, or dreams, or thoughts, apart from her family?
(Once in a while, there is an interaction between Skyler and her sister Marie that feels authentic—as though these two women have a long, complicated history together—but they are few and far between, and they’re usually flunking the Bechdel test and discussing their husbands.) Compare what we know of Skyler as a person with what we know of Jesse: Jesse is a complicated and nuanced character with a backstory, quirks, a rich inner life, and an entire cast of colorful characters around him. (Hell, I’d say Saul registers as a complete character more than Skyler does.)
All of this can change, obviously: we are, after all, not even halfway through the series. (And there are some promising signs: Skyler may not like Ted that much, but she sure likes his heated bathroom floors. By the end of these episodes we find her starting to be subtly seduced by that big bag of money and what it might buy. This is not really her own arc—more an extension of Walt’s—but it’s a start at some actual character development.) But this is what I mean about the deck being stacked: even if we accept that the show is only interested in Walt, and not so much with Skyler, that still requires us to care about the choices Walt is making. That means we need to value his domestic life with Skyler and the kids in order for his choices to have meaningful consequences. So far, at least, I don’t: Gilligan hasn’t made me care.
(It’s an unfair comparison to make—since I think this may be the best marriage in television history—but imagine if Walt and Skyler’s marriage was as well drawn as the one between the Eric and Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights. Then how much do we care? Then how big a sacrifice does Walt seem to be making in his selfish, adolescent pursuit of excitement and empowerment?)
I guess what I’m saying is, Breaking Bad is simply not a great show when it’s focusing on domestic life. And, since domestic life represents both the norm from which Walt is deviating and the stakes that are at risk, that’s a real problem.
So let’s talk about a character who is working better for me: Jesse. A couple of reviews ago I speculated that, if Walt is the villain of Breaking Bad, Jesse might be the hero. (I am, as I’ve said before, genuinely unspoiled about how this show ends, but my ideal version would have it ending with Jesse taking Walt down.) I mentioned in that review that their arcs begin in precisely opposite places: Walt the respectable man who may be bad inside, Jesse the lowlife drug dealer who may secretly be good. Throughout these episodes, they continue to personify completely opposed perspectives, even if they always seem to end up in almost the same place.
In “No Más,” Jesse—still in rehab, where Walt left him last season—feels responsible for Jane’s death. And, since he now knows that Jane’s father was the air-traffic controller who crashed those jets, that means it’s not only Jane but also 167 strangers who are weighing so heavily on his conscience that he is all but crushed by their weight.
But Walt—who actually is responsible for Jane’s death (directly) and the plane crash (indirectly), is moving away from responsibility as fast as he can. “I blame the government,” he tells Jesse. And, at a high-school assembly for students to talk through their feelings about the accident, Walt spends all his energy minimizing the disaster: no one on the ground was killed, the planes weren’t even full, etc. “I guess what I want to say, is to look on the bright side,” he says. “We move on, we survive.” With Gus, who wants Walt to begin cooking again in a big way, Walt plants his flag firmly in the State of Denial. “I am not a criminal,” he says. “This is not me.”
Jesse, on the other hand, is leaving illusions about himself behind. In rehab, his counselor tells the residents that the point is not to become a better person, but to learn self-acceptance, and Jesse embraces this philosophy. “You either run from things or you face them, Mr. White,” he tells Walt. “It’s all about accepting who you really are. I accept who I am…I’m the bad guy.”
Though it leads him back into dealing meth, it is exactly Jesse’s acceptance of his “bad guy” status that leaves me with hope he might turn out to be the good guy. Walt, in comparison, claims to have had a “wake-up call,” but he hasn’t—not really. That “moment of clarity” I discussed last week happened for Jesse, but it didn’t happen for Walt, and I’m not sure it ever will: in these episodes he’s not really reformed, and he’s not even really guilty: he’s just scared. (He starts to burn his ill-gotten gains, but instantly changes his mind, dumping the flaming cash in the pool—the synecdochal scene of his crime—to put it out.) It’s worth noting too that, even in “reform,” Walt’s bad side keeps coming out: he picks a fight with a highway patrolman in “Caballo sin Nombre,” after failing to successfully use the tragedy of the plane crash to get out of a ticket. He goes to beat up Ted in “Green Light,” and does attack Saul later in the same episode. He’s pretending to be “Walt”—even (or especially) to himself—but Heisenberg keeps coming out. (The way he keeps channeling his fear through violence is paralleled by Hank’s story: Hank, still suffering PTSD and terrified about going back to the task force in El Paso, keeps taking unnecessary risks and picking unnecessary fights: for the men on this show, the road to reclaiming your power leads through violence.)
“I’m the bad guy,” Jesse says—but in doing so he’s actually listening to his conscience, and grappling with his guilt the only way he knows how. “I can’t be the bad guy,” Walt tells Saul, but everything about the way he approaches his “reformation” tells us that he has no conscience whatsoever: he is the bad guy, and worse still for refusing to look closely enough at himself to know it.
So once again we have these opposite dynamics between Walt and Jesse. It’s interesting that the first thing Jesse does when he comes out from under his near catatonia of guilt is buy back his aunt’s house, which his parents stole from him. For one thing, he is setting back the clock to where he was before he met Walt; more importantly, however, he has said repeatedly that he took care of his aunt in that house: he is returning to a place where he could actually take care of another human being—as he failed to do with Jane—and reclaiming the place where he was the person he wants to be. “Only female kangaroos have pouches,” we said last week, and—though he’s probably not aware of it—Jesse is reclaiming a little of his feminine side, the side capable of love.
And it is interesting, too, that Walt ends this run by screwing Jesse over. The one kind thing I can say about Walt’s behavior towards the end of last season is that he showed a sliver of humanity in caring about Jesse as a surrogate son: though complicated with a lot of other (selfish) motives, his attempt to “save” Jesse, and his attempts to comfort Jesse after Jane’s death, may be the most genuine signs of compassion, and a capacity for human connection, that we’ve seen him show. So, naturally, he has to reject that instinct when, at the end of these episodes, he reclaims the mantle of Heisenberg: there’s no room for a pouch on Heisenberg.
For, of course, Gus has lured Walt back into meth dealing, and he has done it masterfully. First, he attacked Walt where it hurt: in his Heisenbergean pride. We’ve talked all along about how Walt’s mad foray into meth dealing was really more about self-image and power than about necessity, and how he has an almost uncontrollable urge to let everyone know what he has done. So that’s where Gus (who is clearly a very smart man) hits him first: he buys some blue meth off Jesse, who has managed to replicate a reasonable version of Walt’s formula. “This is my product,” Walt says, furious, when he learns of it. “This is my formula. This is mine.” His need to be seen as powerful is so strong that, even though he realizes how Gus is manipulating him, it still works. This is the real reason Walt returns to making meth in Gus’s highly professional, maximum capacity lab: because he needs to be Heisenberg. He has poured too much of his manhood and his self-image and his self-worth into it to let someone else–especially Jesse—be Heisenberg in his place.
But Gus is also smart enough to know Walt needs to lie to himself, and so he hands him the perfect lie, the lie with which Breaking Bad began: that Walt is really doing it for his family.
“What does a man do, Walt? A man provides for his family…When you have children, you always have family. They will always be your priority, your responsibility. And a man: a man provides. And he does it even when he’s not appreciated, or respected, or even loved. He simply bears up, and he does it…because he’s a man.”
Whatever my other complaints about Breaking Bad this season, I have no complaints with how this comes together. It’s brilliant, and it’s the kind of speech that shows just how clearly Vince Gilligan understands his character: a fantastic rhetorical nexus that perfectly plays to Walt’s insecurities, his pride, his fragile masculinity, and his necessary illusions about himself. Walt’s been pulled between two conflicting concepts of what it means to be a “man,” and here Gus synthesizes them for him, convincing him that he can be a loving family man and be Heisenberg. Telling Walt exactly what he needs to believe, so he can allow himself to do exactly what he wants to do: I doubt Satan himself could construct a better sales pitch.
So, whatever my grumbles about this run of episodes, I’m excited for the next chapter: Skyler is showing signs of character development, the dull domestic drama is receding, and Walt and Jesse are exactly where I always thought they should, by their natures, be: openly at war. I’m looking forward to the next batch.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- As I’ve said from the beginning, Breaking Bad walks a fine line between glamorizing violence and critiquing it. And, sometimes, it steps over that line. The two cartel enforcers are over the line for me: they’re clearly meant to be the Anton Chigurhs of this chapter, but they come across as excessive, and phony, and a little culturally exotified. The graphic flashback to Tortuga’s decapitation served little or no purpose other than to throw some spice into these otherwise uneventful episodes. (Does Gilligan think we wouldn’t know the head of a drug cartel was dangerous unless we saw this scene?) And the scene where they are smuggled into the country, and have to kill all their fellow passengers because one of them recognized them, was well done up until it’s unforgivably clichéd final shot: the Salamanca brothers walking towards the camera in slow motion, not looking back as the truck explodes in a fireball behind them. Unrealistic, self-indulgent, and fetishising violence, it’s straight out of a Michael Bay movie. Even if it’s done with ironic self-awareness, it should be far beneath Breaking Bad.
- I didn’t discuss the scene—though I included a screen-shot, because it makes me laugh—in which we learn how Jesse really came by the Winnebago. It’s a funny scene, and once again illustrates what a ludicrous male fantasy of gangsta lifestyle Jesse was embracing when we met him. But more importantly, I like how Hank’s quest closes the circle on that story, and advances the plot—he’s closing in on Jesse—while reminding us of the emotional stakes of the series as a whole. (Combo, who died in Walt and Jesse’s service, had a mother who loved him.)
- Speaking of the strip-club scene, the version I watched (on DVD) had nudity, which made me curious about the issue of how Breaking Bad has been censored for TV and various outlets. My understanding is that AMC muted the word “fuck” and either blurred or edited nudity in the original broadcasts; Netflix (which has the entire series available) was apparently streaming the broadcast version at one point—you can find people online complaining about certain scenes being altered or censored—but the version on there now includes unmuted “fucks” and some nudity. Yet, even the Netflix version has a differently edited version of the strip-club scene from what’s on the DVD, with fewer shots of gyrating strippers and no visible nipples. It’s kind of bizarre, and more than a little annoying: a nipple here and there is no big deal, but other scenes that were apparently cut from the broadcast and older Netflix versions seem important. (If you read my first review and said, “I don’t remember Skyler giving Walt a pity handjob on his birthday,” you probably watched the broadcast version, and missed a scene that really made me think the Whites had a shitty marriage.) I’ve been bouncing back and forth between DVDs and Netflix for convenience, but it’s DVDs for me from here on out.
- Jesse’s repeated phone calls to Jane’s voicemail seemed a bit over the top, but I liked that her phone finally being disconnected was the final sign Jesse needed to reclaim his role as a meth dealer. She was his hope for something better, and when she’s completely gone he’s just the bad guy. (And Jesse’s 45-day recovery chip was a nice callback to Jane’s 18-month chip, which he cost her, shortly before he cost her her life.)
- I talked about Skyler, but Walt Jr. is another terribly underwritten role. We had a few scenes earlier in the series where he seemed like he might have some complexity, but lately his sole purpose for being is to blindly worship his father and underline the point that Walt is unworthy of worship. I don’t mind his playing that function, but when it’s his only function he becomes completely unconvincing as a character.
- One thing I never remember to say: this show looks gorgeous. There are some unbelievable shots in these episodes, and some simply stunning cinematography. (I could do these posts as nothing but screen shots and be pretty happy with the outcome.) I’m particularly impressed with how well the show captures the stark beauty of the American Southwest, and imagine my surprise when I realized that my favorite visuals in this run—the fireball scene notwithstanding—came from the episode directed by Bryan Cranston himself. (This shot of the ill-fated truck is fantastic.)
- One of my favorite lines comes from the school assembly scene, and points once again (as I discussed in my notes last week) to an underlining theme about the nature of the universe. A student says she keeps wondering how this horrible thing could have happened if there’s a god and all, to which a teacher hastily replies, “Can we just keep it secular, honey?”