BREAKING BAD BINGE WATCH: SESSION THREE
Binge Watch Period: August 09-10, 2014
Episodes Watched: Season 2, Episodes 1–6 ("Seven Thirty-Seven," "Grilled," "Bit by a Dead Bee," "Down," "Breakage," and "Peekaboo." )
Overall Binge-Watch Mood: Okay, now I'm starting to get into this...
I got unavoidably pulled away from my binge-watching last week, but I managed to catch up this weekend and squeeze in a healthy six episodes of Breaking Bad. And the only reason I didn't keep going is because there's a limit to the number of episodes I can write about at once.
Yes, this is the fatal flaw in my Binge Watch plan: every once in a while, I have to stop and actually write something.
But here's the good news: for the first time in my trip through Breaking Bad, I really didn't want to stop. In its purest form, the binge-watch should be a gluttonous TV bacchanal, a total rejection of self-restraint, a shameless surrender to that oldest and most honorable instinct of the storyteller's audience: the need to know what happens next.
The truth is, I love binge-watching. I'm an addict at heart, and I have absolutely no willpower, and if there are more episodes of something I'm engaged in, I'm going to watch them all, right fucking now. I'm reminded of an anecdote Stephen King tells in his memoir On Writing, about an alcoholic friend who decided it was time to get control of his drinking:
He went to a counsellor and said his wife was worried that he was drinking too much.
"How much do you drink?" the counsellor asked.
My friend looked at the counsellor with disbelief. "All of it," he said, as if that should have been self-evident.
That's how I used to be when I was a smoker—if there were cigarettes to be smoked, I was going to smoke all of them—and that's how I still am with stories. King goes on to say he doesn't understand people who leave half a glass of wine on the table; well, I don't understand people who leave books half-read, or movies unfinished, or seasons of TV shows gathering dust on the shelf. What do you mean, you're still on Season Two of Game of Thrones? Why don't you finish it? There are more episodes to watch: why aren't you watching them?
It's a disease, I know. But—as it's a less disruptive addiction than cigarettes, or alcohol, or (for example) meth—I'm in no hurry to be cured.
And there's really something both exciting and comforting about that moment when you realize a story has its hooks into you: it's a rush of recognition, a greedy anticipation, a thrill of discovery that's always edged—subtly, but pervasively—with a fear that the spell may be broken, that what you're feeling may not last. In these respects—and many others—it's a lot like falling in love.
I'm not—for the record—in love with Breaking Bad yet. But I'm definitely interested, and wanting to see more of it: let's call it a workplace infatuation.
There are a couple of reasons the second season of Breaking Bad is stirring my interest more than the first season did. First, the tone has noticeably changed. Season One was a little uneven, pinballing between madcap and malevolent in such a way that I was never entirely sure how seriously I was supposed to be taking it all. Was it a drama? An absurdist comedy? A dark satire? It seemed to be any and all of these things from one moment to the next. That's not necessarily a bad thing—I like art that puts us on shifting, unstable ground—but it's a tricky formula to get right in a serialized television show. A television show is a long roadtrip, taken on faith: we're willing to go along for the ride, and we're willing to be surprised at where we end up, but we want to feel like the driver has a map, and a plan, and a steady hand on the wheel.
In Season Two, it feels like Breaking Bad has settled into itself comfortably. There are still extremely funny, slapstick bits, like Jesse's escalating comedy of errors in "Down." There are still scenes of almost unbearable tension, like the entire, masterful sequence with Tuco's bell-ringing uncle (Mark Margolis) in "Grilled." And there are, increasingly, scenes that are somehow both funny and disturbing at the same time, like Jesse's absurd, sad adventure with Spooge [David Ury] and "Spooge's woman" [Dale Dickey] in "Peekaboo." But somehow it all feels like the same show now, in a way Season One didn't always manage to convince me it was.
Vince Gilligan seems to have returned to Season Two with a newfound confidence and control: Breaking Bad doesn't seem so aggressively eager to impress, and—most encouragingly—it doesn't care whether we like these characters or not. Case in point: almost the first thing Walt does in "Seven Thirty-Seven"—after coming home from the junkyard drug deal that turned suddenly violent—is try to rape Skyler.
Normally, I find such rape scenes on television dangerously misguided at best (as in this season of Game of Thrones), or else, at worst, exploitative and unforgivable. (When Denis Leary's character raped his ex-wife on Rescue Me, that was literally the last scene of that show that I ever watched). But here I think it works: it's troubling, but it should be troubling. It's not an unforgivable breach of the audience's trust—Walt does stop when his wife tells him to, though not right away—but it's an important moment in forcing us to acknowledge what is happening to this man.
I took issue with the general theme of male empowerment that pervaded Season One, and wondered whether Gilligan was buying into the fantasy of renewed power through violence or critiquing that fantasy. Now, Gilligan's first order of business in Season Two seems to be to answer this question definitively for anyone who was confused about it previously: Walt isn't reclaiming his manhood, but turning into a monster.
As I've said before, I am genuinely unspoiled as to where all of this is going, so I can only speculate from where I am in the binge-watch. But if I had to guess right now, I'd say that the protagonist of Breaking Bad is also its antagonist. We ended Season One with Walt becoming "Heisenberg," and it's clearer now that this was more than the assumption of a pseudonym to protect his identity: Walt is actually bifurcating, and his new identity is becoming his real identity. His original identity—the good, kind, meek, bumbling science teacher—has become just a mask he dons and removes as needed. This batch of episodes is full of moments when Walt hides behind that persona: the naked "fugue state" he invents to explain his kidnapping, the "obvious, desperate breakfasts" that he cooks for his family, et cetera.
But, more importantly, these episodes are full of moments when that mask slips, and the real Walter White accidentally emerges. The rape scene in "Seven Thirty-Seven" is just the first example. There is the moment in "Grilled" when Walt—who has been playing meek and dumb with Tuco—suddenly throws self-preservation away: "We tried to poison you, because you're an insane, degenerate piece of fifth and you deserve to die." There is the moment in "Down" when he lashes out at Skyler—"Do you know what I've done for this family?"—followed by his releasing his wrath on Jesse. There is the lovely scene in "Peekaboo" when Walt—having returned to teaching—suddenly veers his lecture on carbon into a subtextual tangent about how the man who invented synthetic diamonds was screwed out of the millions he should rightfully have received. (This scene is then echoed later, when his meeting with Gretchen turns bitter and ugly, ending with a "Fuck you" that seems to come from his very soul.)
But, to me, the most chilling scene is a quiet one, from "Bit By a Dead Bee." It's the scene where Walt is meeting with his therapist (Harry Groener), who won't sign off on releasing Walt until there's a satisfying explanation for the "fugue state." Walt asks him about doctor-patient confidentiality, and then—having established that he's covered—just completely switches gears and admits he made the whole thing up. He doesn't tell the literal truth about what happened, of course, but he makes a cold calculation that the quickest way to what he wants is to admit to being a liar. He takes off the mask, and, in doing so, what comes out is a kind of truth: an emotional truth, if not a factual one:
"Doctor, my wife is seven-months pregnant with a baby we didn't intend. My 15-year-old son has cerebral palsy. I am an extremely overqualified high-school chemistry teacher. When I can work I make $43,700 per year. I have watched all of my friends and colleagues surpass me in every way imaginable, and within 18 months, I will be dead. And you ask why I ran?"
Last time I made a passing reference to Clark Kent, but now that's seeming like less of a throwaway comment and more of an important theme. Throughout these episodes I was struck with this "secret-identity" notion, and I kept thinking of David Carradine's monologue in Kill Bill: Vol 2 about Superman and Clark Kent:
"What Kent wears—the glasses, the business suit—that's the costume. That's the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He's weak. He's unsure of himself. He's a coward. Clark Kent is Superman's critique on the whole human race."
"Walter White"—with the way Walt talks about him, and the way he acts as him—is beginning to seem like a critique of normal people being made by this new, terrifying creature called Heisenberg. The resentment, the self-loathing, the anger that keeps coming out, is all so much more authentic than the scenes of Walt being nice to people: being sweet to his wife, teaching his son to drive, etc.
And increasingly, in his criminal endeavors, he's displaying a hardness, and a coldness, that seems most authentic of all. In "Bit by a Dead Bee," after they have finally put the entire ordeal with Tuco to rest, Jesse is flabbergasted that Walt immediately wants to begin cooking again. "What's changed, Jesse?" Walt asks him, and hangs up the phone without waiting for an answer. And, at the end of "Breakage," Walt coldly orders Jesse to deal with the meth heads that robbed them. He is ordering violence—probably murder—and this is not (as his previous crimes have been) an act of self-defense or self-preservation: it's just good business.
If we're putting it in comic book terms, what we are witnessing may be the origin story of a super-villain.
And here's one thing I don't know yet: if Walt/Heisenberg is the villain of this story, could Jesse/Cap'n Cook be the hero?
Certainly, at this point in Season Two, Jesse is getting more airtime than he has before, and he has a lot more of our sympathy than Walt does. "Down" is a very funny episode for Jesse, but it's also a jobian nightmare that can't help but make us feel sorry for the guy. He's lost every cent he had to the cops. He's been kicked out of his aunt's house by his parents. His old band-mate (in "Twaughthammer") has become a domesticated dad, whose wife (understandably) won't tolerate Jesse's crashing with them. His bicycle—containing a sad milk crate with his only remaining possessions in the world—is stolen while he tries to call around for a refuge. (Is there a supercut somewhere of spliced-together scenes in which Jesse beats up on various telephones in frustration? If there's not, there should be.) Finally, he's reduced to breaking into the lot where the MethMobile has been stored, falling into a chemical toilet in the process and covering himself with such goop that he has to sleep in a gas mask to tolerate his own stench. This guy is not having a run of good luck.
But what we also get in these episodes is sign after sign that Jesse might not be such a bad guy. "Ginny wanted me here," he says of his late aunt, to his mother. "I was the one who took care of her. I took her to her appointments and made her lunch every day." After successfully stealing back the MethMobile from Clovis (Tom Kiesche), he goes back to pay Clovis the money he owes him. ("Like I said, my word is my bond.")
And, though it's Jesse who first suggests that he and Walt become "Tuco" and expand into distribution—a notion Walt initially resists—it's Walt who insists they have to act more like Tuco. Jesse's form of the business is fairly civilized: he provides pretzels and cola for his associates Badger, Combo, and Skinny Pete, he keeps the transactions running smoothly, and he's willing to accept a certain amount of loss—a certain amount of "breakage"—as the cost of doing business. For all his gangsta-wannabe posturing, Jesse doesn't really want to hurt anyone.
"Peekaboo" is Jesse's best episode to date, and probably our best glimpse at who this kid really is. The episode opens with Jesse's foot hovering over a beetle crawling on the curb—but he doesn't kill it, and instead leans down and smiles as it runs over his hand. (Unfortunately, Skinny Pete comes along and squashes it without hesitation.) It's not subtle or deep, but this little scene turns out to be a summation of the entire episode: Jesse is not the tough guy he's pretending to be, and perhaps not really suited to the thoughtless violence of the meth world (which claims the beetle and, later, Spooge). (The funny scene that follows, outside of Spooge's house, picks up this same theme: Jesse tries to psyche himself up for some violent gangster shit, but ends up chatting amiably with a friendly mail carrier.) And of course, once inside Chez Spooge, Jesse ends up caring more about the tragically neglected child (played by Brandon and Dylan Carr) than he does about his mission.
This entire storyline probably represents the moment I started to fall for Breaking Bad: it manages to keep comedy, horror, and pathos in such a masterful balance that all three are always in play. Yes, Spooge and Mrs. Spooge are a little cartoonishly drawn—I mention this only because I do hope we get to see some genuinely human meth addicts later—but they are also fantastically, hysterically, convincingly awful. (Casting in this show is amazing, and both guest actors are great here.) The house itself is almost surreally revolting—it feels like a side-trip to Hell—but it's also filled with weird details that make it fascinating and strangely authentic. (My personal favorite: the brassiere being used as a convenient two-cup ashtray.) And the tragi-comedy that plays out—which includes cavity searches, the trading of cranial injuries, and a fatally problematic ATM— is such a symphony of absurdity, violence, squalor, and sympathy that it almost felt like a long-lost Coen Brothers movie. (This, for me, is high praise indeed.)
But it's not just the quality of this sequence that pulled me in: it's also Jesse, and Aaron Paul's performance (which seems more and more complex as we proceed). Thirteen episodes into Breaking Bad, and this is the first time I found myself actually caring about a character, and wondering what would become of him. And it's all the more persuasive because this is not a "back-story" episode like Season One's "Cancer Man" (in which we met Jesse's parents); this episode is proof of Henry James' famous lines: "What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?" There's no exposition in "Peekaboo," but we learn more about Jesse's character from just his behavior here than we ever have before: what he can do, and what he can't do, and what lines he won't allow himself to cross. I feel like I'm starting to know him now, and the sparks of decency we see in him—contrasted with the really problematic direction his life is going—make me invest in him like I have not yet done with any other character, including Walt.
Which leads me back to my question (which is really just a speculation): is Jesse the hero, to the extent we are going to have one? Because it occurs to me that his and Walt's arcs are beginning in opposite places: when the series began, Walt was the upstanding member of the community, and Jesse was the lowlife drug dealer. And yet we see that Jesse's identity, as we initially understood it, was also just a mask: this clownish, gangsta persona is not where he came from, and is not who he appears to be inside. So far, it seems to me that he might be a good man who has tried hard to pretend to be bad, while Walt may be a bad man who has pretended, all his life, to be good.
As the old saying goes, character will out, and this kind of long teasing out of a character's true nature—through incident and adversity—is something television does better than perhaps any other medium. It's why I watch television, and it's why I write about it; the more I'm convinced that's what Breaking Bad cares about as well, the more excited I'm getting about this series.
Let the binge-watch continue...
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- First of all, apologies for the delay: my original plan really was to binge-watch a little faster than this. I'm hoping to pick up the pace going forward.
- I didn't discuss the bear! Season Two opens with—and returns to, several times throughout the season—what appear to be flash-forward images of a burnt toy bear in a swimming pool, and other items that suggest a disaster of some kind still to come. This pure, unabashed bit of audience manipulation certainly contributes to my deepening Breaking Bad addiction, but it's also a sign of the increased confidence the show is demonstrating in general: we are assured right off the bat that, yes, there's a plan, and everything is building towards something horrible.
- Jesse isn't the only character I'm starting to like more; Skyler begins (ever so slightly) to grow on me in these episodes. She is still strangely dislikable, somehow—what is that, exactly?—but there were also moments in these episodes when I wanted to applaud for her: the scene in which she lashes out at Hank, for example, and the moment when she lights the cigarette while a judgmental woman looks on from the next car. Most of all, I like the way the show isn't playing dumb and pretending she wouldn't notice how strange Walt has become, or see easily through his ridiculous stories: the way she starts to freeze him out—as he's shut her out—is terrific, culminating in their scene in "Peekaboo" when she meets his passive-aggressive complaints with a straightforward demand: "Shut up and tell me something that isn't complete bullshit."
- Hank, too, is beginning to become more human, the cracks in his macho persona beginning to show. The exploding beer bottles from his home brewery were a little too on the nose for me—contents under pressure, get it?—but the PTSD he seems to be showing after his shootout with Tuco makes him much more relatable and sympathetic. I also like the way he isn't dumb either; it would be easy to play him as a meathead, but neither the show nor Dean Norris approach him that way: he's actually a pretty good cop, and he's already getting dangerously close to figuring out Walt's game.
- Hey, why didn't anyone tell me Krysten Ritter was on this show? I would have watched it years ago. Her character is a new regular with a nice long storyline, right? Right?
- Speaking of Krysten Ritter, the introduction of Jane made me realize I'm going to need to spend some time soon thinking (and talking) about the female characters on this show. Breaking Bad has a decidedly male perspective, and so we mostly see the women as obstacles or problems for the men, but there are some interesting things happening that are worth discussion. We'll get to it...
- I briefly mentioned the casting above, but it really is a major strength of this show: even the most minor characters come across as real people, not stock types. I am sort of longing to see a "22 Short Films About Albuquerque" type episode, in which we see what a day in the life is like for the mail carrier, or Tio Salamanca, or Clovis, or Skinny Pete, or Spooge. (OK, I guess Spooge is out.)
- Speaking of Skinny Pete, I'd ask you to please forgive any typos. I'm slingin' mad volume and fat-stackin' Benjies: I can't be all about, like, spellin' and shit.