This is the first in a new series of posts called Binge Watch, in which I catch up on shows I never watched by gorging myself on as many episodes as I can humanly stand. For a fuller explanation of this project, read on.
Introduction (or, The Part You Can Skip If You Don't Care Why I'm Doing This)
We are living in the glorious, golden age of binge-watching. The advent of TV-on-DVD in the early 2000s started the ball rolling, but it's the revolution of streaming media over the last few years that has changed television forever. Technology has finally caught up with this long-form medium, and many of us now prefer to watch entire TV seasons—or even entire TV series—all at once.
We're no longer slaves to the weekly TV schedule—and neither are the creators. Increasingly, television showrunners are taking advantage of the unique possibilities of this changing art form, and truly "episodic" television shows now seem like quaint relics of a bygone era. The majority of the most critically acclaimed shows of the past ten years—shows like The Wire, and Mad Men, and Game of Thrones, etc.—are not really structured as weekly, episodic TV shows in the old-fashioned sense: they are a new kind of long-form storytelling in chapters, both made and consumed with an awareness that the show is one long story, not a series of little stories. Individual episodes of these shows, in fact, often seem slight or unsatisfying when consumed in single, weekly doses: it is only when we see how they fit into the season or series as a whole that the real impact is felt. (The next, natural step in this evolutionary process has already begun, with providers like Netflix releasing entire seasons of shows all at once.)
Binge-watching is the wave of the future. There's an argument to be made, in fact, that people like me who watch and review TV shows on a weekly basis are doing it wrong. David Simon—creator of The Wire—is one of the people who has made that argument. Simon came under fire in 2012 for appearing to suggest that people weren't watching and appreciating his show in the right way. His initial comments to The New York Times were—as he later admitted—rather clumsy, but his overall point is a good one. Clarifying his thoughts in interview with Alan Sepinwall, Simon quite rightly pointed out that "there's a fundamental disconnect with what certain types of long-form television are now trying to build and the way in which they're consumed by the audience." As Simon went on to say:
"You would never see anyone review a novel in similar fashion. No one would read three chapters of a novel and go, 'What so and so's trying to say here.' No book reviewer would try to assess any work based on the entry point of a piece of a prose. Is television prose? No, but you can't tell me there isn't some correlation between the way certain television shows now are being structured and the way multi-POV novels are being structured."
So binge-watching may be becoming the right way to watch—and even review—television. (Not that I'm to stop watching new episodes of the shows I love on a weekly basis—who has the willpower to wait?—and I'm not going to stop reviewing them that way either.) But thinking about all of this has led me to think about some different ways of writing about television, ways that better reflect the ways great shows are now created and consumed.
Which leads us, finally, to this new series I'm calling Binge Watch. My plan is simple: to sit down and watch a few shows the same way many of us now watch them: in long, obsessive, gluttonous bouts of consumption. What I want to do is chronicle the experience of watching and reacting to a show that way, instead of in isolated, discrete units separated by weekly breaks and summer hiatuses.
This is not really a solution to the conundrum Simon proposes, of course: the real answer would be to never write a single word about a show until I'd watched the entire show—and I may in fact try that one of these days, perhaps with The Wire itself. But I think this is a small step towards recognizing the way television, and our experience of television, has changed.
Besides, it is a solution to another conundrum I face: there are too many (reportedly) great shows that I haven't watched, and I don't have time to write 5,000 words a week on each of their individual episodes. At my normal rate of reviewing, it would take me a year (or more) to discuss an entire series I wanted to catch up with, and that's a year in which I'd have to not review something else. (If you're wondering what ever happened to my Deadwood reviews, that's what happened: I just couldn't find the time to review that show in-depth and write about anything current.)
So this is an experiment, to try a different way of writing about a show. I'm not going to attempt to analyze each individual episode, but to consume large chunks of a series all at once, and try to jot down a few thoughts and reactions along the way.
The rules of the Binge Watch—while subject to change—are simple:
- I will start watching a show, and I'll consume it at whatever pace I feel like.
- I will watch in whatever circumstances seem natural. (Like you, I'm sure, I often binge-watch things while doing other things: this may not be the best way to give a work of art one's full attention, but let's be honest: it's how many of us watch television these days.)
- I will watch episodes only once, without my usual, obsessive note-taking.
- I will respect the nature of the Binge Watch, and go wherever it leads me. Which is to say, if I feel like blasting through an entire season more or less in one sitting (which I've been known to do), I'll do just that. If I need to take a break after a few, I'll do that too. If I decide at some point to abandon the whole thing completely, that's always an option.
- Every few episodes—or whenever I feel inspired—I'll stop and write about what I've watched. These won't be reviews, per se, but just thoughts, reactions, and speculations that occur to me in the process.
I have no idea what the result of this will be, or whether it will be worth reading, but that's the point: it's an experiment.
And it makes sense to start with Breaking Bad. This is, arguably, THE show I've shamefully neglected during my brief stint as a lay TV critic. Certainly, one of the things I've heard most often since I started this site is, When are you going to write about Breaking Bad? And I was forced to admit, with my proverbial head shamefully bowed, that, in fact, I had never even seen Breaking Bad.
Mea culpa. What can I say? I didn't tune in to the show when it first premiered: it sounded exactly like Weeds, only with meth instead of pot, and that goofy guy from Malcolm in the Middle instead of Mary-Louise Parker. I just wasn't really interested. (What I'm saying is, if you want me to watch middle-class suburbanites dealing drugs, it'd help if they looked like Mary-Louise Parker.) Later, of course—after all the critical acclaim started rolling in, and after that goofy guy from Malcolm and the Middle started winning every conceivable acting award—I realized I had probably made a mistake. So I knew I'd catch up with Breaking Bad eventually, and I kept postponing that day in the hope that I'd find some magical surplus of time in which I could not only watch the show but also write about it. (That day, not surprisingly, kept getting postponed, and before I knew it the entire series was over.)
So now that day has come, with the whole series available to me to gorge myself upon. Thankfully—knowing I'd watch it and probably write about it eventually—I did manage (with some difficulty) to avoid spoilers. I haven't read any reviews or recaps over the years, and I've tried to avoid accidental exposure to plot points. I know the basic set-up, and I have certain impressions about the overall character arc of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), but—apart from being vaguely aware that there's a much-loved bottle-episode about a fly at some point—I don't really have any idea what happens. (If we can keep it that way in the comments section, I'd be ever so grateful.)
And so, without further ado or disclaimer, let the Binge Watch commence…
BREAKING BAD BINGE WATCH: SESSION ONE
Binge Watch Period: August 1-2, 2014
Episodes Watched: Season 1, Episodes 1-4 ("Pilot," "The Cat's in the Bag," "And the Bag's in the River," and "Cancer Man.")
Overall Binge-Watch Mood: Tentative, uncertain. Do I really want to be doing this?
First impression? That Breaking Bad earns a little goodwill from me the moment I see that the episode titles quote my favorite line from 1957's Sweet Smell of Success: "The cat's in the bag and the bag's in the river." Ambitious press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) says that line to gossip columnist J.J. Hunsaker (Burt Lancaster), sealing a shady bargain that leads to his own downfall and damnation. Faustian bargains? Methamphetamines as Mephistopheles? I'm probably getting ahead of myself if I'm trying to nail down themes before I even watch the show…
As I write this, I've just watched the first four episodes (two last night, two this afternoon), and right off the bat I can say that the Binge Watch experience is proving to be a good idea in at least one regard: if I had just watched the pilot when it originally aired, I probably wouldn't have bothered to tune in the following week.
It's not that the pilot of Breaking Bad is terrible, but I found it…off-putting, and a little obvious. Chemistry teacher Walter White's life is a series of small humiliations: his wealthy, wise-assed students make fun of him for having to have a second job at a car wash; his pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) gives him a pity handjob while checking the progress of her Ebay auctions; his tough-guy, DEA-agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) treats him like an egghead and jokingly impugns his masculinity.
The chief pleasures of all of this are indeed to be found in Cranston's acting: the way he quickly registers and absorbs each small insult and indignity are a marvel. But the character just skirts the edge of being a cliche, a nebbish milquetoast more suited to a broad comedy like Malcolm in the Middle than a serious drama.
And then, of course, Walter White learns he has stage-three lung cancer, and everything changes. Riding along on a meth-lab bust with Hank, Walter encounters his former student Jesse (Aaron Paul), a low-rent dealer, and soon these two mismatched meth kingpins have banded together to cook up some primo product in a Winnebago.
Like I said, the pilot isn't bad, but it's tonally uneven and totally rushed, as though writer/producer Vince Gilligan is too eager to show us how crazy and edgy this show will be. (This impatience is evident from the first scene, as the pilot opens in media res, as Walt—having just gassed two rival dealers through the magic of chemistry—escapes the scene in a panic by barreling down the highway in his underwear and a gas mask.) It's funny, it's frenzied, and it's definitely intriguing, but it also threatens to turn cartoonish. Watching the pilot, I found myself wondering if its arc might not have played out better over two or three episodes, allowing pre-cancer Walter White to be more of an actual character before (more gradually) boiling over into his new self.
My larger concern during the pilot—though it's also what I find potentially interesting—is the treatment of all of this as a fantasy of masculine empowerment. "I'm awake," Walt says to Jesse, as an explanation for his decision to "break bad." Walter begins in a place of emasculation—in the beginning he lets himself be pushed around, and can barely get it up for his wife's cursory tug—and by the end of the episode he's killing drug dealers, beating up jerks who make fun of his son's cerebral palsy, and fucking his wife like a champ. (The episode ends with Skyler gasping, "Walt, is that you?" as her now fully-engorged husband manfully takes her from behind.) If I'd watched just the pilot episode alone, that last line would have been an eyerolling deal-breaker.
Fortunately, the next two episodes roll all of this back a little bit, and give us a more complicated character and a more gradual character arc. I'm a sucker for shows and movies that deal with the reality of crime-story clichés, and Breaking Bad's second and third episodes are all about the physical and emotional aftermaths of Episode One's frenzied debacle. "The Cat's in the Bag" largely deals with disposing of the body of the first victim of Walt's aggressive chemistry experiment, Jesse's former partner Emilio; "And the Bag's in the River" takes up the issue of what to do with Emilio's cousin Domingo, who is inconveniently still alive.
We all like to pretend we'd be smart, cool, and composed if we ever decided to take up a life of crime, but most of us wouldn't be; Walt and Jesse both become much more human and relatable when confronted with (and daunted by) with the practical realities of murder and body disposal.
(And Breaking Bad is, if nothing else, highly educational: I now know that, if I ever need to dissolve a human body in hydrofluoric acid, I want to do it in a polyethylene tub, not a bathtub.)
But it was the third episode, "And the Bag's in the River," that really started to hook me into Breaking Bad. Walt has lost the coin-toss to see which of the cousins he must deal with, and, as Jesse proclaims, "the coin-toss is sacred!" So Walt is charged with removing the complication of Domingo, aka "Krazy 8," who is chained up in the basement.
It's a slower-paced episode, and its in this leisurely approach to life-or-death drama that Gilligan's writing and Cranston's acting both begin to shine. I'm impressed with the way Gilligan largely refrains from outward discussion of the moral dilemma, and instead lets the debate play out on Cranston's face and in Walter's procrastination. (Walter does make a funny and poignant "pros vs. cons" list, in which things like JUDEO-CHRISTIAN PRINCIPLES, MURDER IS WRONG, and POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS fall under the "Let Him Live" column, while the sole entry on the "Kill Him" side is "HE WILL KILL YOUR ENTIRE FAMILY IF YOU LET HIM GO.") And Walt and Domingo—an excellent performance by Max Arciniega—have bonding conversations in the basement, which are remarkable for their believability and avoidance of sentimentality. In the end, Walt seems to have decided to let Domingo go—though Cranston's keeps the indecision marvellously in play on Walter's face right until the end—until Walt realizes Domingo is hiding a shard of broken plate with which to kill him. It's a fantastically tense but realistic hour that gradually—instead of frenetically—pushes Walt a little further along his slide into damnation. It's easily the best episode of the four I've watched so far, and gives me hope for the entire series.
(I still have a few minor gripes about things that are—I hope—signs of Gilligan and Breaking Bad still finding their footing. "And the Bag's in the River" opens with a flashback to a much younger Walt—in grad school, perhaps?—having a flirty conversation with a beautiful young woman [Jessica Hecht] about the various chemical components that form a human being. They add up all the elements, and figure out that something—about .12 percent—is still unaccounted for. The scene ends there, and if Gilligan had just resisted revisiting that scene, it would have been a lovely one, and a nice thematic echo to the missing piece of pie plate that later results in Domingo's death. But Gilligan feels the need to close the circle at the end of the episode, and have Hecht's character state outright that the missing element might be the soul. It's not a huge misstep, but it's a sign that Gilligan doesn't yet trust his audience to figure those things out without his making the connections for us.)
"And the Cat's in the River" was a good enough episode that I rolled straight on into "Cancer Man," which broke my momentum a little bit. It's not a bad episode, but it's largely uneventful, mostly focusing on Walt admitting his cancer to his friends and family, and Jesse returning to what turns out to be his perfect, upper-class suburban family. I have to confess, I'm not in love with the character of Jesse yet, but "Cancer Man" shows us that the character of "Jesse" is largely a self-invention, a suburban white-boy's fantasy of a tough gangsta-youth. It makes Jesse more interesting, and it makes the exploration of self-image and the White American Male—which I'm increasingly convinced is one of the major themes of this show—a potentially richer one and more complex one.
This question, I think, will be the key to what I end up making of Breaking Bad. Is this a fantasy of masculine self-empowerment, or a critique of that fantasy? Both elements are present. In "Cancer Man" Walt enacts petty revenge on a BMW-driving, Bluetooth-wearing douchebag that skews, for me, a little too cartoonishly into macho fantasy-fulfillment. But there are also quieter scenes that make me think Gilligan has interesting things to say about this subject: I liked the moment, for example, when Hank—who is certainly set up as a macho counterpart to Walt—promises that, whatever happens with Walt's illness, he will take care of Walt's family. You can see that insult register on Cranston's face: that another man would offer to take care of his family. It's an uncomfortable, authentic moment of wounded masculine pride that touches something very primal, and very interesting.
I resist the notion—far too prevalent in American culture—that manhood is something found in violence and lawlessness, and if that's where Breaking Bad is heading, my ride will be a short one. But if—as I strongly suspect—the show turns into a more sophisticated and thoughtful exploration of that fantasy, and the ways it shapes and perverts our concept of modern masculinity, then Breaking Bad could turn out to be very special indeed. For now, the hope of watching Cranston embody some of the conflicts and critiques of the 21st Century American Male has me intrigued enough to see where the show is headed.
Let the Binge Watch continue. . .