On Mary

Breaking Bad

So I finally watched the series that has been creating such a stir for several years now. It's very good. It's extremely good, in fact, in every technical sense: well-written, well-plotted, well-acted, well-photographed. And it's extremely gripping. I know at least three people who have watched a few of the roughly 60 one-hour episodes and stopped there, but I don't see how they did it. If it were a book, you'd call it a page-turner. 

As most everybody probably knows, it's the story of a fifty-year-old high-school chemistry teacher, Walter White, who leads a frustrating life, barely getting by financially, a bit hen-pecked, knowing that if he hadn't felt obliged to bail out early from the company he'd helped to found many years earlier he'd be a billionaire. Into this dreary situation comes a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Wishing to provide for his family after his death, he decides to go into the business of making methamphetamine, with a former student and current meth-maker and dealer, Jesse Pinkman, providing the sales outlet. His intention is to make a quick bundle and get out before he dies. 

Well, of course it gets considerably more complicated. 

The series is sometimes compared the The Wire, of which I am a great fan. One could argue that Breaking Bad is superior in an architectural way: it's one long story that spans six seasons, with some sixty episodes which maintain a  consistent level of quality and continuity, whereas each of The Wire's five seasons was a somewhat distinct story, although they involved many of the same characters. But I like The Wire better, mainly because it has more characters for whom I had more affection. There aren't many people in Breaking Bad that I liked very much, certainly not Walt, as one quickly begins to refer to him. And most of it is in some way painful to watch. There are many psychologically excruciating scenes involving Walt's attempt to keep his family in the dark about what he's doing, and to shield them from its effects, and many more which I can't mention without giving away too much. Suffice to say that very bad things happen to a lot of people, and although that was also true of The Wire, there is less humor and less light in Breaking Bad. And there's a fair amount of serious violence that some people--for instance me--may have trouble getting out of their heads afterward.

I don't want to give much away, but here's a link to the opening scene. It may give you some idea of the way the narrative pulls you in. Or maybe you'll just shrug. And if you've seen it and want to discuss it, spoilers allowed, in the comments, I'd certainly like to hear what you have to say.


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Repeat: spoilers allowed. If there are more comments following this one, and you don't want to know what happens, don't read any further.

I just couldn't make it past a few episodes into the second season. I know the real people behind these characters types, so I don't need them in my living room at night. Good stories are often painful to hear or watch, but I don't need to know this one story...

I wouldn't argue. The general trajectory was in the direction of Even More Painful. The last four or five episodes really wrung me out. When the last episode was shown on TV I saw some reviews with titles suggesting that there was some kind of "redemption" at the end, but there's not. There's justice, but not redemption.

As much as I like The Wire, I like B.B. better, both in terms of overall quality and because of its greater moral seriousness. It really is structured as a classical tragedy, with Walt continually making bad decisions based on pride, and which inevitably had consequences not just for himself but for others. Creator Vince Gilligan has said that he wanted to show how a Mr. Chips could become a Scarface, and I think he succeeded. And in the process he did an extremely good job of portraying how sin actually works in one's life -- by a series of little justifications that inevitably escalate into bigger things, resulting in the "seared conscience" that the Apostle talks about.

Tragedies do not often include redemption, but I do think that Skylar experiences a turnaround of sorts. At one point I thought that Gilligan was going to have her become a full blown Lady MacBeth, but I'm glad he didn't as I think that would have been a misstep.

Also I think it was brilliant to have Jesse, who started out as a largely amoral character, to come around slowly to be the show's moral centerpoint. I remember reading somewhere that originally he was going to be killed at the end of the first season, but that he took on a life of his own and they decided to keep him on, which was another good move, as he was one of the show's strongest characters.

I don't disagree with any of what you say, but I feel a lot more admiration than liking for BB.

I read that, too, about the plan for killing Jesse at the end of the first season, and it was a really good move that they didn't. Of all the characters who were present for more or less the entire story, he was the most sympathetic. His sins were mainly of weakness. You really saw his essentially good nature in an affecting way in that horrendous episode at the meth heads' house, where he can't help but try to do something for that little boy.

I really was half-expecting Skyler to go over completely to the dark side. You're probably right that it would have been a misstep.

And yes, it's a true tragedy, by all the standard specs. If memory serves, season 2 of The Wire was,too--the story of the longshoreman union guy.

I don't think I could handle watching it but I'll probably read this discussion all the same.

This way you can learn all about it without having to endure scenes like...

...the box cutter? That was a stunner of an episode.

Yes, the box cutter is one. And quite early on, the bathtub, and similar operations later. The ATM. Gus's last walk. The tortoise.

Speaking of the box cutter: I never did understand why Gus did that. To punish...can't think of his name right now...the guy, anyway...for not preventing Gail's death? To punish him for cooking without permission? Just to demonstrate his ruthlessness? If there was an explanation, I missed it.

Two birds with one stone: get rid of the guy for his mistake of being witnessed at the murder site, and at the same time to send a message to Walt and Jesse as to just how much of a bad dude he really was.

That episode alone should have got the Emmy for Giancarlo Esposito. As much as I loved Aaron Paul's performance throughout the series I really think Esposito should have gotten the award for that season for his portrayal of Gus.

By that point both the viewer and Walt and Jesse know that Gus is a bad guy. But until that box cutter incident you don't really know just how bad he is. The viewer and the other characters find out at precisely the same time.

Yes, that was quite a performance. It's funny, I knew almost immediately, in that first scene where Walt is summoned to Los Hermanos, that Gus was the guy, seeing but not being seen. Which is itself a tribute both to the acting and the directing--you could easily have not noticed him puttering around, but you did, or at least I did.

That makes sense about the killing. I forgot about him being seen. Had Gus just discovered that? And what *was* his name?...Victor.

I always thought, and expected, that we would learn more about Gus's background. Why did the fact that the cartel knew who he was keep them from killing him? Was there some connection to the Pinochet regime?

I posted my previous comment before I saw the second of your two above it. I can certainly say I was shocked, to say the least. I had been thinking of Gus as an almost benign figure--yeah, he was getting rich off this nasty trade, and he does what's necessary, but personally he was really not too bad a guy, he had personal empathy for people, etc. Ha. Of course his engineering of the assassination attempt on Hank should have killed that misconception.

Right. You got the impression that Gus was first and foremost a businessman, albeit one wrapped up in a very bad business, and that while he may have been ruthless in his trade, you didn't really get the idea that he was personally cold-blooded. The killing of Victor certainly put that to rest!

And you're right about him being "noticed but not noticed" in that 1st scene at the restaurant -- I had the same feeling.

Yes, Mike (another great character, btw!) told Gus that Victor had been witnessed at the crime scene with police present. At that point he became a liability.

My take about Gus and the cartels was that there was a sort of understanding there that they'd leave each other alone as long as they didn't try to infringe on one another's territory. But I could be wrong about that.

That's one of the things I liked about the show, by the way. That it didn't spell everything out and left a lot to the intelligence of the viewer.

"I can certainly say I was shocked, to say the least. I had been thinking of Gus as an almost benign figure"

If the viewer felt that way can you imagine what Walt and Jesse must have felt like? Yikes!

There's some interesting background on the episode in this Wikipedia article.

"...you didn't really get the idea that he was personally cold-blooded..." Exactly. I can't remember now whether that episode happens before or after the flashback to Gus and his friend first trying to work with the cartel, the "we know who you are" bit. One was certainly sympathetic to him there, and I must say his vengeance on the cartel was pretty satisfying. I took him to be working as a sort of high-level distributor for the cartel. I'm hazy about the sequence now, but didn't his attempt to break off from them, since he now had the genius Walt to supply him, precipitate the showdown?

Yeah, Mike's a great character. He's a lot like Omar in The Wire, a pretty bad guy, but with an ethical code. I hated to see him go.

It wasn't actually the violence per se that disturbed me most, but the suffering and death. Episodes like Jane's death really shook me up. Things got really bad in that respect in the last five or six episodes, when Todd and Uncle Jack sort of took over. What they put Jesse through was almost unbearable. I watched the last three episodes all on the same day, and slept *very* badly that night.

I can't imagine the emotional turmoil that would be involved in marathon watching it. I started watching it when it first came out in 2008, so I've had lots of time to live life in between and forget about it-somewhat :) Cramming it all in a few months/weeks would be extremely draining.

It was. Mostly we watched an episode a day, missing a day here and there, or occasionally watching two in one day. But we watched all of the last season in less than a week. The last three on Sunday, the one before that on Saturday, and since there were only 8 episodes, I guess we must have watched the first on Tuesday or Wednesday. It was grueling.

The third to last episode, Ozymandias, was one of the best things I've ever seen on television period, right up there with a couple episodes of Twin Peaks (the Lynch-directed ones).

I'm hazy about the Gus/cartel connection myself. It's been a couple years since I saw those episodes.

I had forgotten which episode that was, so I looked it up. It's the third to last, and one of the three I watched all in one day. So I was not really in a position think about it in a detached way. I would certainly have said it was one of the most intense things I've ever seen. But now that it's been a few weeks, I see what you mean. I had already forgotten, or maybe I missed in the first place, what this synopsis says, that Walt pointed out where Jesse was hiding. That of course eventually led to what seemed to me the single most wicked act in the entire series, and the most hard to take--the killing of Andrea. So Walt was responsible for her death, too.

More than a little hen-pecked, I would say. I'm barely starting on season 4, but I find Skyler to be one of the most disagreeable characters on the whole show. Reminds me of Jason Compson from "The Sound and the Fury"--petty, obstinate, and passive-aggressive. I'm just to the part where she decides to un-divorce Walt after she figures out just how much money he's made.

I didn't care much for her, either, though I sympathized with her situation. I've wondered how much of that is the character and how much the actress--she might have been played differently. There really is no major character whom I found very likable. I guess Jesse comes closet, all in all. Skyler and Marie together were sometimes pretty funny but in a laugh-at, not laugh-with, way. I just remembered Skyler's eBay enterprise.

You've had a whole lot of important plot developments given away by these comments.

"That of course eventually led to what seemed to me the single most wicked act in the entire series, and the most hard to take--the killing of Andrea. So Walt was responsible for her death, too."

One of the guys I watched the series with pointed out that at the end Walt & Jesse were confronted with pure amoral evil in the persons of Todd and his uncle, who were in a way their counterparts, but unlike them had descended to the point where they had no regard for human life whatsoever. It's like Vince Gilligan was saying, "See? This is what it comes to." From that angle you could almost say that both Jesse and Walt were "saved" before they hit the absolute bottom.

The gradual revelation that Todd is a psychopath was handled very skillfully. At first, when he shoots the little boy, you just think he's antsy and inexperienced, and he did it as a reflex to being seen in the act. But eventually you realize that he is actually a monster.

Yes, Todd and his crowd are what make the last season so disturbing. Todd's perfect blankness--from torture and murder to fetching ice cream for one of his victims with absolutely no emotional change or involvement. It was almost childlike in a scary way. I think that's part of the definition of a psychopath, isn't it?

It's true that Walt never got quite as bad as he might have, and Jesse never got as bad as Walt. You could describe Walt's fate as "a severe mercy."

This is an interesting review written before the last season, which I guess means everything up till the last 8 episodes. For some reason the originally planned Season 5 was broken up into two shorter ones.

Anyway, I liked what this guy says about Saul (in the bit at the end about minor characters):

"A sleazebag lawyer, a prattling parasite, a man so jubilantly fraudulent that he makes his own hair look like a wig, Saul is actually—-in the backwards moral context of the show—-a relentless truth-teller."

At first I balked at that, but then I decided it's true. Because he always goes straight to amoral pragmatism, bypassing any attempts by Walt and others to put a veil of self-justifying moralism over the naked self-interest that's actually at play.

I agree with everything Rob G says above. It was a great tragedy. It was morally superior to the Wire, in my view: it showed the outcome of immoral behaviour. My emotions were more involved in The Wire (the kids in the season on the schools!), but I think that BB is simply better both aesthetically and artistically. Really some of the best cinema I've ever seen, and the key thing is that it stayed true to its moral insight.

No big argument from me on that, except I might argue that The Wire also showed the consequences, just not as clearly since it wasn't one story, like BB is. I think BB is a remarkable achievement, yet so much of it is just so very painful to watch--I may watch The Wire again someday, but most likely not BB (although there are certain episodes I'd like to see again). It's as if Titus Andronicus somehow managed to be a great play. I could almost say I like BB better now that I'm not actually watching it.

I would agree with Grumpy -- I think The Wire was more emotionally engaging, largely because, as it was not a tragedy, one could "root" for certain characters in a way not really possible for those in BrBa. Of course the latter engaged the emotions as well, but in a much different way.

Also, I'd say that watching BrBa "in bulk" would be much more harrowing than watching it weekly, as I did. When you watch it in serial form you get the chance to process each episode before going to the next one.

I won't say watching it in binge mode was a mistake, but it was certainly harrowing. As I may have mentioned earlier in this discussion, after the first two or three episodes, we watched one or two episodes a night pretty much every night, including one or two on my wife's iPad in a hotel room. And then I think we watched all of the last 6 episodes between Friday and Sunday, the last three on Sunday. I spent much of that night either half-awake or half-dreaming, thinking about it or dreaming about it.

I also saw the show through to its finale over the last couple of months, a bit half-heartedly. I admit it has never gripped me in the way that The Wire did. I don't think the script, the characters, or the direction really deserve all the critical accolades heaped upon them. It is a good show, and quite possibly ranks with the best television has to offer, but in the grand scheme of things that is a pretty low bar.

Having said that, what did you think of the finale? I misread the end of the penultimate episode: when Walt saw his old business associates on television and gripped his glass with that determined look, I thought I knew what was in store for the finale. All along there had been doubt as to whether Walt was motivated more by his desire to help his family or by his desire to "build an empire" to make up for his sense of professional failure. Finally cut off by his family and stripped of that consoling justification, I thought the last episode was going to fall back on the professional envy motive and be a revenge saga in which Walt burned his world down, taking his old partners with him. I thought it would end like Hamlet, with everybody lying on-stage dead.

Well, obviously I was wrong. Gilligan took almost the opposite tack: Walt kept trying to do something good, to find some peace, to save what could be saved. I can't decide if this contributed positively or negatively to the overall moral arc of the show. Certainly in blunted the tragic force.

One of the better things I read about the finale was this from the New Yorker. Not that I buy the idea that the finale was actually a dream, but I agree that it did feel somewhat unreal, not quite consistent with what had come before. She asks us to consider what would have happened if the show had ended with Walt stuck in that vehicle that wouldn't start, frozen to death. I think that would have been almost perfect.

Oops. Forgot the link: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2013/09/breaking-bad-finale-reviewed.html

I'll have to wait till later to read that article, but I must say the idea of the show ending with Walt freezing to death is excellent. But I would have been extremely disappointed if some degree of justice hadn't been done, especially on Todd & family.

I agree with you and the New Yorker writer that the whole last episode is implausible, extremely so in some particulars. That thought kept pushing its way into my mind even while I was watching it, but I resolutely pushed it back, because I so very much wanted something like what happened. Does that distort the moral and aesthetic quality of the series? The latter, maybe, but not so much the former in my mind, since justice is so essential a part of it. Walt's ending is more Lear than Macbeth, but I didn't see it as even remotely compensating for the evil he's done.

Given the borderline magic realist style of the series as a whole, and its obvious moralist intentions, I didn't find the final episode implausible at all, except perhaps re: the remote control gun thing. But then again, even that didn't go as planned, since Walter ends up accidentally killing himself.

Hmm, I don't see the magic realist element. I guess some of the flash-forward sequences, like that recurring thing with the pool and the teddy bear, were sort of dreamlike, but they turned out to be solidly real.

Maybe magic realist isn't the right term. I'm thinking of the way that certain things in the series were portrayed as somewhat fantastical and coming together in oddly coincidental ways. In some ways it reminded me of films like 'Crash' or 'Magnolia.'

Meant to reply to this earlier: I haven't seen either of those movies, so can't compare. I took those coincidences as just the sort of liberty writers sometimes take, with greater or less plausibility. The scene where Walt meets Jane's father in the bar was one. I thought that was way too far-fetched when it happened, and maybe the writers did, too, because in a later episode Walt marvels at it.

Roger Ebert described Crash as a parable, and defended its coincidences and such in those terms. Given the length of BrBa it's hard to call it a parable, but it certainly was parabolic, and writers can, as you say, take a certain amount of liberty in a morality play that they wouldn't in a work of straight realism.

I seem to remember hearing bad things about Crash when it came out--that it was more sermon than parable, if I remember correctly. A lot of people have recommended Magnolia to me, though.

Yes, there were people who found it preachy, although I didn't perceive it that way. I've not seen 'Magnolia' but know enough about it to know that it at times has a similar quasi-fantastic feel.

Here's Ebert's review of Crash:


Breaking Bad was the first TV drama that really grabbed my interest in a very long time. For me, a big part of its appeal was that for the most part it seemed realistic and believable. Overall, I liked the series a lot, but felt that the unrealistic parts--such as the rotating auto-machine gun, which IMHO had about a 0.001% chance of actually working--were disappointing lapses on the part of the writers. The machine gun was an especially unfortunate deus ex machina because it was essential to the ending, doling out retribution and wrapping up the tale in a way that strained my ability to "suspend disbelief."

One of the few film critics I respect has a policy of allowing one significant suspension of disbelief per movie (which translates to one per episode or two of BB). Fair enough. And Breaking Bad kept within this limit, but occasionally indulged in some things that were IMHO a bit too far fetched. In the "Great Train Robbery" episode, for example, their plan depended on knowing exactly where the train would stop. In the real world, you'd be lucky to estimate to within a half-mile where one of those behemoths finally screeches to a halt. Nevertheless, I enjoyed that episode and the series as a whole.

"... their plan depended on knowing exactly where the train would stop..."

Yes! That *really* bothered me. I decided to believe that there was some explanation for it that they didn't bother to state.

If I were attempting to write a thriller sort of thing like this, I would not be able to live with things like that. But obviously one can get away with it.

"I decided to believe that there was some explanation for it that they didn't bother to state."

I'm pretty sure there is no good explanation. Every time there's an incident in which a train hits a vehicle stuck at a crossing, the news stories explain how it's impossible for a train to stop in 200-300 yards--or more (I saw a 1-hr TV program about such accidents). I think it can take well over a mile for a long freight train to stop. So I exaggerated about the half-mile estimate, but surely it would be almost impossible to figure it to within 25 yards--which their plan absolutely required.

"If I were attempting to write a thriller sort of thing like this, I would not be able to live with things like that."

I agree. Impossible stuff shouldn't be happening in a story that's supposed to be realistic. Period.

"But obviously one can get away with it."

Personally, I found the lapse in the train robbery episode hard to swallow, but the fact that they made the caper so interesting and suspenseful allowed them to get away with it. Then, in the giddy jubilation of the plan's success, they slammed the door shut with that suddenly horrifying ending. Breaking Bad's signature move.

And I'm pretty sure you're right about the train. I think I've heard that figure of a mile for a big freight train to stop, too. You're also right about the signature move. That was a big shock.

Interview with the guy that wrote and directed the train episode:


These comments on Breaking Bad are interesting, but I can't get over the fact that neither Mac nor Rob G have seen Magnolia. Gentlemen, in my view this is one of the great films of the last twenty years. You really ought to make an effort to see it.

(Caveat: the first time I saw it I walked away with a good deal of ill feeling toward it. On repeated viewing -- and I have now seen it four or five times -- it has been getting better and better. It is one of those films for which it seems I can never plumb the bottom.)

Ok, Craig, Magnolia is now at the top of my Netflix list. It comes right behind the Hong Kong gangster movie we discussed a few weeks ago. That should be an interesting transition.

I'm glad they decided against the helicopters, Rob. "technically, it could happen"--yes, at least they didn't ask us to believe the entirely physically impossible, as too many movies do.

It must be about as much fun as one can have to be part of the team writing a show like that. I think if I were 25 years old now I would try to get into movie and tv writing. Or maybe not--no sooner had I written that sentence than I imagined trying to come up with a sitcom episode.

I've been hesitant to watch 'Magnolia' because I'm not sold on Anderson as a filmmaker to this point. I haven't seen (and will never watch) 'Boogie Nights', and I strongly disliked 'There Will Be Blood'. I thought 'Punch Drunk Love' was pretty good, but so far I've not been drawn to watch it again. I guess I should give 'Magnolia' a go, however. Maybe I'll wait for Mac's verdict. ;-)

I share your reservations about Boogie Nights. I have, unfortunately, seen it, but never again. (I know a priest who argued that if you're going to make a film about pornography, that's the film you want to make. Maybe so, but still...)

I haven't been much impressed by Anderson's more recent films either, but I keep going to see them on the strength of my admiration for Magnolia. I don't know how widely held this view would be, but I think it's his best work.

I haven't seen a single one of the films y'all mention, and wondering if I'd seen anything else by the director, looked for his filmography on Wikipedia and read that he thinks Magnolia is the best film he'll ever make. There's nothing on the list that I've seen, though, so I have no prejudices, except that I assumed from the subject that Boogie Nights was probably fairly bad.

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