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Sunday, 23 July 2017

Finally Finished Breaking Bad

The title says it all - after first checking it out in 2012, I've seen the resolution of Walter White's quest, and the final fate of his family, his partners and his enemies. I won't be posting a spoiler warning here, because the show ended in 2013, so proceed at your own risk as I deliver myself of my final thoughts.

It's a show that seems to inspire a lot of fervent love in its fans, but I have to admit that it didn't do the same in me. This is probably why I've spent so much time thinking about it, and why I'm writing about it now. The following will take that into account, as a kind of riposte to the likes of Chris Hardwick or my friend Anthony, who have championed it heavily for years.

In a lot of ways, the show really came alive for me in these final 16 episodes. It started to get very good at the end of season 3, when Walt ran over and shot those two drug dealers who were about to kill Jesse, and who worked for his employer, Gus Fring. It got good again toward the end of the fourth season as well, when Walt started maneuvering around Fring, and finally killed him with a cunningly laid trap.

But whereas every previous season walked everything back sooner or later, the fifth season was finally able to move things forward and keep escalating until Walt killed Mike, got Hank and Gomie murdered, and alienated his entire family, right down to Walter Junior. It was clearly the story Vince Gilligan was building toward, and as much as Gilligan and his fellow writers may have enjoyed building up to it, putting everything into place for the showdown and the scene where Walter meets his end, it feels like something that could have worked as a movie, or a series of movies, rather than 50-plus hour-long episodes.

Over the seasons I've complained about Walter himself, because he's a frequently aggravating character. I listened again to Bryan Cranston talking about his approach to playing Walt, and I have to say at the end that maybe we (or I) needed more hand-holding, more explanation of why Walt made the decisions he did. You could argue, rightly, that the first image of this dorky chemistry teacher brandishing a gun in his tighty-whiteys in the desert is a kind of red herring to the sinister figure of Heisenberg that he became by the end.

My problem, however, is that the changes rarely felt earned - he refuses the financial assistance from his former friends at Gray Matter in Season 1 or 2, but we don't get an inkling why until Season 5. He lets Jesse's girlfriend choke on her own vomit, runs over two people and poisons a kid, to say nothing of all the other people he murders. Was he always this much of a sociopath, or did each misdeed lead to the next? Neither explanation feels adequate, as we don't see enough to really decide which is true.

Similar to Iron Fist, over on Netflix, the main character wasn't as much fun to watch as a lot of the folks around him, especially once Hank realized that Walter had been leading him astray for the entire run of the show previously.

For another comparison, though, I have to say that Breaking Bad didn't nail the family stuff as well as the Sopranos did. That was another show I enjoyed but didn't love, though David Chase made his thematic concerns plainer, or at least was better at communicating them. Tony Soprano's relationship with his immediate family was at least as compelling as the crime stuff, if not more so, but I couldn't say the same about Walt, and this is probably because of Walt's lack of definition as a character. David Chase makes very clear that Tony's evil and irredeemable - you see how he gets this way, and you see the toll it takes on him, but there's no effort by the writers to portray Tony as anything else.

I couldn't say the same about Walt, because so much of the story is about glorifying outlaws and leaving behind a legacy. Not that there's anything wrong with telling that story, but I feel that Breaking Bad tried to have it both ways, and in doing so failed to tell either type of story in a satisfactory way.

On the other hand, what fun it was to see Walt come back to Albuquerque and take his revenge on the meth dealers and his other betrayers. Uncle Jack and his Neo-Nazi Friday Night Lights alums (we have both Landry and Herc in his gang) were a great final set of villains. We first met them when Walt orchestrated his prison killing spree, but they survived to eliminate the other meth dealer, Declan, and join forces with Lydia at the international supplier. They became the uncontrolled reagent for Walt, leading to the death of his brother-in-law, and so it was pretty cathartic to see Walt use his technical skills one last time in the service of wiping them out.

So what's the legacy of Breaking Bad for me? Well, I can't put it anywhere near my top five shows ever (which currently stand, in order, as 1.) the Wire, 2.) the West Wing, 3.) Justified, with spots 4 and 5 unassigned). But at the same time, if I'd hated it I wouldn't have stuck with it until the bitter end - and there were good, or even great, moments throughout. The fifth season was the best, as far as I'm concerned, and it's made me want to catch up with the spin-off, Better Call Saul.

And I can't deny that there's a sense of loss at finally seeing how it ended, given that I spent about as much time watching the show as it was on the air. It may not have been the best show, but I'm glad I continued on to see the end of Walter's quest, and another appearance of Cradoc Marine Bank from the X-Files. I'm also glad to see that Jesse got out alive, and that Badger and Skinny Pete survived to continue their self-destruction.

As Jesse would say, "Yeah, bitch."